What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah is an eight-day minor festival in the Jewish calendar. It begins on the twenty-fifth of the Jewish month of Kislev. The festival is a celebration of the victory of light over darkness, purity over impurity and spirituality over materialism.

Why is Hanukkah celebrated?
Over twenty centuries again, the Seleucids ruled the Land of Israel. The Seleucids sought to force the Jewish people to assimilate. A small group of Jewish people led the courageous fight against one of the largest, most powerful armies of the time, drove them out of the land, reclaimed and rededicated the Holy Temple. When the Jewish people wanted to light the seven-branched candelabra (known as the Menorah) in the rededicated Temple, they found, to their despair, that only a solitary jug of pure oil remained that hadn’t been contaminated by the Greeks. G-d performed a miracle and the oil lasted eight days, the amount of time needed to prepare new oil.

The Sages instituted Hanukkah so as to commemorate and publicize the miracles that occurred. Each night a Menorah is lit and each night one more candle is lit until all eight candles are lit by the eight night.

Are there any special prayers for Hanukkah?
On Hanukkah, the prayer called Hallel is added to prayers. Hallel is a collection of Psalms recited on festivals when Jewish people wish to offer special praise and thanks to G-d. Al Hanissim is also added to prayers.

Al Hanissim is a prayer that is only added on the festivals of Hanukkah and Purim. Al Hanissim begins the same way on both festivals and is then followed by a paragraph that is unique to that holiday that describes the events for which that day is celebrated. On Hanukkah, we praise and thank G-d for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…the wicked into the hands of the righteous.”

Are there special Hanukkah customs?
There is a custom to eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes that are commonly called latkes by Jewish people of Ashkenazi descent and levivot in Modern Hebrew and doughnuts that are called ponchkes in Yiddish or sufganiyot in Modern Hebrew. This is to remember the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days.

Another custom is to play with a spinning top called a Dreidel in Yiddish and Suh-vee-von in Modern Hebrew which has four sides, with each side bearing a Hebrew letter- Nun, Gimmel, Hey and Shin (or Pey in place of Shin in Israel). These letters make up an acronym for the Hebrew phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – meaning- a great miracle happened there (in Israel Nes Gadol Hayah Poh- a great miracle happened here).

There is also a custom to give children gifts of money- called gelt in Yiddish- on Hanukkah. Legend has it that as a way of celebrating their victory over the Seleucids, the Jewish people minted national coins and therefore the custom of giving gifts of money on Hanukkah evolved.

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