Monday, December 19, 2011

What the Heck Is Hanukah?

hanerot halalu

Shalom and Happy Hanukah!

This week, we celebrate the holiday of Hanukah (חֲנֻכָּה), the festival of lights. The first candle is lit at nightfall on Tuesday, December 20, 2011 (כ"ה כסלו, תשע"ב). In Hanukah we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the Greek empire 2200 years ago and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple.

The story of Hanukah tells about the emperor of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes who ruled Jerusalem with the goal of merging all the nations under one Greek-Hellenistic culture.In 167 BC Antiochus decreed all the Jews not to worship G-d at the Temple and worship the Hellenistic gods instead, to work on Shabbat and holidays, to stop studying and stop following the Torah rules. For three years, the Jews had to prove that they were not acting as Jews by eating swine and participating in Pagan ceremonies. Many of those who refused doing so were killed by the Greeks.

When Antiochus officials reached Modi’in (מוֹדִיעִין) – a small city on the Judea mountains, they built an alter for their gods and ordered an elderly priest named Mattathias Hahashmonai (מַתִּתְיָהוּ הַחַשְׁמוֹנַאי) to sacrifice a pig to an idol. Mattathias refused, but an apostate Jew stepped forward to comply. Mattathias stabbed him, killed the Greek official, and tore down the altar. After that, he turned to the crowd announcing: " מִי לה' אֵלַי!"(Meaning: “Follow me, all of you who are for God's law.") He fled to the Gofna hills accompanied by his followers and by his five sons: Johanan (יוֹחָנָן, Yoxan), Simon (שִׁמְעוֹן, Shim’on), Judah (יְהוּדָה, Yehuda), Jonathan (יוֹנָתָן, Yonatan), and Elazar (אֶלְעָזָר, El’azar). From there, the family launched a guerrilla war against the armies of the empire.

Maccabees war

The rebels, ruled by Mattathias and later by his third son Judah Maccabee (יְהוּדָה הַמַּכַּבִּי), attacked the Greek army with much bravery and smart tactics to compensate for their low numbered and unequipped army. Judah’s band won one miraculous victory after another and eventually, on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev (164 BC), they recaptured the Temple. they cleansed, purified and rededicated the Temple of Jerusalem to God. The Jews celebrated the Temple's restoration for eight days.

Hanukah Dictionary:



Transcription: xanukiya

Part of Speech: Noun, feminine

Literal Meaning: A nine-branched candelabrum used on Hanukah (sometimes called Menorah by Ashkenazi Jews), Hanukiyah




Transcription: menorah

Part of Speech: Noun, feminine

Literal Meaning: A seven-branched candelabrum used in the Temple in Jerusalem




Transcription: sevivon

Part of Speech: Noun, masculine

Literal Meaning: A spinning top, dreidel




Transcription: sufganiya

Part of Speech: Noun, feminine

Literal Meaning: doughnut




Transcription: leviva

Part of Speech: Noun, feminine

Literal Meaning: potato pancake, "latke"


Hanukah Customs

Lighting the Menora (Xanukiyah)

menorah miracleAccording to the Hanukah story, after the Maccabees recaptured the Temple from the Syrians they wanted to rededicate it to God and light the temple Menorah. Eight days worth of oil were needed to complete the ritual for purifying the Menorah, but they were only able to find one day's worth of oil. They lit the menorah anyway and miraculously the oil lasted for eight full days.

In commemoration of this event Hanukah is celebrated for eight days and a candle is lit on the Hanukiyah on each of those days. One candle is lit on the first night, two on the second, and so on, until the final night when all the candles are lit. Each of the eight candles is lit with a “helper” candle known as the Shamash (שַׁמָּשׁ). The Shamash is lit first and helps lighting the other candles, and then is returned to the ninth candle spot, which is set apart from the others.

Spinning the Dreidel (סְבִיבוֹן)

During the rule of Antiochus Jews were not free to openly practice their religion. To overcome this restriction, they used to bring a spinning top, a popular gambling game at that time, when they gathered to study Torah. If soldiers appeared, they would quickly hide what they were studying and pretend to be playing with the top.


Nowadays, the four letters are inscribed on the dreidel. However, the letters on an Israeli dreidel are different from those on a dreidel out of Israel:

An Israeli dreidel: נֵס גָּדוֹל הָיָה פֹּה (Nes Gadol Haya Po) meaning: A Great Miracle Happened Here.

An out-of-Israel dreidel: נֵס גָּדוֹל הָיָה שָׁם (Nes Gadol Haya Sham), meaning: A Great Miracle Happened There.

Eating fried/oily foodsoily foods

In Hanukah we eat foods that are cooked in oil to remind us of the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days when the Maccabaeus rededicated the holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The most common fried foods are potato pancakes ("latkas" in Yiddish and "livivot" in Hebrew ) and doughnuts ("sufganiyot" in Hebrew).

Hanukah Prayer Song

Hanerot Halalu    הַנֵּרוֹת הַלָּלוּ

Hanerot halalu anu madlikin

Al hanisim ve’al hanifla’ot

Ve’al hateshu’ot ve’al hamilxamot

Sheasita la’avoteynu

Bayamim hahem bazman haze

הַנֵּרוֹת הַלָּלוּ אָנוּ מַדְלִיקִין

עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַנִּפְלָאוֹת

וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמוֹת

שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ

בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה

You can listen to a children’s version of the song here.

For those that would like to learn Hebrew please visit eTeacherBiblical

Angela James ,Houston, Texas

Teacher: Scott Booth:

After my last visit to Israel I decided I wanted to learn
my hearts language, I searched on the internet and found eTeacher. I signed up for the next available class and have never looked back!! After a mere 16 weeks of class time,
I am able to read and write in Hebrew. 

Read the full story here


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