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December 20, 2005 > Hanukkah: Jewish festival of lights

Hanukkah: Jewish festival of lights

by Praveena Raman

Barukh Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melekh HaOlam asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.
Praised are You, Lord our God, ruler of the universe who has made us special by giving us mitzvot and gave us the mitzvah to light Hanukkah candles

Barukh Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melekh HaOlam she'asa nissim la'avotenu bayamimm hahem bazman hazeh.
Praised are You, Lord our God, ruler of the universe who performed miracles for our ancestors in ancient times, at this season of the year

Barukh Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melekh HaOlam she'heheyanu v'keeyamanu v'higitanu lazman hazeh.
Praised are You, Lord our God, ruler of the universe for keeping us in life, for sustaining us, and for helping us to reach this moment

After saying these blessings, Jewish families all over the world will be using a lit Shamash (leader candle) and lighting the first candle on the Hanukkiah (Chanukkiah) on December 25 starting Hanukkah celebrations.

Popularly known as the festival of lights, Hanukkah is not a significant religious holiday but has become well known and widely celebrated due to its proximity to Christmas. It is celebrated on the 25 day of the Jewish month Kislev (November-December). The holiday has historical significance and actually celebrates the rededication (Hanukkah means dedication) of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews won their victory over the Syrians.

Under the reign of Alexander the Great the Jews adopted the Greek language and many of their customs while observing their own religion. However, centuries later one of Alexander's successors, Antiochus, who ruled over Syria started oppressing the Jews, prohibiting the practice of their religion and rituals, forcing them to worship Greek gods. It was during this reign that the holy Temple where Jews worshipped was seized and dedicated to Zeus. The people were also ordered to sacrifice pigs, forbidden in Judaism.

The angry Jews formed a force and revolted against the Greeks. Three years after the fighting began, the Jews triumphed and won back the Temple. The story goes that when Judah Maccabee's soldiers went into the Temple they found many things broken and damaged including the Golden Menorah. After cleaning and repairing, a grand ceremony was planned to rededicate the Temple. The Maccabees wanted to light the menorah for the ceremony which, by tradition, once lit, had to burn through the night every night. Unfortunately they only found a small container of oil that was not contaminated and had just enough oil to burn for one night. The Macabees however needed at least eight days to produce a fresh supply of oil. Then a miracle occurred. The small amount of oil kept the menorah burning for eight nights until a fresh batch of oil was available to light it again.

Thus the festival of Hanukkah celebrating this miracle started and traditions were born. With any festival or celebration, some traditions remain the same through the centuries while some change - simple in the beginning becoming more elaborate over time. As per ancient customs, Hanukkah starts with the lighting of the menorah. The Hanukkiah (special Hanukkah menorah) can hold nine candles, one for each of the eight nights and a ninth one at a different height called the shamash, used to light the candles each night. In the olden days, menorahs were made out of clay and consisted of small clay vessels filled with olive oil, had a wick and were placed side by side. Each night a blessing is recited before a candle is lit. "The tradition of lighting candles and saying the blessing is still the same, but some customs have changed through the years," says Lisa Hillman. "When my mother was growing up after the candle was lit, the children were given a gelt (money in Yiddish) which was usually a small coin like a quarter but now the gelts that we give are chocolate covered coins which are used when we play the Dreidel game."

As Hanukkah commemorates the miraculous availability of oil, the dishes made during these eight days are also made in oil. The most traditional that all Jewish families make are potato latkes (pancakes) eaten with apple sauce or sour cream (an Eastern European tradition) and Sufganiyot, a jelly doughnut without a hole made in hot oil (an Israeli tradition). A more recent tradition that has been added is the giving of small presents by elders to children.

Another tradition during Hanukkah is playing the Dreidel game. Dreidels are a four sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter painted on each side of the top. The letters are Nun - no win / no lose, Gimmel - take all (from the kitty), Heh - take half (from the kitty), Peh or Shin - lose (what you deposited). Peh is used in Israel and means here while everywhere else the letter Shin meaning here is used, and in Israel the letters stand for "A Great Miracle happened Here) while in all other countries it stands for "A Great Miracle happened There". The game which is also called s'vivon is played with everyone having 10 or 15 pennies, chocolates or matchsticks. Each player places one of these in the middle to form a pot. The Dreidel is spun one player at a time. The face the Dreidel or S'vivon falls on will decide the fate of the player whether they win or lose according to the letter inscribed there. When only one object or none is left in the pot, every player adds one to the pot and the game continues. If an odd number of objects are left then a player who rolls a Heh will take half the kitty and one more. The game is over when one player wins the whole pot. "When we play the Dreidel game, we use chocolate gelts as the prize" explains Lisa. "We also get together with our friends on one of the nights and celebrate together."

Recipe for Potato Latkes:
3 medium potatoes
1 small onion
3 tablespoons flour/matzah meal
2 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
Dash of pepper
Oil for frying

The potatoes are scrubbed and grated into a large bowl. Next grate the onion and add flour, eggs, salt and pepper and mix then well. Heaping tablespoons of the mixture are dropped in hot oil, flattened with a spoon and fried on both sides. The latkes are drained on paper towels and served with applesauce or sour cream. This recipe makes about 16-20 pancakes.

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