Rabbi Ben Shull

Rabbi Ben Shull

I can think of few better ways to begin my time with you than sharing some insights into the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Here are eight questions and answers about this special and joyous time in the Jewish year.

What does the word Hanukkah mean?

Hanukkah is a Hebrew word meaning “dedication.” It refers to the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Jewish fighters, known as the Maccabees, after the ransacking of this central place of worship by the forces of the Syrian Greek King Antiochus IV in 164 B.C.E.

What is the story of Hanukkah?

Hanukkah recalls events that took place in the ancient land of Israel during the reign of Antiochus. Though the full history is long and complicated, the traditional retelling of the tale focuses on Antiochus’ efforts to wipe out cherished observances of the Jewish people and impose pagan practices on the population of Judea.

A small band of Jews, led by Mattathias and his sons, known as the Hasmoneans (nicknamed the Maccabees), carried out a courageous rebellion against Antiochus and his formidable army. After years of fighting, the Maccabees, commanded by the brave warrior Judah and his brothers, retook the temple in Jerusalem from the Syrian Greek forces.

The defiled temple was rededicated by the Maccabees and the menorah, the seven-branched candelabra, was to be lit. Searching the shambles of the temple, the Maccabees found only enough sacred oil to light the menorah for one day.

Miraculously, the menorah stayed lit for eight days, giving the Maccabees enough time to journey north and bring back additional supplies of sacred oil to keep the menorah continually burning.

When is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is celebrated by Jews worldwide for eight days, beginning on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev. Because the Hebrew calendar is based on the phases of the moon, with occasional adjustments to keep in line with the solar calendar, Hanukkah can fall any time from late November through the end of December.

This year Hanukkah begins after dark on Sunday, Dec. 22, and continues through Monday Dec. 30

How do Jews celebrate Hanukkah?

The central practice of Hanukkah observance is the lighting of the chanukiah, a nine-branched candelabra, one candle for each night of the festival (one on the first night, two for the second, etc.).

Some Jews light a Chanukiah using oil instead of candles. Each candle is lit with a “helper” candle called a “shamash.”

In addition, Jews celebrate Hanukkah by eating potato pancakes (latkes) or fried jelly doughnuts prepared in oil. Playing a game of chance with a Hanukkah top (a dreidel) is also part of the holiday.

Gift giving is a relatively new custom. A more time-honored practice is giving coins (Hanukkah gelt), which today are often the chocolate variety.

What is the meaning of the Hanukkah menorah?

According to the ancient Jewish sages, lighting the Chanukiah and placing it on a window sill facing the street is a means of “publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah” — that is, letting everyone know that God stands with the just and downtrodden, like the Maccabees.

Is there any connection between Hanukkah and Christmas?

Hanukkah and Christmas fall during the darkest days of the year and involve the lighting of lights. Some scholars see a common pre-Biblical origin for both holidays connecting them to ancient festivals of lights during late December.

Also, some point to the fact that had the Maccabees not won their battle against the pagan forces in 165 B.C.E., there would not have been a Jewish community in the land of Israel in which Christianity could arise in the centuries to follow.

What is the meaning of the Hebrew letters on the dreidel?

The letters “yud,” “gimmel,” “hey” and “shin/pei,” stand for a Hebrew phrase that means, “A great miracle happened there (for Jews outside of Israel) or here (for Jews living in Israel).”

What special meaning does Hanukkah have for Jews in the recent past?

For Jews since the late 19th century, the story of Hanukkah, featuring proud and brave Jews who could rise up and defend their land and their tradition, served as inspiration for the Zionist movement.

The return of a Jewish nation in the land of Israel in the 20th century can be seen as a modern day Hanukkah miracle.

Here’s wishing everyone a Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and a joyous holiday season!

Benjamin Shull is rabbi of the Jewish Congregation of Venice; TheJCV.org.

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