The Tabernacle Times
December 2017 ......................... Kislev -Tevet 5778 ......................... Volume 12 Issue 12

Hanukkah Customs

Angela Kunkel
Angela Kunkel
  The major ritual associated with Hanukkah is the kindling of the festival lights that, like the holiday itself, is a rabbinically ordained commandment. The kindling of lights in relation to Hanukkah is not even mentioned in the Books of the Maccabees or the writings of Josephus. The first reference is made in a baraita (statement) that notes, “the precept of light on Hanukkah requires that one light be kindled in each house; the zealous require one light for each person; the extremely zealous add a light for each person each night” (Shab. 21b). Hanukkah with the story of Judith. According to legend, Jews in a besieged city had given up hope for a successful defense. Judith left the city and entered the enemy camp, captivating the general Holofernes. The feast she prepared for him included cheese to make him thirsty. Holofernes drank wine until he fell asleep, whereupon the brave heroine decapitated him. Seeing the Jews bearing the severed head of their general, the enemy fled and the city was saved. Although the Book of Judith (found in the Apocrypha) is set in the Babylonian period (6th century B.C.E.) and thus seems to have no apparent connection with Hanukkah, some modern scholars have dated the book to the Maccabean period. Another woman connected with the Hanukkah story is Hannah, who with her seven sons was executed after courageously refusing to eat pig meat in defiance of Antiochus’s decree.
It then discusses the controversy concerning the number of candles that should be lit. The halakhah, follows Beit Hillel, which argued for lighting one candle on the hanukkiah (eight branched menorah) on the first night, two on the second night, and so forth. This view was based on the principle that in matters of holiness, one should increase rather than diminish. The halakhah prescribes that the lamps be lit between “sunset and until there is no wayfarer left in the street” (Shab. 21b). The lamp should be placed at the window nearest to the street to publicize the miracle.

The Talmud notes that the mitzvah of kindling the Hanukkah lights is best fulfilled with olive oil, to remind one of the menorah in the Temple. Nevertheless, any oil can be used and today it is most popular to use candles. Lighting only one menorah is sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah, but it has become customary for each person in a household to light his or her own menorah. The light of the Hanukkah menorah is intended to publicize the miracle and is not to be used for any other purpose (Shab. 21b).

The Hanukkiah has spaces for the eight candles (or oil and wicks), which are placed in a straight line and on the same level so that the viewer can easily determine how many candles are burning and thus what night of Hanukkah it is. Typically, there is also a space for a ninth candle, called the Shamash (Servant), which is placed higher or to one side to differentiate it from the other candles. The role of the shammash is to kindle the other candles.

Two blessings are recited before lighting the Hanukkah candles. The first relates specifically to the commandment to kindle the lights (le-hadlik ner shel Hanukkah), and the second refers to the miracle itself (“Who performed miracles for our ancestors, in those days, in this season”). On the first night, as on all festivals, one also recites the Shehecheyanu blessing, which expresses thanks for being alive and well and in a position to observe the festival. After the lighting is completed, it is traditional to recite a short prayer starting with the words, “ha-nerot hallalu” (these lights). The candles should burn for a minimum of a half hour. On Erev Shabbat, the Hanukkah candles are lit before the candles that usher in the Sabbath.

Following the candle lighting, many sing the hymn Maoz Tzur (Mighty rock [of my salvation]) and a variety of other Hanukkah songs. The Maoz Tzur was composed in Germany by a 13th-century poet about whom nothing is known except that his name was probably Mordecai, based on the acrostic signature spelled out by the inital Hebrew letters of the first five stanzas. The most common melody was borrowed from a popular 15th century German folk song or Protestant church hymn.

The opening stanza of Maoz Tzur is a prayer for the re-establishment of the Temple, the rededication of the altar, and the restoration of the sacrificial rites. The next three stanzas praise G-d for delivering the Jewish people from various tribulations that have befallen them--Egyptian bondage, the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile, and Hamon’s plot in Persia. The fifth stanza summarizes the miracle of Hanukkah, which commemorates the miraculous victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek army. A final stanza, which most scholars consider a later composition by a different author, seeks divine vengeance against the enemies of the Jews. This verse is often censored because it troubled some segments of the Jewish community.

In the 19th Century, two American Rabbis composed a considerably toned-down English version, which they titled “Rock of Ages”, deeming it more palatable to hear. To commemorate the miracle of the oil, it is customary to eat foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes (pancakes) in Ashkenazic communities and sufganiyot (doughnuts) among Sephardim in Israel. The tradition of eating cheese and other dairy foods is based on late midrashim that associate
            (Continued at top of next column)

Happy Hanukkah

Because of Hanukkah’s association with Judith and Hannah, in some communities women perform no household duties while the candles burn, or even throughout the entire festival.

An old Hanukkah custom among Russian Jews was the flaming tea ceremony. Everyone at the table pours brandy over a lump of sugar in a spoon, lights it (symbolizing the burning light of the candles), and drops it into a glass of tea. In Western Europe, goose once was a staple of the festive Hanukkah dinner, a custom borrowed from the Gentiles celebrating Christmas at the same time. In many communities, it has become traditional to give gifts of money, especially coins (Hanukkah gelt), to the children. Some have suggested that this practice relates to the minting of coins for currency by the Maccabees after restoring political autonomy to the Jewish people. In Eastern Europe, the family customarily gathered together on the fifth night of Hanukkah to give children money as a reward for their diligence in Torah study. In Western countries, Jews were influenced by the Christian tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas. To emulate their Christian neighbors, many Jewish parents, especially in America, began giving gifts to their children on each night of Hanukkah.

In the late Middle Ages, the custom developed among students of the yeshivah, to cease their studies and engage in games of chance, especially cards. Today, by far the most popular game of chance played on Hanukkah is Dreidel. The dreidel, a four-sided top that is inscribed with Hebrew letters, is a popular symbol of Hanukkah. Although the Rabbis generally prohibited gambling as a waste of time that instead should be devoted to Torah study, they were more lenient during this festival of joy. “Dreidel” is a Yiddish word derived from the German “drehen” (to turn). In medieval Germany, gambling dice had four letters inscribed on their sides--N,G,H, and S, representing the words “nichts” (nothing), “ganz” (all), “halb” (half), and “shtell arein” (put in). After throwing the dice, the player would do the action indicated by the letter that appeared face upward.

Jews transformed the dice into a spinning top and translated the letters into their Hebrew equivalents--nun, gimmel, hey, and shin--which add up to the same numerical value (358) as Mashiach (Messiah). These letters also form the acronym for the phrase nes gadol hayah sham (a great miracle happened there). In modern Israel, the dreidel is known as a sevivon (Hebrew for a “spinning top”) and the letter shin is replaced by a peh--the first letter of the word “po” (here), making the phrase “a great miracle happened here”.


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