Hanukkah, the Jewish "festival of lights," began Saturday at sundown and lasts for eight days. Each night, families will light special menorahs called Hanukkiahs (with nine candles rather than the usual seven), eat foods cooked in oil and give gifts to their children.
The holiday, a minor one in the Jewish faith, commemorates the time in 165 BCE when a small band of faithful Jews defeated the much larger forces of the Seleucids, Syrian-Greeks under the rule of Antiochus IV. Under his rule, Jewish worship had been forbidden. The scrolls of the law were confiscated and burned. Sabbath rest, circumcision and the dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death.
After their victory, the Jews reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem, but found it had been desecrated, said Rabbi Andra Greenwald of Modesto's Congregation Beth Shalom.
"Pigs had been brought in," she said. "So they had to clean it up before they could give thanks for the victory."
As they prepared the rededication of the temple, the Jews found only one cruse of sacred oil to light the temple's menorah, enough for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days until new oil could be prepared.
"We celebrate this oil for two reasons that we can worship freely again after this struggle, and second, for the oil burning for eight days instead of the one," Greenwald explained.
Hanukkah is on the 25th of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, which is different than the Gregorian calendar that most of the Western world uses. The holiday can fall anywhere from the last week in November to the end of December.
"We do several things that commemorate the miracle," Greenwald said. Those include:
Celebrating it for eight days and lighting the menorah each night. The Hanukkiah menorah contains nine candles, including one called the Shamash, which is also the word used to describe the person who made sure the temple menorah was always lit. The Shamash could be found on either side of the Hanukkiah, in the front or the back, or perhaps taller than the other candles.
"The Hanukkiah candles are there for beauty and joy; they're not allowed to work and light each other, as opposed to a regular menorah, so the Shamash is the one who does the work and lights the others," explained Greenwald.
On the first day of Hanukkah, the Shamash candle is lighted and is used to light one other candle. On the second day, the Shamash lights two candles, and so on through the eight days. The candles are left burning each night until they melt down completely.
"During the time when these candles are burning, about 20 minutes or so, we only do things of joy," Greenwald said. "Most importantly, we visit with family and friends; we sing Hanukkah songs; we eat foods cooked in oil; we play dreidel. Then some children open gifts."
The gift-giving, she added, came not because it's part of Scripture or from ancient tradition, but because of the holiday's proximity to Christmas.
"Many Jewish parents felt the pressure of giving gifts to their children like their Christian neighbors were giving gifts to their children," Greenwald said. "It was not an integral part of this holiday, but it's become part of it."
Jews also eat food cooked in oil, such as potato pancakes called latkes, and a sufganiot, or fried jelly doughnut.
They play with a dreidel, or spinning top. The four-sided top has a Hebrew letter on each side, standing for the words "nes," "gadol," "haya" and "sham," which means "A great miracle happened here." Before the victory, when Jews were forbidden to worship God, they would read the Torah or perform their religious rituals behind closed doors, and kept a dreidel handy so if any anti-Jewish person entered the home, they could say they were just playing the dreidel game.
The menorah is the real symbol of the holiday, Greenwald said. A Hanukkiah can range from something simple made out of clay to more elaborate models.
"Some are just beautiful glass, crystal, silver. Sometimes children will make their own menorah from nine lumps of clay and putting a candle in each. In some families, there's a family menorah with everyone taking turns lighting the candles. In some families, each person may have his or her own menorah. If it holds nine candles and helps us enjoy the lights and helps us remember, it's a Hanukkiah."
In the first century BCE, Greenwald said, there was a debate between Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai about the way the Hanukkiah candles were to be lighted.
"Rabbi Shammai said, 'I think we should light them all the first night and then one less every night until you only have one candle and the Shamash on the last night. That's how a fire burns brightly at first and then slowly burning out.' Rabbi Hillel responded, 'Good point, Rabbi Shammai. However, the Hanukkah candles are being lit to remember a miracle. And miracles grow brighter and brighter and brighter. So that's why we light from one candle to eight.' "
Miracles, Greenwald said, can be seen today.
"There are people who say, 'How come there are no miracles anymore? The Red Sea opened during our exodus from Egypt, but we don't see them now.' Perhaps we just don't see the miracles around us," she said. "There was a sage in our history named Baal Shem Tov, which means 'the master of the great name.' He said, 'There are miracles all around us; we just have to remove our hands from our eyes to see them.'
"In our own days, maybe there's not the miracle of the oil or the sea splitting, because those already happened. But look around us. There are flowers growing and the miracle of friendship, of love, of beauty, and maybe one day even peace. What about when someone runs into a burning building to save someone? That's miraculous. What about when a baby of 1 pound survives? That's a miracle. They continue. Maybe if we look closely, we'll see miracles."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2012.
WHAT: Family Hanukkah party
WHO: Open to anyone
WHEN: 11:45 a.m. today
WHERE: Congregation Beth Shalom, 1705 Sherwood Ave., Modesto
DETAILS: Playing dreidel games, looking at various menorahs, perhaps latkes to sample
CONTACT: (209) 571-6060