Jewish: Light up the night for Hanukkah

Photo in public domainSUNSET TUESDAY, DECEMBER 20: It’s time for menorahs, holy oil, latkes, dreidels and chocolate gelt. That’s right—Hanukkah begins tonight!


Jews worldwide commemorate the traditional story of a “miracle of the oil”—a period of eight days during the 2nd century BCE when a supply of temple oil that was supposed to last one day instead lasted eight. The Hanukkah story handed down for thousands of years describes a loyal force, called the Maccabees, who courageously defended their Jewish traditions and identity. Against the odds, these heroes managed to defeat the ruler Antiochus IV and drive him away from the temple in Jerusalem. Antiochus was heavily influenced by Greek culture and was in danger of wiping out the Jewish people’s faith and culture. As the Maccabees regained the temple, they wanted to rededicate it—but found almost no holy oil. They had a single container of blessed oil, yet it miraculously burned in the temple for eight days. (Learn more from, Wikipedia and

Ever since, Jews have lit menorahs during Hanukkah to celebrate the Festival of Lights. Tonight’s festivities begin with the lighting of the menorah’s first candle at sunset, after which the flame burns for 30 minutes. The ninth branch of the menorah—known as the shamash—is used to light the other eight candles, adding one candle flame on each successive night. After the menorah lighting, it’s customary to eat foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes and donuts. (Get great recipes from Epicurious and Food Network.) Children sometimes use chocolate gelt, or candy Hanukkah coins, to play games with a dreidel, a four-sided top. The letters on each side of the dreidel translate into “A great miracle happened there.” The lit menorah traditionally sits in a window, visually announcing Hanukkah’s miracle to passersby.


First, non-Jews should be aware that Jewish families strongly resist suggestions that Hanukkah is “the Jewish Christmas.” Clearly, it’s not. Among the many differences, Hanukkah is a relatively minor festival in Judaism. Christmas and Easter are twin pillars of Christianity and the Jewish High Holy Days around Yom Kippur represent the most sacred period in the Jewish calendar. Nevertheless, many Jewish families have added lots of gifts for their children to the Hanukkah season. Hanukkah has risen in importance in American communities partly because of the competitive “December Dilemma” Jewish parents face each year.

The story of holy oil is inspiring. The lights and gifts and foods are fun. But, that still doesn’t fully capture the contemporary importance of Hanukkah in the United States. Here are three popular ReadTheSpirit stories about Hanukkah’s meaning today:

AUTHOR DEBRA DARVICK ON JEWISH FAMILY LIFE: Debra’s true story about Jewish parents wrestling with the annual December Dilemma begins with this line: “Are we giving each other presents?” I asked my husband the other night.

RABBI JAMES RUDIN’S 10 COMMANDMENTS FOR DIALOGUE: A major theme during Hanukkah is religious freedom and diversity. For Hanukkah 2010, ReadTheSpirit published an excerpt of Rabbi James Rudin’s wisdom on interfaith dialogue. In the second half of the last century, no one did more to build bridges between Christians, Jews and Muslims than Rabbi James Rudin, who served for years as interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.

POET DINAH BERLAND’S RECOVERY OF WOMEN’S PRAYERS: This story and interview with poet Dinah Berland was published in 2007—an account that drew many readers from around the world. Hannukkah celebrates the endurance of religious faith, despite deadly challenges, and Dinah’s story involves the survival of women’s prayerful voices through the horrors of the Holocaust.


If your family is searching for a greener way to mark Hanukkah, try making your own menorah and filling it with olive oil! The original temple oil was olive oil—and this renewable oil burns clean. (Check out an article in the Miami Herald for DIY menorah details.)

Young kids can get in on the action, too, with some help from Zazzy Katz, an interactive cat available on the iPhone, iPad and Android. (Read more at PRWeb.) The new “Hanukkah Zazz” allows app users to hear Hanukkah music, watch Zazzy perform traditional Hanukkah rituals and hear Jewish stories. (Kids can also get craft ideas and coloring pages from Kaboose, a Disney site.)

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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