Hanukkah Traditions

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, is an eight day celebration which starts on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. While Hanukkah is not the most significant of Jewish holidays, it is a time of meaningful traditions.

The Lighting of the Hanukkah Candles - The reason for the Hanukkah lights is to remind others of the holiday’s miracle – when the small quantity of oil kept alight the flame for the re-dedication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem for eight days. Candles are placed in a candelabra, often referred to as a menorah, and lit ceremonially every evening for eight days. There is one candle for each night and a candle of differing height, called a shamash, which is used to light the others. The number of candles lit is increased by one each night.

The Saying of Blessings over the Candles - Depending upon the tradition, three blessings (Brachot) are recited either before or after the lighting of the Hanukkah candles on the first night. On the following nights, only two of the three are recited.

The Singing of the Ma’oz Tzur - After the lighting of the candles each night, the Hebrew song Ma’oz Tzur is sung. The song’s themes are that of salvation and praises to God for the Jews’ survival of persecution throughout history.

The Consumption of Fried Food & Cheeses -  To commemorate the miracle of the oil, foods that are fried in oil, such as latkes (potato pancakes) or sufganiyot (round jelly or custard-filled doughnuts) are eaten during Hanukkah.  Cheese is also served in honor of the bravery of Judith, who helped lead the Jews to triumph over the Assyrian troops by seducing and assassinating the Assyrian general, Holofernes.

The Playing of the Dreidel Game - A four-sided top called a dreidel, which features a single Hebrew letter (Nun, Gimel, Hey or Shin) imprinted upon each side is spun on Hanukkah. These letters are an acronym for “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” or “a great miracle happened there”, which refers to the miracle of the oil.  When playing, each player begins with a set amount of gelt (real or chocolate coins) and places one coin in the pot to start. The letters also represent the rules of the game. Depending on which side the dreidel falls upon, the player will either skip a turn (Nisht), take the whole pot (Gants), take half the pot (Halb) or put an additional coin in the pot (Shtel).