Where does Chanukkah come from?
Chanukkah is—wait for it—not from the Bible (but we’ve already learned that not every holiday is—think Simchat Torah!). Chanukkah is mentioned in 1 and 2 Maccabees, a historical document which wasn’t included in the Hebrew Bible. There are laws that are related to it in the oral Torah (Talmud/ Gemara), but generally speaking Chanukkah isn’t in the regular Jewish texts you’d check for such holidays. It is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev (ninth month of the Hebrew calendar) which usually falls in late November-late December.
So, what’s the story?
The true Chanukkah story is based off of a Jewish military victory around 168 BCE (Before Common Era). The land of Judea (the southern part of Israel today) had come under control of the Syrians and Greeks and were under the kingship of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He was not so down with the Jews; in fact, he outlawed the religion on the land and demanded that Jews worship Greek gods. He and his soldiers massacred thousands and ritually defiled the Second Temple with idols. Often, Antiochus and crew would go after the Jewish people on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) — the Jewish people were forbidden from fighting/taking up arms on Shabbat — and destruction ensued. A group of Hasmoneans (also known as the Maccabees) led by Mattathias and his son Judah decided to rebel — they gathered together an army and actually fought back on Shabbat, to the great surprise of the Greek army! They rebelled against the Greek government, and succeeded, regaining control over the Temple. The Temple was then rededicated—Chanukkah means “dedication.”
Wait, but what’s up with the eight days thing?
About 600 years after the war happened, the Talmud (part of the Oral Torah) was seen to have a version of Chanukkah that discussed the role of a magical vial of oil. When the Jews returned to the Temple, they found it destroyed and has some major cleaning to do. They found a vial with very little oil in it, enough to really only burn for one day, and yet: eight days of light were provided from this small vial of oil—the festival is said to have been created to remember the miracle of this oil (some say that Jews celebrate miracles and refuse to rejoice over warfare). As a side note, there are some who say Chanukkah was a belated celebration of Sukkot: a seven-eight day harvest festival.
What is a menorah? What is a chanukkiah? What’s the difference?
A menorah is often used in modern synagogues and had seven places for candles, representing the seven days of creation. A chanukkiah is a special kind of menorah, with nine places for candles; one for each day of Chanukkah (eight) and one shamash or “helper” candle that helps light the other candles for each night of Chanukkah.
How do we light the Chanukkah candles?
This question is a tricky one, with multiple options. Generally speaking, we place our candles from right to left in our chanukkiahs, but light them left to right as we add candles on each night of Chanukkah. There are also two schools of thought about lighting Chanukkah candles. Hillel (whom our organization is named after!) believed that Chanukkah was a festival of lights and we should add candles each day, having the last day be the brightest of all. Shammai (his rival) believed that Chanukkah should be a celebration of the miracle of the oil and taught that we should start with eight candles on the first night and work our way down to one [as the oil decreased, so should our light]. While modern Judaism sides with Hillel, I leave it to you to make your own choices!
Each night, we say at least two blessings over the candle-lighting (we say Shehechyanu as well on the first night—celebrating that we’ve made it together to this moment). The first blessing is one that we say thanking G-d for commanding us to kindle the lights of Chanukkah (“…l’hadlik ner shel Chanukkah”). The second blessing thanks G-d for his past miracles for our ancestors (“…she’asah nisim la’avoteinu bayamim haheim bazman hazeh”). We light as we say the blessings.
What do we do with our menorah/chanukkiah?
We’ve talked about lighting the candles and how—but there are two more suggestions for your menorah. First, many people put them in their windows/front steps so that the public can see—this was suggested by the Talmud as a way of persumi nissa—publicizing the miracle of Chanukkah. The other suggestion includes the number of menorahs per household—each person/individual Jew should have their own menorahs/chanukkiahs to light! This way everyone gets to share in the joy and glow.
What’s with the Chanukkah food?
Generally speaking, this is a fried food lover’s favorite holiday. The foods normally consumed during Chanukkah are jelly doughnuts (and doughnuts will do, but jelly adds some extra sweetening) and potato latkes [pancakes] because both are heavily fried in oil. The oil used is representative of the oil in the miracle of Chanukkah.
What about the gift-giving? Should we really be giving eight gifts?
Gift giving is actually a very American custom that started around the 1970s as Judaism became more Americanized and Jews started realizing that they could use Chanukkah as the Jewish response to Christmas. [Interestingly enough, Chanukkah is set for the 25th of Kislev, Christmas for the 25th of December and Chanukkah technically came first]. It has always been a custom to give gelt or money; coins were a small gift given to children who then used that money to play dreidel—this is in part symbolic of the Hasmonean coins that were used (v. Greek money). You don’t at all need to give eight gifts—though those who do usually buy small gifts, rather than eight large gifts.