Religion 101

The eight-day Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah (or Chanukah) began this year at sunset on Saturday, December 8, and will end at sunset on Sunday, December 16.

Like all Jewish holidays (literally “holy days”), Hanukkah begins and ends at sundown. Why? Simply because Judaism regards sunset, rather than midnight, as marking the end of one day and the beginning of another day.

Additionally, Judaism distinguishes “working” holidays from “non-working” holidays. The High Holy Days known as Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are “non-working” holidays, meaning that no work is permitted on those particularly holy days. Hanukkah, by contrast, is regarded as a “working” holiday; throughout its eight days, work is permitted, with the exception of course of the weekly Shabbat or Jewish sabbath (sunset Friday until sunset Saturday), which always falls somewhere within that eight-day period.

Familiar to many non-Jews because of its close proximity to Thanksgiving and Christmas, Hanukkah has become a part of the wider general holiday season (hence presumably covered, along with Christmas, by such broadly inclusive greetings as “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings”).

While Hanukkah is always celebrated somewhere within the general late November/late December season, it doesn’t always fall on precisely the same Gregorian (secular) calendar dates each year.

Hanukkah is always celebrated beginning on the 25th day of the month of Kislev on the Hebrew or Jewish calendar. However, the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, and as such does not remain in fixed synch with the Western or Gregorian calendar (which is a solar calendar). There is, therefore, a certain amount of “drift” each year between the dates of the two calendars.

Consequently, while Hanukkah this year (2012) runs from December 8 through December 16, last year (2011) it ran from December 20 through December 28. And next year (2013), Hanukkah will run from November 27 through December 5.

Alternately transliterated into English as Chanukah, Hanukkah is Hebrew for “dedication.” It is actually and literally a festival of re-dedication, and is also commonly referred to as the Festival of Lights. Hanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem during the second century BC, after it had been captured and violated by a conquering foreign power.

Following a Jewish revolt which led to its recovery, the Jewish priests re-sanctified and re-dedicated their holy Temple. A Talmudic account states that although there was only enough sacred olive oil to burn in the Temple’s menorah or candelabrum for a single day, this very limited supply of oil miraculously burned for a full eight days (by which time additional oil was finally available).

As an annual holiday commemorating this triumph and miracle, Hanukkah is thus both a Festival of Rededication as well as a Feast of Lights. Over the course of its eight days, the candles of a special nine-branched menorah are progressively lit — one candle on the first night of Hanukkah, two candles on the second night, and so on — until all eight Hanukkah candles are lit on the eighth and final night.

(The extra ninth candle, usually in the center of the Hanukkah menorah and raised slightly above the other candles, is also lit every night. It represents having an auxiliary light available, if needed, since the Hanukkah lights are not to be used for any other purpose. This candle may be used, for instance, to light the other eight candles.)

After the Hanukkah candles have been lit each evening, blessings are recited, songs are sung, and presents are exchanged — giving what is actually a relatively minor Jewish holiday something in common with the traditional gift giving of Christmas, with which Hanukkah shares the season.

Adding to the festive spirit are the serving of traditional foods (such as latkes, oil-fried potato pancakes), the giving of Hanukkah gelt (real money or gold-wrapped chocolate coins) to children, and the playing of games involving a spinning top known as a dreidel, whose four sides bear Hebrew letters forming a four-lettered acronym for a Hebrew phrase meaning “A great miracle happened there.”

To my Jewish friends and readers everywhere, may I wish you all a Happy Hanukkah!