Five traditions of Hanukkah
Jennifer Lee Preyss
Dec. 7, 2012 at 6:07 a.m.
Hanukkah, an eight-day, eight-night Festival of Lights, begins Saturday at sundown for Jewish families throughout the world.
The Hebrew word for dedication, Hanukkah commemorates the second-century rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after it was destroyed during the Maccabean Revolt. After Jewish troops regained control of the temple in 164 B.C., they purified it with burning oil. In Jewish temples, an eternal flame must always be lit, but there was only enough oil to light the ancient temple's flame for one day.
Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil burning for eight days and the victory of the Macabees over the Syrian-Greeks.
Rabbi Anna Beroll, of Victoria's Temple B'Nai Israel, said Hanukkah has become more secularized in recent years, but it remains one of the most recognized Jewish holidays in the United States because of its calendar proximity to Christmas.
"It's not actually mentioned in our Bible at all. It came at a much later date. It is not one of the main festivals of Judaism," Beroll said, mentioning Judaism's more holy days, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover. "My personal theory is that as Christmas became more commercialized, Hanukkah became more popular as a gift-giving holiday. A lot of Jews were merchants in the 19th century. So they probably realized they could also give gifts during Hanukkah."
Here are five modern-day traditions of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.
Food: Hanukkah food is oily, to celebrate the miracle of the burning oil. Some traditional foods include latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly donuts), apple sauce, gelt chocolate coins and rugelach.
Menorah: A nine-candle candelabrum that holds the candles lit each night during Hanukkah. The middle candle is a helper candle called the shamash, which is used to light one candle for each day of the celebration. Prayers and blessings are said each night as candles are lit.
Dreidel: A spinning top with Hebrew letters on each side, Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin, meaning "A great miracle happened there." Throughout history, Jewish people were not allowed to study or teach the Torah. When they studied Jewish Law in secret, they used the dreidel game as a cover and said they were gambling.
Song: Traditional songs sung during Hanukkah include "Oh Hanukkah," "Ma'Oz Tzur" (Rock of Ages), "I Have a Little Dreidel" and "Sevivon."
Gift exchange: Gifts and money are exchanged during the eight nights of Hanukkah. Some families give one present per day, while others exchange all gifts on the first night. Gift-giving traditions may vary by family and geographic region.