What Customs Are Followed during the Festival of Lights and Why
It’s almost time for Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. The 8-day religious observance, celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev, according to the Hebrew Calendar, pays tribute to the citizens of Jerusalem who took the city back from Syrian forces in the second century B.C., restoring and rededicating the Second Temple.
The Most Important Hanukkah Customs
Though the over-arching purpose of Hanukkah is to celebrate the rededication of the Second Temple, one of the most important aspects of that is the commemoration of the so-called “Hanukkah miracle.” According to Jewish literature, when Judah Maccabee and his followers reclaimed the Second Temple, they lit a menorah, the seven-pronged candelabrum signifying creation and knowledge. In those days, olive oil was used to keep the candles burning. However, Maccabee’s supporters found only about one day’s worth of usable olive oil at the temple. They lit the menorah anyway and it flickered away for eight days, until a new supply of olive oil arrived.
Not surprisingly, then, candles and oil are among the Hanukkah traditions:
- The lighting of the menorah—To pay tribute to the Hanukkah miracle, members of the Jewish faith typically light the menorah every night throughout Hanukkah, displaying the candelabrum in their windows. In the Hillel tradition, one candle is lit the first night and an additional candle each night thereafter. In the Shammai tradition, it’s the other way around—all candles are lit the first night and one less each of the remaining days.
- Eating fried foods—Another tradition tied directly to the oil that burned for eight days is the custom of eating a variety of fried foods, including jelly donuts (called sufganiyot) and potato pancakes called latkes. There’s a long-running, but friendly, debate as to whether the latkes should be served with sour cream or with applesauce. You should try both before you make up your mind!
- Playing with a dreidel—A dreidel is a small spinning top used mostly as a toy by children. Before the Maccabees reclaimed Jerusalem and the Second Temple, they could not openly practice their faith, and could be punished for studying the Torah or reading any sacred texts. Children who were illegally reading those materials would have a dreidel nearby and would quickly pull them out (while hiding their reading) and pretend to be gambling, should soldiers come by.
- Giving “gelt”—Gelt translates to “money” in English. In ancient times, people in the Jewish community gave money to children, teachers and the poor. In modern times, the tradition of giving real money has been replaced with a custom of giving chocolate coins, typically wrapped in foil.
- Giving other gifts—Though gift exchange was not originally a part of Hanukkah (and while Hanukkah is not the Jewish equivalent of Christmas), it is a modern tradition to include some gift giving as a part of Hanukkah
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