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The Festival of Lights: A Hanukkah Crash Course

Hanukkah, in short, is the Jewish festival of lights. It commemorates a miracle which occurred more than two thousand years ago, and it’s celebrated with traditional deep-fried foods, some holy candles, and spiritually-approved gambling. Before we learn more about those fun things, we must learn the history of Hanukkah, and it goes something like this:

Once upon a time (around 200 BCE) in a land far, far away (Jerusalem), there lived a king by the name of Antiochus III. He ruled over the entire Land of Israel, which was under Greek and Syrian control at the time. He allowed Jews to continue practicing their religion, but they were on thin ice; his son, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, did not turn out to be quite as friendly. In 168 BCE, Antiochus IV and all his soldiers came down on Jerusalem, killing thousands of people and desecrating the holy Second Temple. They erected a statue of Zeus and sacrificed pigs within the holy temple, then banned Judaism altogether, forcing Jews to hide their religious practice.

“This simply won’t do,” said the priest Mattathias, and he started an enormous rebellion using guerilla tactics to force the enemy out of Jerusalem. When Mattathias was killed, his eldest son Yehuda Ha’Maccabee (“the Hammer”) continued the rebellion, and finally reclaimed the Second Temple. When Yehuda and his forces entered the temple, they found it in complete disarray. The altars were smashed, many candelabras were bent and broken, and all the earthenware pots of holy oil were crushed and the oil spilled. Yehuda and his soldiers cleaned up the temple, salvaging what they could, and tried to re-dedicate the temple after its desecration by lighting a holy candelabrum.

The only oil remaining in the whole temple was in a tiny pot that had been overlooked in the destruction, containing just enough oil to light the holy candelabrum for only one night. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, the oil in that tiny pot lasted eight whole days and eight whole nights! God had (again) delivered the Jews from persecution and extended the life of that holy oil long enough for them to press and bless more oil. The wise elders declared an annual festival to commemorate this miracle, and the rest is history. Jews all over the world inherited this festival and came up with various traditions to celebrate it.

The most recognizable tradition is, of course, lighting the menorah. A menorah is that familiar candelabra with nine branches. Eight of the branches represent the eight days that the oil lasted for, and the ninth branch (usually in the center) is for an extra candle that is used to light the rest of them. On the first night of Hanukkah, we light one of the eight candles (for the first day) using the center candle. On the second night, we light two of the eight candles, and so forth until the entire menorah is lit on the eighth and final night. This is to represent the wonder of the miracle—with every day longer that the oil lasted, the Jews were more and more awed and impressed by the miracle before them. In many traditions, the menorah is meant to be lit and placed in a front-facing window of the house to make the celebration as public as possible and proclaim the miracle far and wide.

During Hanukkah, Jews like to eat foods that are fried in oil, preferably olive oil, to symbolize the holy oil of the ancient temple. Such foods include Latkes, traditional Yiddish potato pancakes, Hungarian cheese pancakes, and Sufganiyot, which are jelly donuts made with traditional dough that are especially popular in modern Israel.

At Hanukkah celebrations, we play dreidel (a toy top made of wood or plastic) and sing Hanukkah music. There are a great many Hanukkah songs, though we don’t often hear them on the radio. A few are songs of Yiddish origin like “Dreidel, Dreidel.” Loads of children's Hannukkah songs were prevalent in Israel, and in America, many existing Hanukkah songs were reimagined by the Maccabeats, a college acapella group. Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song, which he performed on SNL in 1994, quickly became a must-play every Hanukkah.

One of my favorite Hanukkah songs, called “We've Come to Banish the Dark,” was originally written in Hebrew as part of a compendium of children’s songs. In it, a group of kids sings that each of them is a small candle, but together they are a mighty light to banish the darkness. This song is symbolic of the meaning of Hanukkah. At its roots, Hanukkah is a celebration of resistance, of a community that was unwilling to be trampled and stood up against the looming darkness. In the wake of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, it is key to remember the spirit of resistance of the Maccabees and have faith that a miracle may be just around the corner.

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