In the United States, Christmas has become a very commercialized holiday. Sometimes, as early as September, you can already find Christmas-related items at the store. Amidst these Christmas items are often a few items related to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah, because it has the guttural “H” sound). However, Hanukkah is actually considered a minor Jewish holiday. The most important Jewish holidays are the ones found in the Bible, especially Leviticus 23, whereas, the story of Hanukkah occurred after the Old Testament had already been completed. There isn’t a Hanukkah museum, but I had the privilege of experiencing Hanukkah at its birthplace, Jerusalem.
The reason for Hanukkah’s popularity in the United States is that it falls around the time of Christmas. It became a way for the Jewish community to not feel completely left out around Christmastime. However, unlike Christmas, it never falls on the exact same day each year, because it follows the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, not the Gregorian calendar, which is solar. It still falls around December, though, because the Jewish calendar has a leap month every few years, which helps keep the months on a similar timeline. (The Muslim calendar, on the other hand, is lunar, but doesn’t have leap days or months, so its holidays can occur at any time of year.)
Whereas most of Israel shuts down during the major Jewish holidays found in Leviticus 23, life typically continues as normal during Hanukkah. On the first night of Hanukkah, I went to the Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. This was a retaining wall surrounding the Second Temple and was built by King Herod the Great in the first century B.C. It is the only structure remaining that had a connection with the Jewish Temple, which the Romans completely destroyed in A.D. 70. The reason why I went to the Western Wall at night is because Jewish holidays begin at sundown. This is because the creation narrative found in Genesis 1 repeatedly says, “And there was evening and there was morning the first day,” “second day,” etc. for each of the six days of creation, implying that the day began in the evening.
While at the Western Wall (which is considered the holiest site in Judaism, due to its proximity to where the Temple once stood), the chief rabbi of Jerusalem lit the first candle of a giant menorah (the Hebrew word for “lamp”). Afterwards, people danced in the street, and one group even projected a slideshow of images related to the Hanukkah story, with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack playing in the background! I was especially pleased to see that the surrounding bakeries were all selling sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) as well.
The reason for lighting the menorah and eating sufganiyot is connected. The story of Hanukkah comes from the first and second books of Maccabees, which are two books found in the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is Jewish writings that date to after the timespan of the Old Testament, but before the Roman occupation of Israel. Some of it is history, and some of it is not. Judaism never recognized the Apocrypha as divine canon, although the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches did and added it to their Bibles (the Protestants later removed it from theirs).
The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees describe how the Seleucid Empire, a remnant of Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire, tried to Hellenize Israel and make the inhabitants worship their gods. In order to do this, the Greeks, under the leadership of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, desecrated the Jewish temple and sacrificed a pig within it. However, a group of Jews under the leadership of a man named Judah Maccabee (Maccabee was his nickname and means “hammer” in Hebrew), fought and overcame the Greeks. After that, Israel remained independent for a brief period of time, until the Romans arrived.
After Judah’s victory, the Jews tried to rededicate the Temple. The Hebrew word for “dedication” is “Hanukkah,” so the holiday is also known as the Feast of Dedication. (The New Testament even references it in John 10:22.) The rest of the Hanukkah story actually comes from later tradition. According to the story, the people were upset when they realized that the 7-branched menorah (or lamp) that was supposed to always continue burning in the Temple, was no longer lit. They tried to find some oil to relight it, but only found enough oil that would last for one day. However, the light ended up lasting for 8 days, just long enough for them to replenish their supply. That is why a menorah is lit on Hanukkah each year, and why the holiday lasts for 8 days. Additionally, that is also why a Hanukkah menorah (also called a Hanukkiah) has 9 branches instead of 7 branches, like what would have been found in the Temple. Each of the 8 branches represents one of the 8 days of Hanukkah, while the extra middle branch is used to light each of the other 8 branches. For each night of Hanukkah, a new candle is lit, until all are completed on the 8th day.
Finally, the reason why sufganiyot (doughnuts) are eaten on Hanukkah, is because they are an oily food, so are a way to remember the miracle of the oil. Israel’s sufganiyot are much more delicious than the ones in the United States. This may partially be because Israel has a wider variety of flavors than just the traditional jelly-filled ones. For example, there were some donuts that were topped with pistachio, halva, and even sweet popcorn. Fried potato pancakes are also a popular Hanukkah dish, because they are oily.
Sources and Further Reading
Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Hanukkah.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hanukkah (accessed November 30, 2019).
Rude, Emelyn. “Why Jelly Doughnuts Are Eaten During Hanukkah.” Time, December 7, 2015. https://time.com/4138749/sufganiyot-jelly-doughnut-hanukkah-history/ (accessed November 30, 2019).