Written by Lucero Benitez, COSS Communications Specialist and Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer, Temple Beth Israel
Hanukkah, a joyous celebration of family, freedom, and light, is a holiday primarily celebrated at home, beginning on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev (usually falling in December) and lasting for eight nights. This year Hanukkah falls on December 22-30 and the Jewish community will light the first candle after sunset on the 22nd.
Hanukkah is based on the historical events recorded in the books of Maccabees I and II, which recount the victory of a small Jewish resistance group led by Judah Maccabee. In the year 168 BCE, the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanies sent his soldiers into Jerusalem to desecrate the holy Temple and to abolish Judaism, outlawing all observances. The Maccabees successfully regained possession of the Temple for the Jews and rededicated it. Hanukkah means “dedication” and commemorates the rededication of this holy space and a recommitment to keeping Judaism vibrant and alive.
Later Jewish legend found in the Talmud recounts the story of the miracle of the oil that is still told today. The legend says that when the Maccabees entered the Temple they went to rekindle the ner tamid, the Eternal Lamp, that was to burn constantly (and is still lit in synagogues today). However, they found only one jar of oil, enough to burn for one day. Messengers were sent to acquire more oil and were not able to get back to the Temple for eight days. Miraculously, the one jar of oil lasted for eight days until the lamp could be replenished.
Thus, the holiday of Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights. Generally a home-based celebration, the primary ritual of Hanukkah involves lighting the menorah (a candelabra also called a hanukkiyah) with an additional candle each night, a remembrance of the miracle.
Additionally, it is customary to eat foods cooked in oil such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), and play dreidel — a game played with spinning tops — with family and friends.
“The candles are technically lit by a separate candle which is called a shamash (the 9thcandle on the menorah). When we light the candles we say 2-3 blessings over the lights,” said Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer, who is part of the Temple Beth Israel community in Fresno.
Rabbi Winer added that “we’re not supposed to use the light of the candles for practical purposes, such as reading or to light up a room, but rather to simply enjoy their light.” While the candles are burning, families often sing songs, play dreidel, open presents if they exchange them, and eat a dinner that includes special holiday foods. The candles should not be blown out but rather allowed to burn down on their own until they self-extinguish.
“My favorite part is the food because you don’t get to really eat it any other time, so it’s kind of like Thanksgiving,” Alea Droker said. “It’s like, finally I get to have this feast, and I feel the same way during Hanukkah.”
Droker is Jewish and a second-year student minoring in Jewish Studies. She feels fortunate to be able to study her religion at Fresno State while sharing her knowledge with other students, even when she can’t go home for the holiday.
Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, the secular dates of Hanukkah change slightly each year. While Hanukkah is always in the late fall or winter months, sometimes it is closer to Thanksgiving.
Last year, Droker was not able to make it back home for Hanukkah but still celebrated with her family thanks to technology.
“I got an electric menorah that was okay for the dorms and I would light a candle each night and my parents sent me presents, actually. So I would video call them and open the presents,” Droker said. “This year, I’m fortunate enough to have Hanukkah off with Christmas break. And I’ll be able to go home with my family and celebrate as we always do.”
Rabbi Winer says the notion of giving gifts on Hanukkah is an American innovation that emerged due to the holiday’s proximity in time to Christmas.
“In our family we only give very small tokens of gifts, nothing major. Our family also has a tradition of giving to charities (giving known as Tzedakah) during Hanukkah in honor of specific family members,” Rabbi Winer said.
Like Droker, she loves spending time with family and friends for meals and singing, enjoying each other during a time of year when others are doing the same, but says the central message of the holiday is religious freedom. During Hanukkah, Jewish people re-dedicate themselves to fighting for religious freedom and justice for all those who face discrimination and hate because of their religious beliefs or affiliations.
“It is also a time that I reflect on and renew my appreciation for the religious freedoms we have here in this country,” Rabbi Winer said. “It reinforces my commitment to ensuring those freedoms persist and are afforded to all American citizens and residents.”
Hanukkah is a fun and meaningful holiday for Jewish families to celebrate, but it does not hold the same theological weight that Christmas does for Christians. This does not mean that the messages of Hanukkah are not important, however the major Jewish holidays which hold more theological significance are Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover.
Temple Beth Israel will celebrate Hanukkah as a community during Shabbat services on Friday, December 27 at 6:00 p.m., followed by a potluck dinner as well as latkes and jelly filled donuts. Families will bring their own Hanukkah menorahs which will all be lit together prior to the service. Given that it will be the 6thnight of Hanukkah, it will be a lovely sight to see. Community members are welcome to join in the fun.