Monday, December 19, 2005

Chanukah - the story & traditions

When I drew a picture of my favorite menorah and put it on my website, I took it for granted that everybody was familiar with this minor Jewish holiday -- if only because of its proximity to Christmas, which is purely coincidental. However, I thought I would offer a little explanation of this Festival of Lights. So here is more than you ever wanted to know about Chanukah (also spelled Hanukka or Hanukah, etc, and is pronounced Ha-noo-ka (accent on the first syllable). I gratefully acknowledge http://www.holidays.net/ and http://www.jewfaq.org where I obtained much of this info, edited for brevity. My comments in red. PART ONE: THE STORY Every year between the end of November and the end of December, Jewish people around the world celebrate the holiday of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. It is a holiday that celebrates an historical event which took place over 2,300 years ago in the land of Judea, which is now the country of Israel. Chanukah begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev but the starting date on the western calendar varies from year to year because the Hebrew calendar has 13 months. We typically say the holidays are either early or late (although they really are on time). * Sometimes the holiday comes right after Thanksgiving (early) . This year, the first night is on Christmas Eve (late). Jews celebrate Chanukah to mark the victory over the Syrians and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple. Judah and his four brothers formed an army and chose as their name the word "Maccabee", which means hammer. After three years of fighting, the Maccabees were finally successful in driving the Syrians out of Israel and reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees wanted to clean the building. On the 25th day of the month of Kislev, the job was finished and the temple was rededicated. When Judah and his followers finished cleaning the temple, they wanted to light the eternal light, known as the N'er Tamid, which is present in every Jewish house of worship. Once lit, the oil lamp should never be extinguished. (as the story goes...) Only a tiny jug of oil was found with only enough for a single day. The oil lamp was filled and lit. Then a miracle occurred as the tiny amount of oil stayed lit not for one day, but for eight days. The Festival of the Lights, Chanukah, lasts for eight days to commemorate the miracle of the oil. The word Chanukah means "rededication." PART TWO: THE TRADITIONS As you noticed from the above story, Chanukah is an historical holiday: a minor, religiously unimportant one. It has become inflated in importance only because of its proximity to the Christmas season. More about this below. The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three blessings are recited. After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour. Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first). On the eighth night, all nine candles (the 8 Chanukkah candles and the shammus) are lit. Why the shammus candle? The Chanukkah candles are for pleasure only; we are not allowed to use them for any productive purpose. We keep an extra one around (the shammus), so that if we need to do something useful with a candle, we don't accidentally use the Chanukkah candles. The shammus candle is at a different height so that it is easily identified as the shammus. Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians, as a way of dealing with our children's jealousy of their Christian friends. It is extremely unusual for Jews to give Chanukkah gifts to anyone other than their own young children. The only traditional gift of the holiday is "gelt," small amounts of money. ** I grew up getting 'gelt' (usually chocolate coins covered in gold foil) and a small gift each night of the holiday. Chanukah is a children's holiday. We give gifts to our grandchildren - and one gift for each of our children. They don't give us gifts. It is traditional to eat fried foods on Chanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday. This can include fried donuts or fritters, and if your ancestors come from Eastern Europe, includes latkes (pronounced "lot-kuhs" -- or pronounced "potato pancakes" if you are not Jewish) The pototaoes are grated, mixed with eggs, onions, salt, matzoh meal or bread crumbs, fried, and are eaten hot with sour cream or applesauce. YUM. LOL. Let me know if you want my recipe. Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of oppression, those who wanted to study Torah(an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a common and legal activity) whenever an official or inspector was within sight. A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimmel, Heh and Shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham", a great miracle happened there, referring to the miracle of the oil. The letters also stand for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), which are the rules of the game! . The youngest goes first and spins the dreidel. If it lands n Nun, nothing happens; on Gimmel you get the whole pot; on Heh, you get half of the pot; and on Shin, you put one in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts in another penny. You keep playing until one person has everything. Then you can redivide it, so nobody loses. That's it! More than you wanted to know -- and while I was at it, I refreshed my own memory doing the research.

18 comments:

Karoda said...

That is a very classy menorah. Yes, I always held the impression that this Jewish holiday was a major one. Mo, my daughter attended an elementary school that was fabulous for celebrating diversity that it was fun and always a learning experience for the whole family.

Rian said...

What a beautiful menorah. My dear friend Louise collects menorahs--so many of them are incredibly beautiful. Thanks also, for sharing the story of the holiday. Here's to brisket and latkes!

Lisa Call said...

Donuts and latkes - what's not to like about this holiday?

Your drawing is really nice of the menorah - I like your style. Very edgy and free.

kristin La Flamme said...

Thanks for the pic of your menorah. Your drawing does look a lot like it. I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and always enjoyed it when i was invited to celebrate with my friends. My favorite is Passover because of the symbolic foods. Now that I live in Germany, all those years of hearing yiddish words are paying off. "Geld" (the d is pronounced like a t) is german for money, and "ganz" is whole. It all begins to come together! Happy Chanukah!

Vikki said...

Rayna,

I always thought that it was a major Jewish holiday, so I learned something new.

I really enjoy learning about the traditions of different people groups.

Thanks for sharing!

mary m. said...

Thanks, Rayna. You're the best!

Bonny said...

Rayna;
Thanks for sharing the story about where your traditions for Chanukah come from. I never really understood the reasons behind the holiday before. Thank you for sharing!
Happy Holidays!

Bonny in BC

JulieZS said...

That's a beautiful menorah Rayna, so modern, and I like the story of how it came to be bent. I married into a Jewish family, so over the years I've learned a little more each time we celebrate it. My boys love it since we celebrate Solstice, Christmas and Chanukah. My feeling is the more holidays the better at this time of the dark turning back to light.
Can't wait to make latkes and play dreidel again this year.

Pat/SWquilter said...

Thanks for sharing your tradition with us! I love learning about the traditions of others.

Becky said...

Would love your latke recipe! Do let us know :)

Rachelle said...

Very informative post about Chanukah. I am not jewish and did not know that much about the traditions of Chanukah. The way you described latkes made me very hungry - they sound yummy!

Micki said...

Thanks for telling the stories. I knew a little, but now know a lot more.

Happy Chanukah!

deb said...

I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood also.We all got in trouble one year for using real money and gambling with the Dreidel.

JudyL said...

Rayna: Thanks so much for the lesson. I have never had a Jewish friend and there were few, if any, in the area where I grew up. I've often wondered about the Jewish traditions and have never taken the time to do any research so I learned a great deal from your post! I would love to have your latke recipe. Thanks!

Judy L.

Deborah said...

Thank you so much, Rayna! I enjoyed reading every detail. So, if you let the candles burn out by themselves, do you have to replace them every night? And how interesting that it was illegal to study the Torah, but not to gamble. Hmmm. Have a wonderful holiday!

Scrapmaker said...

Your post brought back warm childhood memories, since we grew up with Jewish neighbors. Our bulletin boards at school were always split in half, one side Christmas tree and Santa, and one side menorah and dreidel. Oh, and the latkes were to die for. By all means, share your recipe.
Jen

Elle said...

That is a very nice menorah! I've always known that it is important holiday, but I learned new things from your post. It's nice to know more about one another's cultures and religions, you know? Thank you for sharing.

Karen Winters said...

Fascinating! Although we've always had many Jewish friends, I was not aware that Chanukah was mostly a holiday for children and that gifts were not given among adults or from adult children to parents. Are there any gift-giving holidays for Jews, or does it happen mostly at other occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, for example?