Originally published in Mircea Eliade (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), vol. 6, pp. 193-4.
HANUKKAH (“dedication”) is the Jewish winter festival that falls on the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev and lasts for eight days. It celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the forces of Antiochus after a three-year battle in the second century BCE. The major sources on the festival’s origin are two apocryphal books, 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. It is stated there (2 Mc. 10:6-8) that the altar was rededicated and the festival of eight days introduced because during the war the Jews were unable to celebrate the eight-day festival of Sukkot. Thus in the earliest period there is no reference to Hanukkah as a feast of lights. That it became such is due to the Talmudic legend (B.T., Shab. 21b) that the Maccabees found only one small jar of oil for the kindling of the menorah (“candelabrum”) in the Temple. This was sealed with the seal of the high priest but contained only sufficient oil to burn for a single night. By a miracle the oil lasted for eight nights. It was consequently ordained that lights be kindled on the eight nights of Hanukkah. However, it is stated in the Talmud (B.T., Shab. 21b) that the Shammaites and Hillelites, at the beginning of the present era, debated whether the lights were to be kindled in descending order (eight the first night, seven the second, etc.) or in ascending order (one the first night, two the second, etc.). If this statement is historically correct, it demonstrates either that the legend of the oil was already known at that time or that, at least, there was an association of Hanukkah and light even at this early period. According to some historians, the origin of the festival is to be found in pagan festivals of light in midwinter. The prayers for Hanukkah refer only to the victory, but in practice the kindling of the lights is the main feature of the festival.
It has long been the custom for each member of the household to kindle the Hanukkah lights in an eight-branched candelabrum frequently called a menorah (though the menorah in the Temple had only seven branches) but nowadays also known as a hanukkiyyah. The lights are kindled in the synagogue as well as in the home. The older practice was to use only olive oil, and this is still customary among the more pious, but the majority of Jews use candles for the Hanukkah lights. Rabbinical authorities have discussed whether electric lights may be used for this purpose, the consensus being to permit them. One light is kindled on the first night, two on the second night, three on the third night, and so on until all eight are lit. In order to avoid lighting the candles one from the other, an additional candle known as the shammash (“retainer”) is used to light the others. A declaration is recited:
We kindle these lights on account of the miracles, the deliverances, and the wonders which thou didst work for our ancestors, by means of thy holy priests. During all the eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sacred, neither is it permitted to make any profane use of them; but we are only to look at them, in order that we may give thanks unto thy name for thy miracles, deliverances, and wonders.
A popular Hanukkah hymn is Ma’oz tsur (O Fortress Rock), sung to a familiar melody said to have been originally that of a German drinking song.
Medieval Jewish thinkers understood the Hanukkah lights as representing spiritual illumination. The festival is a time for intensive study of the Torah as well as for almsgiving. Hanukkah is consequently treated as a more “spiritual” festival than the boisterous Purim, so that although fasting is forbidden on Hanukkah, there is no special festive meal. The Torah is read on each day of the festival; the passages chosen are from the account of the gifts brought by the princes at the dedication of the Tabernacle (Nm. 7) and the command to kindle the light of the menorah (Nm. 8:1-7). The Prophetic reading on the Sabbath of Hanukkah is from the vision of the menorah seen by Zechariah (Zec. 2). An addition to each of the daily prayers thanks God for delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, and the wicked into the hands of the righteous.
It is nowadays customary for Hanukkah presents to be given to children. This practice is found in none of the early sources and seems certain to have been introduced to offset the giving of Christmas presents at this season of the year.
Children and some adults play a game with a spinning top (dreidel) on each side of which is a different letter representing a move in the game. These letters are the initial letters of the Hebrew words making up the sentence “A great miracle happened there.” To the consternation of the more conventional rabbis, card-playing is often indulged in on Hanukkah.
The Talmudic rabbis stress the need for proclaiming the miracle by kindling the Hanukkah lights outside the door of the home, but eventually this practice was discouraged because it could be misinterpreted by non-Jews as a desire to demonstrate Jewish reluctance to live among their gentile neighbors. The less obtrusive practice of kindling the lights near the door but inside the home became the norm. In modern Israel it is far from unusual to see huge Hanukkah candelabra on top of public buildings and synagogues.
Lehrman, Simon Maurice. A Guide to Hanukkah and Purim. London, 1958.
Shaw, Oliver. The Origins of the Festival of Hanukkah. Edinburgh, 1930. A discussion of the history of the festival.