Yesterday, Sunday the 2nd of December, marked the beginning of Hanukkah. Jewish people across the world will be celebrating the rededication of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, reclaimed by the Jews from the Syrian Greek Empire in the 2nd century BC.
Over 2500 years ago, a small group of Jews, the Maccabees, rebelled against Antiochus, the Syrian king who tried to make Jewish people worship the Greek gods. A statue of Antiochus has been placed inside the Temple, and Jews were ordered to bow down to him. But the Maccabees refused!
After three long years of war, the Jews recaptured Jerusalem from the Syrians. They cleaned and restored the Temple, removing all Greek symbols and restoring the Jewish ones, and when they finished, they rededicated it to God. They did this by lighting the lamp, Menorah, a symbol of God’s presence. One small jar of oil was found, only enough to light the candle during one day, yet miraculously the Menorah stayed alight for 8 days.
From then on, on the 25th of Kislev, celebrations begin. As the sun sets every evening, one candle on the Hanukiah is lit (an eight-stemmed candelabrum). Prayers accompany each night’s candle lighting. The lighting symbolises God’s protection over the Jews in the time of need. Three prayers are traditionally said or sung on the first night of Hanukkah and two prayers each of the following seven nights. The Menorah is then placed in a door or window facing the street to share the light with neighbours. Traditional songs follow throughout the evening.
People today give each other gifts, make special foods, dinners, and remember their ancestors who fought to regain their Temple.
As Hanukkah is celebrated all over the world, here are a few cultural spins on the festivities.
Jews in Eastern European countries celebrate the holiday by eating latkes—oil-fried potato pancakes. Jewish immigrants then brought the custom to North America.
Indians of Jewish heritage light their menorahs with wicks which have been dipped in coconut oil rather than candles. Also in India, some Jews replace latkes with a food called burfi, made with condensed milk and sugar.
In Yemen, the seventh night is set as a women’s holiday. The night commemorates Hannah. According to the story in the Book of Maccabees, Hannah and her seven sons defied the Syrian Greeks, and she and her sons were killed for refusing to give up their beliefs.
In Israel, Jews feast on round jelly donuts fried in oil, called sufganiyot. “The oil symbolizes the small amount of oil the ancient Jews had with them to light their temple. Sufganiyot are now tradition on dinner tables in America and other parts of the Jewish Diaspora.
In Istanbul, Jews sing a song commemorating the eight menorah candles called “Ocho Candelas,” and eat oil-fried fritters known as “burmelos,” says Bronner.
Jews in Morocco also enjoy fried jelly donuts, with a twist! The Moroccan Sfenj are made with the juice and zest of an orange.