This Thursday evening, Dec. 10, marks the beginning of the celebration of Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. A community candle-lighting will take place at the Gazebo in Veterans Memorial Park at 6 p.m. (Rain date on Dec. 17). Members of the public are invited to attend, either in person, with masks and appropriate social distancing, or from their cars.
What is this holiday all about? What is being celebrated? Why for eight days? Why candles, and why the “dreidel”?
The story starts many years ago. During the 2nd century B.C.E., Alexander the Great conquered Judea but allowed the people under his rule to continue observing their own religions and customs. But things changed rapidly when one of his successors, Antiochus IV, took control. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic (Greek) priest in the Holy Temple, massacring them, outlawing their religion, forbidding them to engage in the study of Torah and their practice of “mitzvot” (the 613 commandments), stealing their money and their daughters, ravaging their sanctuary, and defiling all that had been ritually pure, including the holy altar and their pure oil.
In order to continue to study the Torah and practice their religion, the Jews devised the dreidel game. They would gather in caves to study, posting a lookout to alert the group to the presence of Greek soldiers. If soldiers were spotted, the Jews would hide their scrolls and spin tops so that the Greeks thought they were gambling, not learning. One day a family of Jews – Mattathias and his five sons, John, Simon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah – led a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah, who took over the leadership after his father died, became known as Judah Maccabee (Judah the Hammer) and the freedom fighters took the name of the Maccabees.
It was the few against the many, but the Maccabees and their followers won the battle. However, when they re-entered the Holy Temple, they found that there was only enough oil to burn for one day. The oil was needed for the “menorah” (candelabrum), which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. It took eight days to create new pure oil. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. An eight- day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. So, during Chanukah, Jews light eight candles in a special menorah called the “Chanukiah.” One candle is lit the first night, two the second, and so on until, on the eighth night, eight candles are lit.
However, the Chanukiah has a ninth candle called the “shamash” or helper. It is set apart from the other candles and is used to light them. Its purpose is to have a light available for use because using the Chanukah candles for light or any other purpose is forbidden, as they are to represent only the miracle of the oil.
The word Chanukah derives from the Hebrew verb meaning “to dedicate.” On Chanukah, the Jews regained control of Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple. In addition to lighting the candles with special blessings, Jews celebrate the holiday with special potato pancakes called “latkes,” other traditional foods, songs, and, of course, the playing of the dreidel game.
The dreidel is a top with four sides and a Hebrew letter on each side. These letters are an acronym for the Hebrew words “Nes Gadol Haya Sham,” which translates into “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the miracle of the oil. In Israel, however, the S (“shin”) is replaced with the letter P (“Peh”), meaning here (“Po”) instead of there, since the miracle happened in Israel. The whole family plays the dreidel game, using Chanukah “gelt” (money) or gold-covered chocolate coins to bet with. Each person spins the dreidel, and, depending on what letter comes up, either takes some of the coins or puts some in. The game ends when there is no gelt left in the pot.