Why Do We Celebrate That? Hanukkah Traditions

While perhaps not the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar (those would be Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), Hanukkah is certainly the most famous, especially in the secular and non-Jewish communities. The celebration begins on the eve of the 25th of Kislev and runs for eight nights.

Since the Jewish calendar is lunar (based on the movement of the moon), Hanukkah falls on a different day on the Gregorian calendar each year. That’s why Hanukkah runs from November 28 to December 6 in 2021, December 18 to December 26 in 2022, and December 7 to December 15 in 2023.

Known also as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is a celebration of family and Jewish heritage. But for those who aren’t familiar with Judaism or Hanukkah, a lot of the traditions may be confusing. After all, Hanukkah means dedication in Hebrew, so what exactly are they dedicating? Why are they lighting candles or spinning a top?

The Story Behind the Menorah

We can answer these two questions right away, because both the candles and dedication are tied to the same event: The story of Hanukkah. We discussed the miracle of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem briefly in our article “Popular Ways for Seniors to Celebrate Hanukkah,” which is the story of the Maccabees and their rebellion against the Greek-Syrian Seleucid Empire.

There is a fascinating history behind the rebellions, but here is a quick summary — the Seleucids, ruled by Greeks after Alexander the Great’s death, began a campaign to Hellenize the region by suppressing Jewish traditions and promoting Greek or Syrian ones. This led to revolts and brought on more suppression until the Maccabees began a guerrilla campaign that culminated in a series of large-scale battles. Interestingly, it was during a short period of successful rebellion when Hannukah was created. Though the Maccabean Revolt technically ended in defeat, it would spur on the population to regain control of their land and create an independent kingdom that would survive for over a century.

By some miracle, the oil lasted for eight nights, proving to the Maccabees that their God had come back into the Temple and would protect the Jews.

After regaining control of the Temple of Jerusalem, the Maccabees cleared out the Greek religious imagery and statues, tearing down the old alter. In its place, they built a new one and dedicated it on the 25th of Kislev, hence the Hanukkah dedication beginning on that date. After building a new menorah, they went to light it, but found there was only one day’s worth of oil that had been left untainted. By some miracle, the oil lasted for eight nights, proving to the Maccabees that their God had come back into the Temple and would protect the Jews.

To commemorate the first Hanukkah miracle, millions of Jewish families around the world will light a candle on the Menorah each night in a highly ceremonial fashion while saying prayers and singing songs as a family.

Why is it the Dreidel We Will Play?

Today, playing with the dreidel may seem like just a fun game (and we’ll get into that), but the tradition has a long and winding history. One such story connecting dreidel-playing with Hanukkah explains while the Seleucids outlawed many Jewish practices, Jewish students would play dreidel to hide the fact that they were actually studying the Torah. This is likely a later invention, and the game that we know today actually comes from the German version of an English game, called trendel and totum, respectively.

The game itself is fairly simple to play. Each player starts the game with 10 to 15 coins (real or chocolate for kids), and places one coin in the pot at the start of each round. Everyone also places one coin in the pot if it’s empty or only has one coin.

Then, a player spins the top and acts depending on which side the top lands on:

  • Nun (meaning nisht or nothing) — The player does nothing.
  • Gimel (meaning gantz or everything) — The player wins everything in the pot.
  • Hey (meaning halb or half) — The player wins half of what’s in the pot, or half plus one if there is an uneven number of coins.
  • Shin (meaning shtel or put in in) — The player puts a coin in the pot. In Israel, this is “Peh,” which also means “put in.”

If a player runs out of coins, they lose unless they can loan some from another player. Once a single player has won all the coins, they win the game! Of course, if you’re playing with money, it’s suggested you get into the festive and giving spirit of the season by donating the money to charity after the game!

The Best Part: Hanukkah Food

In our humble opinion, the best part of any holiday is the food that comes with it. We may just be hungry, though. Either way, if you’re a fan of fried food, Hanukkah is a real treat that celebrates the oil-centric miracle. Of course, two Hanukkah classics we’ve discussed (and included recipes for) are latkes and sufganiyot, but the options don’t end there. There is also gelt, or chocolate coins often used as part of the dreidel game.

You can’t forget other Hanukkah classics like brisket, matzo ball soup, apple dishes, and other delicious treats.

Kugel is an egg noodle dish served with many Jewish holidays, including Hanukkah. Similarly, Challah bread can be enjoyed during many holidays, but it takes a specifically Hanukkah inspiration. You can’t forget other Hanukkah classics like brisket, matzo ball soup, apple dishes, and other delicious treats. Who knew that one of the lights during Hanukkah’s Festival of Lights would be the one on our stove and refrigerator!

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Hanukkah has become a secular symbol of Judaism and a time to celebrate Jewish heritage as well. Whether you’re celebrating Hanukkah or not, it’s a great time to learn more about one of the largest religions in the world, whether that’s the story of a group of rebels retaking their sacred temple, or the families that sought a better life into America and became integral to the fabric that makes this country what it is.