6 Hanukkah Traditions That Make the 8-Night Holiday Special
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How is Hanukkah celebrated? Learn the history of the most common Hanukkah traditions that make up the Festival of Lights.
Hanukkah is a joyous Jewish holiday that recalls an ancient miracle after a hard-fought victory over religious oppression. The historic event sparked Hanukkah traditions that last to this day.
In the first century B.C.E., Greek rulers banned Judaism. They tortured and persecuted those who dared practice and desecrated the holy Second Temple in Jerusalem, even sacrificing a pig and installing a statue of Zeus inside. A small band of Jewish warriors, led by Judah Maccabee, rebelled. When the battle was won, the Maccabees set out to rededicate the temple, which involved lighting candles on a menorah (a branched candelabra) that would burn continuously. Though they scoured the Second Temple, they found only enough oil to burn for one night. Miraculously, it burned for eight nights, which gave the Maccabees time to find more so they could keep the temple holy.
Today, Hanukkah celebrates that miracle and, by extension, the triumph of light over darkness. Those themes are evident in many of the most beloved Hanukkah traditions and in the giving of Hanukkah gifts.
Lighting the Hanukkah candles
To commemorate the oil that miraculously lasted for eight days, modern-day Jewish families recite blessings and light candles on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. Candles are placed in a menorah (sometimes a hanukkiah), with the number of lights increasing each night. On the first night, one candle (plus a “helper” candle called the shammash) is lit. On the second night, two candles plus the shammash are lit. That continues until nine candles are blazing on the final night. This is why Hanukkah is often called the Festival of Lights. Families usually place lit menorahs in a window, following the guidance in the Talmud (one of the central texts in Judaism) to “publicize the miracle.” Find out more about why we light menorahs for Hanukkah.
Eating potato pancakes and jelly donuts
Walk into a Jewish kitchen during Hanukkah and you’re likely to inhale the delicious aromas of latkes, aka potato-and-onion pancakes fried in oil. If you’re especially lucky, sufganiyot, or jelly-filled doughnuts, will also be on the menu. These decadent Jewish delicacies—along with other fried foods and Hanukkah desserts—symbolize the miracle of the oil. While latkes are more traditional, sufganiyot only became popular in the 20th century, when Israel promoted them as part of the country’s official Hanukkah celebration. Beginning in the 1970s, American Jews began adopting the delicious Hanukkah tradition.
Playing dreidel games
A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top used in games of chance during Hanukkah. Carved into or stamped onto every side is one of four Hebrew letters: nun, gimel, hey, or shin. Each letter begins a word in the Hebrew phrase “nes gadol haya sham,” which means “a great miracle happened there.” Today, when players spin the top, they win or lose gambling pieces—often small bits of candy—according to the letter they land on.
Kids (and even some adults) have been playing dreidel games at Hanukkah for centuries. No one is entirely sure how it all started. Theories range from the game being a way for young Jewish scholars to distract and trick Greek soldiers if they were caught illegally studying scripture to the dreidel being based on a German game piece called trendel, which itself was based on an Irish spinning top known as teetotum.
At Hanukkah, Jewish children look forward to receiving small discs of chocolate, usually wrapped in gold- or silver-colored foil to resemble coins. Known as gelt, they’re sometimes used for betting during dreidel games but are often just enjoyed as a treat.
Historically, however, gelt was anything but kid stuff. In Eastern Europe, Jewish families would give a few extra coins to teachers, butchers, and other independent workers as a sort of end-of-year tip. By the late 1800s, when survival was less fraught, families began giving small tokens to their children at Hanukkah.
However, some scholars say the Hanukkah tradition of giving gelt evolved earlier. The Talmud states that if a person cannot afford both Hanukkah lights and wine for the Sabbath, then the lights take precedence, according to Rabbi Norman Patz, rabbi emeritus of Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and visiting rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Giving gelt ensured that even the poorest people could light the Hanukkah menorah.
Perhaps as an outgrowth of the gelt tradition, it’s customary during Hanukkah to make donations, or tzedakah, to nonprofits and other charitable organizations. In recent years, the sixth night of Hanukkah has become the designated time for families to give their gifts. Gifts may be monetary but can also include gifts of time as a volunteer.
It’s also become popular for members of Jewish families to exchange gifts with one another, much like Christians do at Christmas. But that wasn’t always the case. The Hanukkah tradition didn’t really take off until the 1950s. In the post-Holocaust era, promoting a positive Jewish identity to children became important. And as Christmas became increasingly commercialized, Jewish parents felt the need to offer something equivalent to their kids. While customs vary among families, many exchange one small gift for each of the first seven nights, with a bigger gift on the eighth night. Others buy something that can be used or experienced by the whole family, like a vacation.
Unlike many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is celebrated primarily in the home, rather than in the synagogue. “It’s a home holiday. There’s no synagogue ritual for it,” Rabbi Patz says. In fact, the language in the Talmud mentions a “candle for each man and his household,” making the actual commandment one of celebrating at home with family.
In addition to cooking and eating fried foods, playing dreidel games, and lighting candles together, many families also sing songs for the holiday. Popular choices include “Ma’oz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”) and “I Have a Little Dreidel.”
- Rabbi Norman Patz, rabbi emeritus of Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and visiting rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan, Puerto Rico