Hanukkah, its candles, its donuts: Jews celebrate the “festival of lights”

On the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, which this year falls on December 7 in our common calendar, Hanukkah commemorates a founding event in Judaism: the victory of Judas Maccabee against the Greek Empire of Antiochos IV in the 2nd century BCE, allowing thus the restoration of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem

Hanukkah, its candles, its donuts: Jews celebrate the “festival of lights”

On the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, which this year falls on December 7 in our common calendar, Hanukkah commemorates a founding event in Judaism: the victory of Judas Maccabee against the Greek Empire of Antiochos IV in the 2nd century BCE, allowing thus the restoration of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. The World of Religions explains everything about this celebration, sometimes compared to Christian Christmas.

Hanukkah is a winter holiday. It begins on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev and lasts eight days. If the date changes each year in the civil calendar, falling between the end of November and the end of December, it is because the dates of Jewish holidays depend on the Jewish calendar. This is based on a lunar cycle; every three years, an additional month is added to spring, in order to respect the rhythm of the seasons. Thus the months, while being lunar, always correspond to approximately the same time of the solar year.

In the 160s BCE, Judea was part of the Seleucid Empire, stemming from the dynasty of Alexander the Great. While King Antiochus III, who had conquered Judea from Egypt, had guaranteed the Jews their freedom of worship, his son Antiochus IV wanted to Hellenize the entirety of his kingdom. He therefore declared Jewish religion and practice outlawed and made the worship of Greek gods obligatory in the Temple of Jerusalem. According to Jewish tradition, the holiday of Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the transmission of Judaism against this attempt at forced acculturation.

The traditional sources for the accounts of these events are found in the Bible, in the first book of Maccabees, as well as in the Talmud. We read that the Jewish population is divided: one part is in favor of Hellenistic assimilation and supports Antiochus Epiphanes. Others resist: this is the case of the Hasmoneans, a family of priests. Mattathias, its already elderly leader, takes the lead in the fight before entrusting it to his son Judah, nicknamed Maccabeus, “the hammer” – his army will take the same name.

The Jewish army of the Maccabees, small but determined, defeated the Seleucid troops, reconquered Jerusalem, destroyed the altar desecrated by the sacrifices made to the Greek gods and built a new altar in the temple. The word Hanukkah means “inauguration”; it designates the new inauguration of the reconquered Temple of Jerusalem.

The Talmud relates that during the purification of the Temple, among the rubble, the Maccabees discovered an untouched bottle of holy oil. They decide to use it to relight the seven-branched candlestick, the menorah, which must burn constantly. Problem: This bottle is only enough for one day. However, it takes eight days to crush olives and extract pure oil. It is then, relates the Talmud, that a miracle takes place: the oil from this single vial will burn for eight days. This is why, according to Jewish tradition, an eight-day festival, Hanukkah, has since been celebrated, during which each evening a new light is lit from an eight-branched candlestick.

In reality, the two books of Maccabees do not mention this miracle. According to the second, it was Judah who established the festival of Hanukkah during the re-inauguration of the Temple, in honor of King Solomon's inauguration of the first temple in Jerusalem, which lasted eight days.

But Jewish tradition favored the version of the Talmud rabbis: through the memory of a divine miracle, the holiday of Hanukkah commemorates a spiritual victory against assimilation rather than a military victory.

Hanukkah is a post-biblical celebration, that is to say it was not established by the Jewish Bible, but by the Talmud (a set of debates, interpretations and stories with legislative and moral significance, gathered during the first centuries of the Christian era in Jerusalem and Babylon).

It is therefore a holiday that is traditionally less important than Shabbat, the New Year holidays (Roch Hashanah and Yom Kippur), Passover (Pessah), etc. listed in the Bible. These holidays require absolute rest, while one can go about their ordinary business during Hanukkah.

Recently, in Israel, the celebration has taken on a new color with the secular exaltation of the national courage of the Maccabees, although secondary in religious tradition. In the West, the festival of Hanukkah seems to have gained importance, perhaps in the context of the growing importance of Christmas.

During the eight days of Hanukkah, at nightfall, worshipers light candles or small oil lamps on a nine-branched candlestick, called a hanukiah. This is why Hanukkah is also called “the festival of lights”. Lighting candles is the main religious obligation of this holiday – other habits mentioned below are simple customs.

Each evening, we light an additional candle: one on the first evening, two on the second, etc. The candles are planted from right to left (the direction of reading in Hebrew), but lit from left to right, starting each evening with the “new” candle. To light them, we use the ninth candle, the chamach (the auxiliary), which lights all the others and is fixed on a branch located next to or above the eight main branches.

The objective of this lighting according to the Talmud (Chab. 23b) is to make public the miracle of the vial whose oil burned for eight days rather than one. The tradition is therefore to install this candlestick near the front door (in ancient times, it was even placed outside), in front of a window or in a clearly visible place.

The meeting around Hanukkah is accompanied by prayers and songs in Hebrew or vernacular languages, composed over the centuries.

The Hanukkah recalls the seven-branched menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem, an ancient symbol of Judaism. But while the seven branches of the menorah recall the seven days of the week, the eight branches of the hanukiah go beyond this natural order of creation. Through their number, they symbolize the infinity of divine will.

It is traditional to prepare dough fritters (Yiddish ponchkes, Israeli sufganiot), sweetened and filled with jam, and fried potato pancakes (latkes) among Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe. These fried foods, welcome in winter, recall the “oil” of the celebration.

The original custom consists of distributing a few pieces of pocket money to children on the occasion of Hanukkah, to be used during the year according to their wishes. But nowadays, silver coins have quite often been replaced by chocolate coins and, undoubtedly in imitation of Christmas festivities, the custom is now becoming widespread of distributing real gifts to children.

Finally, there is a specific Ashkenazi Jewish custom, that of playing a spinning top for the Hanukkah festival, with a four-sided top, used as a dice. On each side is a Hebrew letter: noun, guimel, hey, shin. According to tradition, these letters form the acrostic of the phrase: “nes gadol haya sham” (“a great miracle took place there”). They are also, in Yiddish, the initials of the actions to be performed in the game: “null, gloves, halb, shtel” (“nothing happens, (take) everything, (take) half, give (a coin) "). A certain number of coins or tokens are placed in a common pot and players gain or lose points each round.

This game of chance has actually existed for a long time in Europe and the Orient. The Romans called it the totum (the whole). It became very popular in England in the 16th century and spread to Germany.

Gambling is forbidden or very frowned upon in Jewish tradition; why was this game adopted, and why especially during the Hanukkah holiday (it is not played the rest of the year)? Perhaps it emerged under the influence of the Christian end-of-year holidays. Unless it is the expansion of another Jewish custom widespread in Eastern Europe: that which once consisted of keeping vigil during Christmas Eve, conducive to unrest that could eventually turn into a pogrom. We therefore had to remain on our guard. During this vigil, according to tradition, games of chance (dice, cards, spinning top perhaps) were exceptionally authorized.

However, tradition has adopted a completely different explanation. In the 2nd century BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes had, as has been said, banned all Jewish practices, including one of the most important: the study of the Torah. The children could no longer learn. They met all the same, but as soon as soldiers patrolled, they immediately stopped their exercises, took out their tops and threw them with a loud noise, pretending to be caught up in childish games. This is how the transmission of the Torah could take place, thanks to the children's motivation for study – and this is also why they are spoiled at Hanukkah.

The presence of this game of chance of non-Jewish origin at the heart of the Hanukkah festival, which celebrates the Jewish victory against forced assimilation, undoubtedly illustrates the complexity of Jewish history, and that of humanity in general.