Of course we brought up the subject of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. Like our Christian neighbors who are preparing for one of their major holidays, my Jewish relatives, friends and I are busy planning for our festival of freedom. There are stamps, candles and gifts to buy, and grocery shopping to do to cook and bake special holiday foods.
But more important, is remembering the reason for the season. We Jews have survived, despite overwhelming odds, time and time again. We are still here, but other ancient peoples like the Edomites and the Moabites no longer exist. We Jews survived the destruction of the Temple under Roman rule. We survived the blood libel during the Middle Ages in Europe. We survived the Inquisition in Spain, pogroms in Russia and in more recent history, the Holocaust. Hanukkah reminds us to hold fast to our faith, to be thankful for religious freedom.
Hanukkah begins on the 25th of the Hebrew month Kislev. The Hebrew calendar is lunar, and therefore Jewish holidays fall on different days each year of the commonly used Roman calendar. This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown on Saturday, Dec. 8, and lasts eight days. (Jewish holidays always begin at sundown; our Sabbath, or Shabbat, for example, begins at Friday night sundown and ends at sundown on Saturday.)
The Jewish Festival of Lights is based on a historical event; the victory of a small rebel army of Jews over the much larger, and in ancient days, superior army of the Assyrian Greeks more than 2,100 years ago. The conflict began when many Jews refused to give up their religion rather than worship Greek gods under the rule of King Antiochus.
Despite winning a war against all odds, Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of oil, not the military triumph. This is because we should not glorify war. The Assyrian Greeks had defiled the Temple in Jerusalem. Only one uncontaminated container (cruse) of oil that could be used to light the Temple menorah (candelabra) was found. This oil was only enough to last for one day, but burned for eight.
On Hanukkah, we remember this miracle by saying a blessing and lighting one candle for each night of the festival until all eight of the candles on the Hanukkah menorah are lit.
This light illuminates the darkness. In other words, this illumination symbolizes freedom over oppression. Had we Jews not defeated our oppressors, time and again throughout history, we would not have survived from ancient times to today.
Jewish families fry foods in oil as another way to remember the miracle of oil. Potato pancakes, or latkes, are topped with applesauce or sour cream. Sufganiyot, Israeli donuts, are also eaten.
Children play games with the dreidel, a four-sided top with a religious message. There are four Hebrew letters on a dreidel: Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin. These letters mean, “Nes gadol hayah sham,” translated, “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the letter Pei is inscribed on the dreidel, which alters the phrase to mean, “A great miracle happened here.” The dreidel is a little toy that performed a big deed. When the Assyrian Greeks patrolled Jewish towns looking to arrest anyone studying Jewish law, Jews would hide their books and bring out the tops to play thereby avoiding capture.
So if you see a lighted menorah in a neighbor’s window you will know that family is celebrating Hanukkah, a festival of freedom. They will recite blessings over the candles each night. On the first night only one special prayer is said, specifically to thank God “who has kept us alive, sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.”
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah
· The Jewish Festival of Lights lasts eight days
· First night this year is Saturday, Dec. 8, eighth night is Dec. 15
· Customs include eating foods fried in oil, like latkes (potato pancakes)
· Children receive “gelt” (small amounts of money or chocolate coins)
· Families sing traditional songs and play dreidel, a four-sided top
Denise Etheridge is assistant editor of the Walker County Messenger. She can be reached at 706-638-1859 or firstname.lastname@example.org.