Here’s what you need to know about Hanukkah

The Jewish holiday has a long tradition of food, history, and culture

A traditional menorah with all nine candles lit (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Aish HaTorah)
A traditional menorah with all nine candles lit (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Aish HaTorah)

Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish holiday, known as the “festival of lights,” which is celebrated in the wintertime with nightly menorah lightings, prayers, and fried food.

The 2018 Hanukkah observance began Sunday. Southside Daily has compiled a guide using online sources from Chabad — which is an orthodox sect of Judaism whose members dedicate their lives to studying the Torah, the Jewish holy book.

The Story of Hanukkah

The Hebrew word Hanukkah means dedication in English, and its name celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

According to an article from Southampton University historian Harry Oates, much of the Middle-East in 200 BCE was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who forced the Jews to accept Greek culture and beliefs. A small band of Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated the Seleucidian army, drove them from modern-day Israel, reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem, and rededicated it to their faith.

When the Jews sought to light the temple’s menorah, they found one vessel of olive oil — enough for one night. The miracle of Hanukkah refers to story of Jews lighting the menorah with that one-day supply of oil, which then stayed lit for eight days.


At the heart of Hanukkah is the nightly menorah lighting. The menorah holds nine flames, one of which is the shamash (meaning attendant), used to kindle the other eight. On the first night, the shamash and one candle are lit; by the eighth night of Hanukkah, all the lights are kindled.

Food and games

Since the Hanukkah miracle involved oil, it is customary to eat oily foods. In Europe and the United States, the classic Hanukkah dish is the potato pancake, also known as a potato latke, which is usually garnished with applesauce or sour cream. In Israel, the favorite fried food commemorating Hanukkah is the jelly-filled doughnut.

Children during Hanukkah play with a dreidel, which is a four-sided spinning top bearing four Hebrew letters. Those letters are an acronym for Hebrew words which translate to “a great miracle happened there.”

The game is usually played for coins or candy, which is won based on which letter the dreidel lands.


Gift-giving on Hanukkah has been popularized in the last century largely because of Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas. Jewish families sometimes opt to give Hanukkah “gelt,” as opposed to other presents. Gelt is the Yiddush word for money.

There are a number of reasons given by Chabad for this practice, including:

  • Hanukkah gelt celebrates the freedom to channel material wealth toward spiritual ends.
  • Giving out money has historically enabled the poor to purchase candles for Hanukkah.
  • Giving gelt to children as a reward for Torah study allows for positive reinforcement.
  • Ancient societies liberated after battle sometimes minted currency to signify their freedom.

Visit the Chabad website for more information.

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