Celebrating Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a festive holiday celebrating two things: the miraculous military victory of a small band of Jews (led by Judah Maccabee) over the occupying Seleucid Greek army in the 2nd century BCE, and also the miracle of the oil.

The Jews revolted against King Antiochus IV, who had persecuted them and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. After they defeated the Greek army, Judah Maccabee and his followers went to Jerusalem to rededicate the Temple. They found just enough oil to light the great candelabra, or menorah, for one day.

A miracle happened and the oil lasted for eight days, which was enough time for more olive oil to be produced. This is why Hanukkah is celebrated for 8 days, and also why foods fried in oil are eaten during Hanukkah.

Hanukkah symbols

Celebrating Hanukkah in Israel

In Israel, Hanukkah is a festive holiday celebrated with much joy and creativity.

For weeks before the holiday, young kids prepare different crafts related to Hanukkah, learn songs and stories, and during the holiday have Hanukkah parties at school and performances in after-school activities.

School is out for the week of Hanukkah, so this is a time when lots of families travel around the country. The winter is a wonderful time to hike throughout Israel, and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel offers excellent organized tours.

Many people visit Jerusalem and the Modiin area, where the story of Hanukkah took place. A popular destination is the religious Jerusalem neighborhood Mea Sharim, to view the Hanukkah menorahs on display, and the Maccabean graves near Modiin.

Hanukkah traditions

Unlike in the U.S. and elsewhere, Hanukkah in Israel is not a holiday of gift giving for eight days. Presents, if any are given, are usually chocolates and candy, and gelt (d’mei Hanukkah, or money). Dreidels (sevivonim) are also given and collected eagerly by enthusiasts.

The hanukiya is lit in homes every night, and there are also public lightings in shopping centers, along with saying the prayers, singing Maoz Tsur and other songs, and of course, there is a lot of indulging in oily, fried foods!

Shows and Festivals

During Hanukkah there are several big-production children’s shows that tour the country, including Festigal and the Children’s Song Festival (which after an 18 year hiatus, started again for Hanukkah 2008).

In Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas neighborhood, the Hag Ha Hagim festival celebrates Hanukkah, Christmas, and Id El Adha. Taking place every Saturday in the month of December, the festival includes music and dance performances, artistic and cultural events, and lots of great street food.

Bringing Hanukkah History to Life

Hanukkah is a festive holiday everywhere, but the celebration of Hanukkah in Israel is especially significant because “Nes Gadol Haya Po” (a great miracle happened here).

The Maccabees military victory in 165 BCE gave the Jews in Judea independence for 100 years, until the Roman emperor Pompei conquered Judea in 63 BCE. This was the last time the Jews had their own country, until the establishment of the State of Israel over 2,000 years later in 1948.

If you’re in Israel during Hanukkah, you might want to visit the archeological site of Bet Guvrin. There are shows and activites for the whole family during the week of Hanukkah, including a visit from Judah Maccabee. Call 08-681-1020 for more information.

When is Hanukkah?

Jewish holidays take place according to the Hebrew calendar. Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, and continues for eight days until the 2nd of Tevet. To find out when Hanukkah starts according to the modern (Gregorian) calendar, use this converter

What is the meaning of Hanukkah?

The word Hanukkah means “dedication”, for the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

menorahs

Hanukkah menorah

The Temple’s menorah had seven branches; Hanukkah menorahs (“hanukiya”) have nine branches: one for the shamash, or lighting candle, and eight for each day of Hanukkah.

In Israel it is common for families with children to have multiple menorahs lit every night of the holiday, as a popular activity around Hanukkah time in schools (especially kindergartens) is to decorate hanukiyot. Even my three year old insists on lighting her own hanukiyah!

Hanukkah dreidel

The dreidel (sevivon in Hebrew) is a spinning top with four sides, with a Hebrew letter on each side.

In Israel the letters are nun, gimmel, hey, and peh, for “Nes Gadol Haya Po” (a great miracle happened here). Outside of Israel, dreidels have the letters nun, gimmel, hey and shin, for “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” (a great miracle happened there).

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