Celebrating Religion: Eight days of Hanukkah

The word “Hanukkah” comes from the Hebrew word for dedication. The celebration of Hanukkah marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, where it is said that the miracle of one container of oil was witnessed.

As told in the Talmud, following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was just enough olive oil remaining to fuel the eternal flame within the Temple for one day. Somehow, the story tells us, the flame actually burned for eight days; the exact length of time if took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.

Often called the Celebration of Lights, this holiday is observed by the lighting of a nine-branched candelabrum called a menorah. One light is lit each night of the holiday, in recognition of each day that the eternal flame burned in the Temple, progressing to eight on the final night. The ninth light, the Shamash (Hebrew for “guard” or “servant”), is also lit each night for the purpose of lighting the others.

Hanukkah is celebrated in a series of way throughout the eightday holiday. Special additions are made to daily prayer and time is spent with family and community. Though there is no obligation to miss work during this time, many people will leave early during this week to ensure they will be home to light the Menorah at nightfall.

Many families exchange gifts and share meals. Most meals consist of fried foods cooked in olive oil like latkes and jam-filled doughnuts.

Children traditionally play with a four-sided spinning top on Hanukkah called a dreidal. The dreidal is imprinted with the Hebrew letters N G H S. These letters are an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham' which means; “A great miracle happened there.”

Gifts exchanged on Hanukkah include traditional “gelt,” which means “money” in Yiddish. Sometimes given in small coins or larger amounts by grandparents as an official Hanukkah gift.