Hanukkah's first of eight nights begins at sundown this evening. Rabbi Jack Luxemburg of Rockville's Temple Beth Ami took some time to talk with Patch about the Jewish holiday.
Patch: Hanukkah is often referred to as "The Festival of Lights." What's the background on how the holiday came to be?
Rabbi Jack Luxemburg: Hanukkah is called the “Festival of Lights” because its most important symbol is the nine branched Hanukkah menorah (candelabra), sometimes referred to as a “hanukkiah.” One branch is set aside for a candle called a “shamas” with which the other candles are lit, one additional candle each night. On the first night, one candle is lit with the “shamas.” By the final, eighth night, eight candles are burning along with the “shamas.” The festive glow of the burning candles gives Hanukkah its reputation as “The Festival of Lights.”
Patch: The big ritual for Hanukkah is lighting the menorah. What's the significance of this ritual?
Rabbi Jack Luxemburg: We light the menorah (hanukkiah) because it recalls an event associated with the historical events recalled by Hanukkah. The Jewish people were under the rule of the Syrian Greeks, who imposed Greek culture and the worship of Greek gods on them. The Jewish people rebelled, and led by a band of heroic brothers referred to as the Macabees, they defeated the larger Syrian Greek army.
When the Jewish people recaptured Jerusalem, they found that the Temple that stood there had been desecrated. After cleansing the Temple and restoring it for proper worship and sacrifice, it was necessary to light the flames of the Menorah that stood in the Temple, a light that was supposed to burn continually and without interruption. The supply of ritual oil was small, but the Macabees and their followers, acting on faith, lit it anyway.
The small amount of oil, some say only a day’s worth, lasted for eight days, until a new supply was available. For this reason, Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and nights, with the Menorah lit each of the eight nights.
Patch: What is the significance/meaning associated with the prayers that go along with the holiday and menorah lighting?
Rabbi Jack Luxemburg: As the Menorah is lit each night, two blessings are recited. The first blessing acknowledges that it is a “mitzvah” or commandment to “kindle the lights of Hanukkah." The second blessing expresses our gratitude to God who “performed miracles for our ancestors in ancient days, and in our own day.”
On the first night only, a third blessing is added. It expresses our thanks to God for “keeping us in life, sustaining us, and bring us to this (festive) season.”
Patch: What are some Hanukkah traditions that people partake in during the holiday (i.e. games, activities, foods, etc.)?
Rabbi Jack Luxemburg: Many people associate latkes, or potato pancakes fried in oil with Hanukkah. Others enjoy “sufganiot,” dough balls fried in oil and filled with sweet filling like jelly or almond paste.
The “dreidel," a four-sided spinning toy, is used in games in which players bet which side of the dreidle will land face up when it stops spinning. On each of the four sides are Hebrew letters that represent the phrase “a great miracle happened there."
Many families exchange gifts during Hanukkah and also make a point of doing “tsedakah," charitable giving to help those in need.
Patch: Gift-giving wasn't always a traditional part of the holiday. How did it come to be a regular part of the celebration?
Rabbi Jack Luxemburg: From of old it was customary to give [to] charity on Hanukkah. There grew a parallel tradition to give children small amounts of money called “gelt.” The money was to be given to children precisely so that they could give it as charity, learning the virtue of “tsedakah” at an early age.
Other Jewish holidays, such as Purim, have customs around exchanging gifts, particularly gifts of sweets and delicacies. This, combined with the influence of gift-giving associated with the winter holidays of other religious traditions led to the widespread practice in the Jewish community of exchanging presents with family and friends during the Hanukkah season.