Arts & Culture

What is Hanukkah?

This year, Chanukah, the Jewish eight-day wintertime “festival of lights” also known as Hanukkah, is observed Dec. 18-26.

As of 2021, there are about 15.2 million Jews worldwide, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel. In the United States, about 5.8 million adults are Jewish, with another 2.8 million that identify having a Jewish background, according to a report from the Pew Research Center.

Associate Professor Ken Hanson, who has been teaching Judaic studies at UCF since the early ’90s, provides insight on the meaning and traditions of this celebration. And the Office of Institutional Equity reminds the campus community of guidelines for respecting religious observances.

What is the significance of Hanukkah?

The ancient land of Israel had been captured by a Seleucids of Syria There were a number of kings under the dynasty, but the most troublesome of them all was Antiochus IV, who went by the name Epiphanes. He and his lieutenants outlawed the Jewish faith and targeted anyone practicing Judaism. They seized Torahs and tortured people, including women and circumcised children.

Judaism is a faith of observance. It’s not about belief, it’s about practice and behavior. In order to prove that Jews had renounced their faith, Antiochus and his lieutenants forced them to consume swine (which is not considered kosher because while pigs have split hooves, they do not chew their cud). They even sacrificed a swine on the altar in the temple in Jerusalem and the blood was used to defile the holy space.

This came to an end when they came to the town of Modi’in, which is on the border of Judaea and Samaria. There an old priest, Mattathias, slaughtered a young Jewish priest who was going to sacrifice a pig on an altar. Mattathias, who died shortly after, and his five sons, known as the Maccabees, started a guerrilla war in 168 B.C.E. By 164 B.C.E. the Maccabees entered the city of Jerusalem and liberated it from the Syrians. They had to rededicate the temple and that’s where we get the word Hanukkah, or Chanukah, which means dedication or rededication.

When is Hanukkah observed?

Hanukkah starts on the 25th of Kislev — the third month of the Hebrew calendar [when counting from Tishrei, which typically occurs in September and October when the High Holy Days, including Rosh Hashanah or the Jewish New Year, are observed]. The Hebrew calendar follows a lunisolar calendar — and Hanukkah is observed for eight nights. Typically it is in December, but this year Hanukkah starts the evening of Dec. 18.

What is the significance of lighting the menorah?

On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, a candle on the menorah is lit. When the Maccabees were rededicating the temple in Jerusalem they had to rekindle the golden candelabra inside. There had always been a seven-branch menorah in the temple, but it had been extinguished. They found a bit of sacred oil that would only last one night, but they lit the menorah and prayed for the best. And in the end, a miracle transpired and that oil lasted a full eight days until new oil could be manufactured. And that is why Hanukkah today is an eight-day celebration, “eight crazy nights.”

[While traditional menorahs typically have seven branches, Hanukkah menorahs, or Hanukkiot, include a total of nine branches, one for each night of Hanukkah with an extra one in the center to help light the other candlesticks.]

What are some other traditions of Hanukkah?

All over the world there is a game with a spinning top that has a Hebrew letter on each side. In Israel it’s called a sevivon (sev-vee-von) and in Yiddish, which is predominant in America, it’s called a dreidel. The letters are nun, gimel, hei and shin and together they represent the phrase “A great miracle happened there,” or “here” if you’re playing in Israel. Participants contribute to a “pot” with objects, such as chocolate gelt or pennies, and spin the top to see what they get. If they land on nun, they get nothing; if gimel, they get everything; if hei, they get half; and if shin, they add a piece to the pot.

It’s also customary to eat doughnuts, specifically jelly-filled ones, and potato pancakes called latkes. Eating foods fried in oils reminds us of that little oil that miraculously burned for eight nights.

Nicole Dudenhoefer ’17
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Tags: College of Arts and Humanities Inclusive Excellence Judaic Studies

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