Hanukkah: The history, rules and traditions of the Jewish Festival of Lights

Hanukkah is not one of Judaism's most important or holy holidays, but it is one of its most well-known.

RABBI LEVI DUCHMAN lights a candle to celebrate Hanukkah, in Dubai in December. (photo credit: CHRISTOPHER PIKE/REUTERS)
RABBI LEVI DUCHMAN lights a candle to celebrate Hanukkah, in Dubai in December.
(photo credit: CHRISTOPHER PIKE/REUTERS)

The winter season heralds the arrival of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the festival of lights.

Dating back to ancient times, Hanukkah is not one of Judaism's most important or holy holidays, but it is one of its most well-known.

Some aspects of Hanukkah have always stayed the same, such as the emphasis on light, remembering historic miracles and the idea of making the festival something very public.

But the eight-day holiday comes with a multitude of different rules, traditions and practices that have evolved over the centuries.

Here is everything you need to know about Hanukkah.

 RABBI YEHUDA Teichtal and German Health Minister Jens Spahn at a Hanukkah ceremony last year in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. (credit: FABRIZIO BENSCH / REUTERS) RABBI YEHUDA Teichtal and German Health Minister Jens Spahn at a Hanukkah ceremony last year in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. (credit: FABRIZIO BENSCH / REUTERS)
What are the origins of Hanukkah?

Unlike many other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah does not date back to biblical times. Rather, it is instead in the books First and Second Maccabees, which are not considered canonical in Judaism but are deuterocanonical in the Orthodox and Catholic churches, and is also mentioned in rabbinic sources.

The story of Hanukkah is set in the Second Temple era, and focuses on what became known as the Maccabean Revolt.

This revolt was triggered by the Seleucid Empire under King Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempting to forcibly Hellenize the Jews and saw him forcibly fight against Jewish religious practices.

In this period, the Seleucids forcibly took over Jerusalem and desecrated the Second Temple with pagan rituals.

Eventually, a group known as the Maccabees formed and began fighting a guerilla war in rural regions. 

This rebel movement, which soon became a full fledged army, was led by the sons of Mattathias (Matityahu), a kohen from Modi'in. This family, known as the Hasmoneans, were itself led by the third son, Judas Maccabeus, also known as Judah Maccabee, after his father's death.

Despite being outnumbered, Judah was able to lead the Maccabees to victory after victory in the field, until his eventual death in battle. Ultimately, it would be Simon Thassi that would eventually manage to liberate the land from Seleucid control, creating the Hasmonean Dynasty and creating the first independent Jewish state since the Kingdom of Judah's conquest at the hands of the Babylonians.

But Hanukkah does not just celebrate this incredible military victory. Rather, there is also the miracle of the oil.

As the legend goes, upon recapturing Jerusalem, the Maccabees had to rededicate the desecrated Temple. Part of this meant lighting the Menorah. However, only one container of usable oil was found, just enough for a single night. It would be over a week before more usable pure oil would be ready.

However, miraculously, the oil ended up staying lit for eight days, lasting long enough for more to be ready.

This successful rededication of the Temple is, in fact, the reason for the holiday's name: Hanukkah, which is rooted in the Hebrew word for dedication.

What does Maccabee mean?

The term Maccabee is derived from Judah's own epitaph, but its exact origins are debated. One belief is that it is from the Aramaic word makkaba, which means "the hammer." Others say it is an acronym, referring to either the "Matityahu HaKohen ben Yochanan" (Mattathias the kohen, son of Johanan) which would be abbreviated as MKBY, or of the Maccabees' battle-cry, "Mi hamoha ba'elim YHWH," which means "Who is like you among heaven, oh God?" and would be abbreviated as MCHBAY.

 AS AN American Jew in the ‘50s, at  home we lit hanukkiot, played dreidel...  (credit: Congregation Beth Israel/Flickr) AS AN American Jew in the ‘50s, at home we lit hanukkiot, played dreidel... (credit: Congregation Beth Israel/Flickr)
What are the rules and customs of Hanukkah?

The big focus of the eight-day holiday is lighting candles.

Technically, the only requirement is for one person in a household to light a single candle each night. However, this holiday is also associated with the idea of going above and beyond. Typically, every member of a household would light candles on a Hanukkiah, starting with one candle and adding another each night. 

Hanukkiot, unlike menorot, have eight candles, as well as an additional candle to serve as the shamash, which is used to light the others, although some Sephardi and hassidic Jews light the shamash last. 

Ideally, the candles should stay burning for at least half an hour.

After lighting and saying the appropriate blessings, people sing the song Maoz Tzur, or Rock of Ages, which tells the story of several important moments in Jewish history such as the Exodus from Egypt, the story of Purim and the story of the Maccabean Revolt.

An important aspect of the holiday, though, that sets it apart from most other Jewish holidays is the traditional custom of publicizing the mitzvah. Essentially, Hanukkah shouldn't be something practiced privately, but should be a public and open celebration. This is why hanukkiot are traditionally lit by the most visible window of one's home. 

Starting in the 1970s, this publicization of Hanukkah became even more widespread, thanks largely to the efforts of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which in turn triggered the lighting of public hanukkiot.

The only exception to this is in times of danger and antisemitism.

Aside from candles, there are a number of other traditions associated with the holiday.

One of these is playing dreidel, a four-sided spinning top used for playful gambling. 

Also included are specific foods, such as gelt (chocolate coins), latkes (potato pancakes) and types of donuts like sufganiyot (typically jelly-filled) and sfinj, fried sweet doughy donuts.

Another more recent tradition is the idea of giving gifts, something believed to have been rooted to both Eastern European traditions of giving money and the modern Christmas traditions in the West of gift-giving. The latter is especially notable, because Christmas and Hanukkah are frequently compared to one another, and many see Hanukkah as the "Jewish Christmas," a comparison that often erroneously overinflates the importance of the holiday in Judaism.

What prayers do we say on Hanukkah?

Hanukkah, unlike most other Jewish holidays, is not biblical, and thus many of the common prayers seen during other holidays like reciting Mussaf are not done. 

What is done, however, is the reciting of Hallel, a collection of Psalms typically sung together in prayer services. 

There are times when Mussaf is said on Hanukkah, but that is because Hanukkah always has days that fall on Shabbat and on Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the new Hebrew month.

The Torah is also always read on Hanukkah, typically short recitations from the Book of Numbers. However, unlike other holidays that fall on Shabbat, the typical Shabbat Torah reading is still read, rather than replaced. This parasha is almost always parashat Mikeitz, in the Book of Genesis.

Do you have to use oil candles?

No. You can use regular wick candles as well as oil. You cannot, however, use electric lamps.

When can I start lighting candles?

Candles are always lit late into the day, usually at sundown, though others do it later. 

The exception is on Shabbat, when the Hanukkah candles must be lit before the Shabbat candles, the latter of which must be lit at sundown. 

On Motzei Shabbat, when Shabbat ends, candle lighting is even later, as the candles must be lit after Shabbat fully ends and Havdalah is said, which can only be done when there are three stars in the sky.