Festival of Lights in Full Swing

By Lauren Cohen

Hanukkah, often called the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day celebration that commemorates the Jewish people’s rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar and usually falls in November or December. 

According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most central texts, the Jewish people who took part in the rededication of the Second Temple witnessed what they believed to be a miracle. Even though there was only enough olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights, leaving them time to find a fresh supply. This miraculous event inspired the Jewish people to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival.

The Hanukkah celebration revolves around the kindling of a nine-branched menorah, known in Hebrew as the hanukkiah. On each of the holiday’s eight nights, another candle is added to the menorah after sundown; the ninth candle, called the shamash (helper), is used to light the others. Jews typically recite blessings during this ritual and display the menorah in a window as a reminder to others of the miracle that inspired the holiday.

With its close proximity to Christmas, Hanukkah is often celebrated with giving and receiving gifts, as it has expanded into a largely commercialized holiday, particularly in North America. From a religious perspective, however, it remains a relatively minor holiday that places no restrictions on working, attending school or other activities. 

In an allusion to the Hanukkah miracle, traditional Hanukkah foods are fried in oil. Potato pancakes (known as latkes) and jam-filled donuts (sufganiyot) are particularly popular in many Jewish households. Oak Hall senior Amanda Malnik shared “my favorite tradition is making latkes and having a casual latke eating contest with my family”. Other Hanukkah customs include playing with four-sided spinning tops (dreidels) and competing for chocolate coins (gelt) in the game of dreidel. The dreidel game is one of the most famous Hanukkah traditions. It was created as a way for Jews to study the Torah and learn Hebrew in secret after Greek King Antiochus IV had outlawed all Jewish religious worship in 175 BCE. Today, the game is played as a way to celebrate a rich history and have fun with friends and family.

“Hanukkah in our family means warmth and joy”, shared Oak Hall junior Hannah Streeter. “It is an amazing holiday with an amazing story, but in reality, it is considered a minor holiday. Our family celebrates it by lighting the candles each night, playing dreidel, saying prayer and of course, eating gelt,” she added. “My favorite part would have to be lighting the candles. It’s an amazing feeling to see a new candle being added every night and being able to do it with my family.” 

Oak Hall freshman Shyla Akri shared, “To me, Hanukkah represents the perseverance of the [Israelites] and how they continued to make the best of their situation by lighting their candles. Although they were in a poor place and because of their hard work, they were rewarded by the oil keeping the flames alight for eight whole days. This shows me that I should continue to work hard and fight for what’s right and eventually good things will come, just like what happened to the Jews when they kept their faith and continued to persevere. My family lights candles and says the prayers every night of Hanukkah and gives presents on one of those nights. My favorite part of Hanukkah is probably the food or the sense of unity in the Jewish community throughout the eight days.” 

Throughout history, the lighting of the menorah each year serves as a reminder of the strength and resilience of the Jewish people. Even in the face of darkness, the Jewish people have survived.