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Happy Hanukkah!


The Story

Hanukkah begins on 25 Kislev, this year’s secular date is after sunset on the 16th of December. Hanukkah is the story of sacrifice and bravery, the story of destruction and renewal, a grand story of two miracles. If you are not familiar with the whole story of Hanukkah we invite you to read it here.

What is Hanukkah Gelt?

The word gelt means money in Yiddish. In the Late Middle Ages it became a custom to give children money to then give to their Torah instructors. Often the money collected at Hanukkah was the teacher’s primary means of support for the year. Over time parents also started to give children gelt as a reward for their Torah studies.


But how did this custom form, why money at Hanukkah? No one knows for sure, but the best conjecture is that it is rooted in the Hanukkah story itself.


The primary catalyst for the Maccabee’s rebellion was the Greek's attempted destruction of the Jewish religion and culture. After the Maccabee’s defeated the Greeks the Jewish people needed to undergo a serious re-education of the Torah and traditions.


Additionally, in celebration of their military victory, they minted coins to drive home the point they were a free nation built on the laws of the Torah. For this reason, it is thought that Hanukkah gelt is linked to promoting Jewish learning and Torah education.


As in any culture, traditions evolve with the times. In the 1920’s the US economy was booming and folks had disposable income to spend on frivolities. Coupled with the 20th century's growing popularity of Hanukkah, an American candy company decided to produce Hanukkah gelt in chocolate as a novelty Hanukkah item. While the initial idea many have been frivolous, chocolate Hanukkah gelt has become a beloved Hanukkah tradition.



Prayers and Torah 

During Hanukkah a blessing is added to the Amidah and the Grace after Meals. This blessing is called the Al HaNissim and the words are, “And [we thank You] for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the saving acts, and for the wonders which You have wrought for our ancestors in those days, at this time.”


Each day of Hanukkah it is traditional to read a portion of Numbers 6:22-8:4. This Torah passage relates the dedication of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. It relates to Hanukkah in that Hanukkah is called the Feast of Dedication.


Additionally, on the Shabbat during Hanukkah two selections form the Prophetic books are read: Zechariah 4:1-7 and I Kings 7:40-50. The first tells of Zachariah’s vision of the golden menorah, the other describes Solomon furnishing the Temple in Jerusalem. Dedication, the menorah and the Temple are all significant aspects of the Hanukkah story.  




Oh Hanukkah, oh, Hanukkah, come, light the menorah

Let's have a party, we'll all dance the hora

Gather round the table, we'll give you a treat

Sevivon to play with and latkes to eat


And while we are playing, the candles are burning low.

One for each night, they shed a sweet light.
To remind us of days long ago


One for each night, they shed a sweet light
To remind us of days long ago



The Traditions of Hanukkah


We all know that the 8-branched candelabra called the Hanukkah Menorah, Chanukia (kha-noo-kee-yah) in Hebrew, is the primary representation of the festival Hanukkah. The symbolism of the Hanukkah Menorah is relatively obvious – the original miracle lasted for eight nights and there are eight branches of the menorah. One light is kindled each night to represent the oil miraculously burning for eight days.


However, there are many other customs of Hanukkah that are a little less apparent. Everything from food to games to spirituality, the traditions of Hanukkah are fascinating and meaningful.


Hanukkah Eats


The food of Hanukkah honors the miracle of the oil. Probably the most well-known is the latke. This is a vegetable pancake today most commonly made from potatoes. Prior to the introduction of the potato to the Old World in the late 1500s latkes were made from other vegetables such as turnips, parsnips or carrots.


Less known as a Hanukkah food, but still traditional is the blintz – crepes filled with cheese. These represent two elements of Maccabee’s struggle. They are fried in oil so they honor the miracle of the oil, but they are also filled with cheese. This honors Judith who saved her city from the Syrian-Greeks by killing the invading general after getting him intoxicated by feeding him salty cheese then wine.


In Israel by far the most popular Hanukkah food is sufganiyot or jelly donuts. The connection to Hanukkah is again they are fried in oil. Bakeries across Israel each year come up with fancy versions of the treat; some have built reputations on their Hanukkah donuts alone. Interestingly, you can only get donuts in Israel one time a year – at Hanukkah.


From the Sephardic kitchen are Bimuelos (bim-WAY-los), these are fried dough fritters that are drizzled with honey or silan (date honey). This delicious treat originated in Spain and was the preeminent Hanukkah treat there. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 they spread this food throughout the Mediterranean world.



The Dreidel


Playing dreidel, sevivon in Hebrew, is the traditional game of Hanukkah. Legend states while the Jews where living in hiding in the caves of the Judean Mountains the children could not run and play. Four-side tops were created out of clay to keep the children entertained. 


As a symbol of the sacrifice of the lives the Jews left behind to preserve their culture, the dreidel became the traditional game of Hanukkah. Today the top has a Hebrew letter on each side. Outside Israel the letters are Nun נ, Gimel ג, Hey ה, Shin ש. These represent the first letter of each word in the phrase: nes gadol hayah sham or a great miracle happened there. Inside Israel the letter shin in substituted for the letter פ (Pey) changing the last word of the phrase from sham (there) to po (here).


The rules of the game are simple. Everyone puts one game piece in the pot. One person spins the dreidel. Depending on which letter lands face-up that player either gives or gets from the pot. The letters have corresponding Yiddish words that form the game: nisht (nun) is nothing so the player does nothing, gants (gimel) is all so the player takes the whole pot, halb (hey) is half so the player takes half the pot and shtelayn (shin) is put in so the player puts one piece in the pot. 


The play continues with each player taking a turn to spin the dreidel. When someone has won all the game pieces the game is over and that person has won.


The game pieces can be a variety of things including buttons, candies, pennies, nuts, and especially Hanukkah gelt (see side article)!





Hanukkah Introspection


All holidays have a fundamental theme on which to center meditations and contemplations. This is important for those who seek a deeper spiritual meaning. At Hanukkah we ponder the darkness versus the light. 


Hanukkah occurs at the darkest time of year in the northern hemisphere. The nights are at their longest and the days at their shortest. Furthermore, Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev which means that the night is nearly moonless. On this black and cold night what do we do? We light a fire. Not a large one, just a small candle in the darkness. On the next night we light another, and another until our Hanukkah menorah is glowing brightly.


It represents that each one of us with faith in God is a light, a modest light, but nevertheless a light in the world. We cannot bring an end to the darkness alone, but we can temper the dankness. But, there is power in numbers. The more we bring together in faith, the more the darkness disappears. In Proverbs 20:27 we are told, “The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord that sheds light on one’s soul.”


So while we are tasked to light the candles of Hanukkah, we are actually called on to be the candles. In each one has the potential to bring small bits of God’s light into the world. If enough are willing, with God’s love as our light, eventually the darkness will cease.


All the customs and fun of Hanukkah are absolutely wonderful. We should revel in the value of traditions; it helps to bring us together. However, let us always remember the light within and our responsibly to share it with the world. This is the meaning of Hanukkah.





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