I am over in Barcelona this week and had to be reminded that Hanukah started on Wednesday night (1 Dec). I was talking to an Israeli colleague and asking him if Hanukah was a big deal in Israel. Not really, he said, it is a family holiday and we light the candles but it is not that big of deal.
Well, in the US, it is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas.
Just to explain for those who may not know. Hanukah (also known as the Festival of Lights) is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar celebrated for 8 days beginning on the 25th day of Kislev. Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, the dates vary on the Julian calendar, which is the one most of us use. Hanukah is very early this year.
Hanukah celebrations three important events: The defeat of the Seleucid Empire by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, the re-dedication of the second Temple after its desecration by the forces of the King of Syria Antiochus IV Epiphanes and, most importantly, the miracle of the oil in the Ner Tamid (the Eternal Flame, that burns in the Temple).
There was only enough oil to burn the light for one day, but miraculously, it lasted for 8 days. Thus you have the eight days of Hanukah, which means “dedication.”
The holiday is celebrated by the lighting of the candles at sundown and a small gift is given. Each night you light one additional candle until all the candles are lit on the eighth night. The Hanukah menorah or Hanukiah is a 9 candle menorah rather than the usual 7 candles. The middle candle is known as the Shamash or “attendant” candle. It is lit first and is used to light the other candles. As you light the candles a prayer is sung. On the first night a set of three prayers is recited, but on subsequent nights, only the first prayer is used.
ברוך אתה ה’ א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו להדליק נר של חנוכה.
Transliteration: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha‑olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner (shel) hanuka.
Translation: “Blessed art thou, O LORD, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light[s].”
It is a fun holiday with music, dancing, food and the famous “Dreidel.” The dreidel is a 4-sided wooden or clay top that has a Hebrew letter on each side. Believe it or not, it is used as a gambling game. Each person spins the dreidel and when it lands on a letter, you either put money in the pot or take it out depending on the letter.
Which brings me to how is it celebrated in the US. Jewish parents are obliged to give a gift to the children for each night on Hanukah. As a kid, we used to think this was a great deal because you got 8 gifts. And they were generally good ones too. We Jewish kids didn’t want to miss out just because we didn’t have a Christmas.
So we couldn’t wait until sundown, light the candles and open the gifts. My parents would remind us that when they were kids, they were lucky to get an orange or a nickel in “Hanukah geld” Geld is money in German/Yiddish.
When Hanukah comes this early, the Jewish kids can brag about their gifts while the Christian kids have to wait until Christmas.
So, as normal, a minor Jewish holiday has, at least in the US, succumbed to good ol’ extreme Yankee capitalism, much like Christmas. I am not sure how many Jews could tell you in great detail the reason for the holiday of Hanukah.
“So tell me, son, why do we celebrate Hanukah?”
“Because the oil lasted for 8 days, now give me my gift!”
Could you only imagine you were a typical Mormon family with 8 children having to provide 64 gifts for Hanukah?