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The History of Hanukkah

The History of Hanukkah

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Updated on Nov 27, 2009

It’s the season of celebrations, and, for many people, Hanukkah is at hand. This traditional Jewish holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, is celebrated by millions around the world, and it’s a great way to teach your child about celebrations in other cultures. Here’s a guide to the light-filled festival of Hanukkah.

Like Christmas, Hanukkah celebrates and commemorates events which happened a long time ago in Jerusalem. Around 200 BCE, Jews in the land of Israel were under the rule of the Syrian king, but were still allowed to follow their own religious beliefs. However, a new king named Antiochus IV came to power. Antiochus forbade the Jews from practicing their religion, killed many of them, and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by placing an altar to the Greek god Zeus inside it.

Mattathias, a Jewish priest, objected to the cruel edicts of Antiochus, and along with his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah, he decided to fight back. Led by Judah (known as “The Hammer”), they led the Jewish people in a revolt, using clever strategy and guerrilla-style warfare to defeat Antiochus’ much larger army.

Flush with victory, the Jews returned to find their Temple dirty and desecrated, with pots of consecrated olive oil broken everywhere. Working together, they cleaned and rededicated the Temple (“Hanukkah” means “dedication” in Hebrew). They lit the holy fire in the Temple menorah (a many-branched candelabrum and symbol of Judaism). However, although the flame was supposed to burn continuously, they were dismayed to find that there was only enough oil to fuel the flame for one day! Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight full days, and gave the Jews time to properly prepare more oil. This is often referred to as the miracle of Hanukkah.

Since then, Jews the world over have celebrated this occasion by lighting the Hanukkah candles in a menorah over the course of eight days. Starting with one candle on the first night, and ending with eight on the eighth, the ceremony involves the saying or singing of a blessing while the candles are lit by the helper candle, or “shamash.” Traditionally, the illuminated menorah is placed in windows so that passerby may be reminded of the Hanukkah story.

Since the holiday is, in some way, a celebration of oil, the practice of eating food fried in oil, such as potato latkes and jelly donuts, is a major part of the holiday. Also included in the festivities is the traditional game of dreidel and the giving of “gelt,” or money, to children.

No matter what holidays you and your family celebrate, there’s always room for learning in the fun. So introduce your child to new customs and cultures this holiday season by frying up a few latkes, spinning the dreidel, or just talking and learning  about the meaning behind the holiday!

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