What is Chanukah (aka Hanukkah)
Published: Nov. 9, 2023
Article Image
What is Chanukah (aka Hanukkah)

Q: What is Chanukah?

A:  Chanukah (aka Hanukkah) is the Jewish eight-day, wintertime “festival of lights,” celebrated with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers and fried foods. The Hebrew word “Chanukah” means “dedication,” and is thus named because it celebrates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple. The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication,” and is thus named because it celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple (as you’ll read below). Also spelled Hanukkah (or variations of that spelling),Hanukkah (Chanukah) is the Jewish eight-day, wintertime “festival of lights,” celebrated with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers and fried foods.

Q: When Is Chanukah?

A: In the Hebrew calendar, Chanukah begins on the eve of the 25th day of the month Kislev and continues for eight days. On the Gregorian calendar, it generally coincides within the month of December.

Q: What does Chanukah celebrate or commemorate?

A:  Chanukah celebrates the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE), and the narrative that Jewish rebel Judas Maccabeus (aka “Yehuda the Maccabee“)  vanquished the evil Greek emperor Antiochus and rededicated the Temple, at which the miracle of the oil occurred.

In the second century BCE, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who tried to force the people of Israel to accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of mitzvah observance and belief in G‑d. Against all odds, a small band of faithful but poorly armed Jews (known as the Maccabees), led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of G-d.


When they sought to light the Temple’s  (the seven-branched candelabrum), they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, they lit the menorah and the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.

Q: What customs or prayers are observed on Chanukah?

A: At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah lighting on each of the 8 nights of Chanukah. The menorah holds nine flames, one of which is the shamash (“attendant”) located in the center of the Menorah, which is used to kindle the other eight lights. On the first night, we light just one flame. On the second night, an additional flame is lit. By the eighth night of Chanukah, all eight lights are kindled.


Special blessings are recited, often to a traditional melody, before the menorah is lit, and traditional songs are sung afterward.

A menorah is lit in every household (or even by each individual within the household) and placed in a doorway or window. The menorah is also lit in synagogues and other public places. In recent years, thousands of jumbo menorahs have cropped up in front of city halls and legislative buildings, and in malls and parks all over the world.

Q:  Are there any special games or activities played on Chanukah?

A: On Chanukah, it is customary to play with a “dreidel” (a four-sided spinning top bearing the Hebrew letters, nun, gimmel, hei and shin, which is an acronym for nes gadol hayah sham, “a great miracle happened there”). The game is usually played for a pot of coins, nuts, or other items, which are won or lost based on which letter the dreidel lands when it is spun.


Q: Are there any special foods that are eaten on Chanukah?

A: Since the Chanukah miracle involved oil, it is customary to eat foods fried in oil. The Eastern-European classic is the potato latke (pancake) garnished with applesauce or sour cream, and the reigning Israeli favorite is the jelly-filled sufganya (doughnut).


Q: Do you give or receive gifts on Chanukah?

A: In today’s society some people choose to give others a Chanukah gift or maybe even up to 8 gifts (1 gift for each day of the Chanukah holiday). Traditionally speaking, people give Chanukah gelt, gifts of money, to children. In addition to rewarding positive behavior and devotion to Torah study, the cash gifts give the children the opportunity to give tzedakah (charity). This has also spawned the phenomenon of foil-covered “chocolate Chanukah gelt” which many children find delicious.


Q: Was there a popular movie about Chanukah?

A: Yes.  Eight Crazy Nights which came out in 2002 and had Adam Sandler star in the film was a movie depicting the miracle and holiday of Chanukah.


Q: Is there a musical group that derived its name from the holiday of Chanukah?

A: Yes.  The “Maccabeats” are an American Orthodox Jewish all-male a cappella group. Founded in 2007 at Yeshiva University, Manhattan, New York, the 14-member group specializes in covers and parodies of contemporary hits using Jewish-themed lyrics.


This blog was written by Pediatric Associates’ Jacob Seligsohn