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Hanukkah History

Hanukkah History

Hanukkah is an eight days long Jewish festival, also known as Chanukkah or “Festival of Lights”. Jewish families come together to rejoice and light candles for eight days to remember the victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus of Syria almost twenty one centuries ago, and refresh the Hanukkah history in their minds. It starts on the 25th day of the Hebrew calendar, and Jews all around the world celebrate it with great enthusiasm by exchanging gifts, singing, dancing, rejoicing and eating special food.

The Hanukkah history dates back to almost 165 BCE in the land of Judea. A tyrant king named Antiochus, who ruled the land, had ordered all Jews to reject their rituals and worship Greek gods. But the Jews decided to fight back, and a big battle was fought in a village near Jerusalem. The Jews were also told to bow before a Greek idol and eat the flesh of pig, both of which were forbidden under Jewish customs. Mattathias, a Jewish High Priest, along with his men attacked the Greek soldiers, and killed as many as they could. But then they had to go into hiding, and a year later Mattathias died leaving behind his son Judah Maccabee in charge of the Jewish army.


The Greeks were finally defeated after almost three years of continuous fighting. The Jews were also successful in reclaiming their holy temple on Mount Moriah. A lot of damage had been done to the temple, and it had to be repaired and cleaned for rededication. But in the temple they found only enough purified oil to keep the temple light burning for a single day. But, miraculously the light continued to burn for eight days.

To celebrate this great triumph of their ancestors, Jews all over the world light Menorahs for eight days. Candles are placed in the menorah from right to left, but are lit from left to right. One candle is lit each day, until all the candles are lit at the end of eight days.  Hanukkah history is told to children as well, so that can participate in the festival, not only for rejoicing and merry making, but also to understand the importance of victory of good over evil.

The Hanukkah history also contains a lesser know story about a beautiful widow named Judith. She fed enemy Syrian General Holofernes with so much cheese and wine that he collapsed into a drunken state. Judith then beheaded him, and his soldiers fled in fear upon seeing the beheaded body of their leader, thus saving her village from the Syrians.

There is also the story behind the dreidel, which is a four sided top with Hebrew letters inscribed on each side and is vey popular among children as well as adults. When the Jews were forbidden to practice their religion, they would secretly read the holy book, Torah, with a dreidel and gelt in hand, for safety. As soon as Greek soldiers would approach them, they would pretend to be playing with the dreidel.

Certain foods are also associated with the Hanukkah history, and cooked in oil, in remembrance of the oil that burned in the temple. Some favorite and popular dishes prepared during this festival are latkes or potato pancakes, and sufganiya. A lot of cheese and diary products are also eaten in memory of Judith, the Jewish heroine.
Hannukah is a wonderful festival for children. They receive gifts of gelt or candy; they also receive money, and various other presents. Cookies cut into shapes of stars and dreidels decorated with blue and white icing are also a favorite among children.

Hannukah means ‘dedication’ in Hebrew. When a Jew understands that this holiday is not limited to just gifts, songs, food and entertainment, the festival and the Hanukkah history becomes more even more significant.