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December 26, 2014
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Hanukkah decoded


With so much information available on the Internet these days, I thought it might be interesting to explore the meaning of various terms and traditions associated with Hanukkah, which started on December 20 this year. Having been raised with a Jewish education, I was surprised to discover some unknown facts and a few rare insights, as well as historical tidbits, songs and poems that enliven homes as families gather all around the world to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Lights.

What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah or Chanukah (Hebrew for “dedication”) is the annual festival of the Jewish people. It begins on the 25th day of Kislev, the third month of the Jewish calendar, corresponding, approximately, to December in the Gregorian calendar, and lasts for eight successive days. Hanukkah is also known as the Festival of Lights, Feast of Dedication and Feast of the Maccabees. (www.wikipedia.com).

Is that a candelabra?

Sort of... it’s called a Menorah and there are two varieties. Inside a temple, one can find a seven-branched lampstand like the ones used in the ancient Tabernacle in the desert and Temple in Jerusalem, a symbol of Judaism since ancient times and the emblem of the modern state of Israel. During Hanukkah, the menorah is a nine-branched candelabrum, which serves to remind us of how a few hours worth of lamp oil miraculously burned for eight days and nights, thereby saving the temple from being destroyed. This biblical story is retold during the season, as parents pass the story on to a new generation. At the website www.myjewishlearning.com I found an unusual recipe for “Marshmallow Menorahs” which unfolds thusly:

The idea is to let children make a menorah using frosting and marshmallows. Give each child a piece of tagboard 11 inches by four inches, 10 marshmallows, and nine candles. Have the children spread some white frosting on the bottom of each marshmallow and then put them onto the tagboard. With the frosting, “glue” a second marshmallow on top of the middle marshmallow to create the shammash or “servant.” Poke birthday candles into each marshmallow to create a menorah. Sweet!

Food, glorious food!

Different families have their favorites, but most folks are familiar with the traditional latkes. This is one of the most famous of Jewish foods, and a specialty of Hanukkah. The latkes (potato pancakes) are served as an appetizer, as a side dish, and even for tea with a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar. They can be marvelous if properly prepared, just before eating. I’ve never mastered making latkes, but I’m pretty good when it comes to eating them. In my house, I always make sure to have sour cream at the ready.

What is a dreidel?

Another website, www.about.com, helped to decipher what that “funny looking toy” is. “Dreidel” is a Yiddish word that comes from the German word “drehen,” which means “to turn.” A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side. It is used during Hanukkah to play a popular children’s game that involves spinning the dreidel and betting on which Hebrew letter will be showing when the dreidel stops spinning. Children usually play for a pot of gelt, which are chocolate coins covered in gold colored tin foil, but they can also play for candy, nuts, raisins—anything, really.

Many of us have heard the children’s song, which is sung every year while playing the Hanukkah game, and the memorable chorus often sticks in my mind long after the last candle has burned out. For me, it’s the Jewish version of (oy vey!) “It’s a small world after all” and goes something like this:

“Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel
I made it out of clay
And when it’s dry and ready
Then dreidel I shall play!”

Religious practices

Although Hanukkah is considered one of the “fun” holidays, its roots are deeply significant and given proper reverence while observing during the eight-day celebration. There are three Brachos (blessings) which are recited when the Hanukkah candles are lit. For example, in both traditional Hebrew and English we recite: “Baruch ata Ado-nai, Elo-heinu Melech ha’olam, Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.” Translation: “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.”

On a lighter note

I found this charming poem on www.holiday123.net:

Let’s be Happy

By Malvine P. Hoenig

Let’s be happy, let us cheer,
Hanukkah again is here.
All the lights are shining bright,
Isn’t it a lovely sight?

You know these lights remind us
Of the time long, long ago,
When God caused one tiny light,
for eight long days to shine so bright.