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The Festival Of Lights

December 22, 2019

Today begins the eight-day Jewish celebration known as Hanukkah.

The Hanukkah celebration revolves around the kindling of a nine-branched menorah, known in Hebrew as the hanukiah. On each of the holiday’s eight nights, another candle is added to the menorah after sundown; the ninth candle, called the shamash (“helper”), is used to light the others. Jews typically recite blessings during this ritual and display the menorah prominently in a window as a reminder to others of the miracle that inspired the holiday.

When the Jews came to rededicate their Temple in 165 BC they found just one small flask of oil to light the menorah. Miraculously, the oil kept the lamp burning for eight days. Jews light the menorah every Hanukkah to commemorate this feat.

Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where according to legend, Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt. Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar and usually falls in November or December. Often called the Festival of Lights, the holiday is celebrated with the lighting of the menorah, traditional foods, games and gifts.

History of Hanukkah

The events that inspired the Hanukkah holiday took place during a particularly turbulent phase of Jewish history. Around 200 B.C., Judea—also known as the Land of Israel—came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria, who allowed the Jews who lived there to continue practicing their religion. His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, proved less benevolent: Ancient sources recount that he outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. In 168 B.C., his soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.

Led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons, a large-scale rebellion broke out against Antiochus and the Seleucid monarchy. When Matthathias died, his son Judah, known as Judah Maccabee (“the Hammer”), took the helm; within two years the Jews had successfully driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, relying largely on guerilla warfare tactics. Judah called on his followers to cleanse the Second Temple, rebuild its altar and light its menorah—the gold candelabrum whose seven branches represented knowledge and creation and were meant to be kept burning every night.

The Hanukkah Miracle

According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most central texts, Judah Maccabee and the other Jews who took part in the re-dedication of the Second Temple witnessed what they believed to be a miracle. Even though there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights, leaving them time to find a fresh supply. This wondrous event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival.

Some modern historians offer a radically different interpretation of the Hanukkah tale. In their view, Jerusalem under Antiochus IV had erupted into civil war between two camps of Jews: those who had assimilated into the dominant culture that surrounded them, adopting Greek and Syrian customs; and those who were determined to impose Jewish laws and traditions, even if by force. The traditionalists won out in the end, with the Hasmonean dynasty—led by Judah Maccabee’s brother and his descendants—wresting control of the Land of Israel from the Seleucids and maintaining an independent Jewish kingdom for more than a century.

Jewish scholars have also suggested that the first Hanukkah may have been a belated celebration of Sukkot, which the Jews had not had the chance to observe during the Maccabean Revolt. One of the Jewish religion’s most important holidays, Sukkot consists of seven days of feasting, prayer and festivities.


In recent decades, particularly in North America, Hanukkah has exploded into a major commercial phenomenon, largely because it falls near or often overlaps with Christmas. In the middle of the 19th century, many Jews had “a deep and abiding anxiety about Christmas—this commercialized, merry, fun, sparkly time was altogether new to them,” Jenna Weissman Joselit, a professor of history at George Washington University, reported, "Jewish leaders had become concerned that their religious traditions would be abandoned to those quickly acclimating to New York City and therefore they looked at the commercialization surrounding Christmas with hesitation."

Hanukkah Celebrations, New York City, circa 1880

Rabbis who led the Reform Movement, largely based in Cincinnati, Ohio, came up with the idea of a “festival of lights” for children at Hanukkah as a way to keep them interested at synagogue. Taking the celebration home tied to a growing trend of home-based celebrations. Soon, traditional Hanukkah foods emerged. Potato pancakes (known as latkes) and jam-filled donuts (sufganiyot) are particularly popular in many Jewish households. Other Hanukkah customs include playing with four-sided spinning tops called dreidels and exchanging gifts.

The early 20th century would change the fabric of the US bringing mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to New York City. Though New York was a Christian-leaning city, these immigrant communities were living in a country that held its promise of freedom of religion. And so a debate started in how Jewish traditions would live on not just in New York, but around the country as well.

“Hanukkah offered an opportunity for many Jewish immigrants to openly celebrate their religion—something that wasn’t always possible in their countries of origin.”

Hanukkah, in effect, emerged to serve almost as a counter-balance to Christmas. To many immigrants and their children, the celebration became a way of asserting Jewish identity in America.

By the 1970s, menorah lightings were taking place in American parks, city halls, and village greens. By 1979, President Jimmy Carter was participating in a lighting ceremony. Today in New York, the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish outreach organization sponsors the lighting of a massive menorah, 32 feet tall, on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street near Central Park in New York City.

Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish outreach organization erecting and lighting of a massive 32' tall menorah, on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street near Central Park in NYC.

The International Language of Music

Two Jewish Immigrants to New York also had a large hand in shaping the Christmas season as we know it today.

  • Irving Berlin, was trying to make it big in Tin Pan Alley through the early 1900s, went on to write “White Christmas” in 1943.

  • Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote “Silver Bells” after being inspired by the Salvation Army bell ringers sprinkled all around the city seeking donations.

I must admit that some of the most fascinating pieces of history around both holidays are the examples of how immigration, traditions and cultures from elsewhere have all come together to define today's " holiday season" in what will always be known as the melting pot of The United States of America.

H A P P Y H A N U K K A H!


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