Today (November 27th) marks the start of this year’s Hanukkah, which inspired Language Insight to find out more about the annual Festival of Lights.

The history

Hanukkah predates Christmas by centuries and commemorates an event that took place 2,500 years ago.

Persecuted by Syrian king Antiochus, the Jewish population of Jerusalem had been told to worship Greek gods, despite their religion forbidding them from worshipping any other idol. Jerusalem’s temple had been desecrated, with the Syrian-Greeks replacing the Jewish high priest with one of their own, installing a statue of the king and sacrificing pigs in the sacred place.

The practice of Judaism was forbidden and King Antiochus’ soldiers enforced this by massacring Jews. In this terrifying environment, pockets of resistance grew.

High priest Mattathias the Hasmonean was one man who the Greek soldiers tried to make turn his back on his religion and worship a false idol, but he refused. Together with his sons, including Judah Maccabee, and the remaining villagers, he launched an attack on the soldiers and the group then sought shelter in the mountains.

The group became known as the Maccabees and over the following months their numbers grew. By 165BC, they had led a successful revolt against the monarchy and liberated the temple.

The miracle of the oil

Once the repairs on the temple were completed, it had to be rededicated to God, which meant lighting the Menorah lamp. This candelabrum was lit using olive oil so pure it was made up of only the first drop squeezed from each olive.

However, all but one jar of oil had been defiled by the Greek invaders, meaning there was only enough to light the menorah for one day. This jar was used but, miraculously, the lamp carried on burning for eight whole days – the time it took to make a new jar of oil.

Celebrating Hanukkah today

Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev, the ninth month of the ecclesiastical year on the Hebrew calendar. For that reason, the date it falls on the Roman calendar is different each year. In 2013, it is taking place between sunset on November 27th and the evening of December 5th.

The main tradition of the Festival of Lights is to light Hanukkah candles on a nine-branch hanukkiyah. The candles are placed in the holder from right to left and lit from left to right.

Traditionally, on the first night of Hanukkah the first candle is lit, on the second night the first two are lit and so on until all eight have been lit, with a blessing said for each. A ninth candle holder sits at the centre of the hanukkiyah and this candle is lit first each night, before being used to light the others.

Because of its proximity to Christmas on the calendar, many Jewish people living in the west exchange presents on each night of Hanukkah. The festival is actually far from being the most important in Judaism, but it is becoming increasingly popular due to the time of year it takes place.

Fun and food

Hanukkah is a fun festival for children, particularly as they can increasingly expect to get a gift on each of the eight nights. It is also the time of year when friends and families will play the dreidel game.

The dreidel is a spinning top with four sides, each of which is marked with a Hebrew letter – Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin. Put together, the letters stand for “a great miracle happened here”. To play the game, each player has a pile of pieces – often foil wrapped chocolate coins called gelt – and places one of these in a pot in the centre. They then take it in turns to spin the dreidel and depending on what side it lands on they either lose more pieces, or can take some from the pot.

During Hanukkah it is customary to eat delicious fried foods to symbolise the olive oil at the centre of the miracle. A sufganiyah is a particular treat – this is a deep-fried doughnut filled with custard or jelly and topped with sugar. Other fried delights include bimuelos fritters and potato pancakes (latkes) with onion, while traditional non-fried treats include rugelach, which is a type of pastry. Anyone with a sweet tooth will also be overwhelmed by the amount of Hanukkah candy available.

If you’re celebrating Hanukkah, why not share some of your own traditions below?

Get your Hebrew translations covered this festive season by Language Insight.