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Traditions of Hanukkah

Traditions of Hanukkah

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The annual traditions of Hanukkah surround a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish calendar that has gained greater prominence in recent years due to its proximity to Christmas. Otherwise known as the “Festival of Lights,” Hanukkah starts on the 25th day of the month of Kislev (according to the Jewish calendar)—which traditionally falls in the month of December—and then lasts for eight days and nights. Hanukkah is celebrated to commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians and the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem. At the heart of the holiday is the miracle of the oil, where oil only meant to last for one day lasted for a week. Here are some of the cherished traditions of Hanukkah celebrated by Jewish families each year.

  • Lighting the Menorah: This is considered the most sacred of the traditions of Hanukkah. Eight candles of the same height represent the eight days of Hanukkah, while the taller one that sits in the middle of the menorah is known as the shamash (the “servant”) and is used to light the candles each night. The appropriate candles are lit while a special blessing is said as part of the Hanukkah ritual. This celebration of light symbolizes the burning light in the temple fueled by the miracle oil.
  • Hanukkah Foods: Traditional Hanukkah foods likewise reverberate around the miracle of the oil. Thus, much of Hanukkah fare is cooked in olive oil. This includes potato pancakes, or latkes, as well as sufganiya, a jelly donut cooked in oil. Dairy foods are also eaten to commemorate Judith, a Jewish heroine who saved her village from being destroyed by Syrian soldiers by feeding their general wine and cheese until he passed out.
  • Playing the Dreidel: This is a favorite tradition of children during the festival of Hanukkah. The Dreidel is a top with Hebrew letters on each of its four sides. Players take turn spinning the Dreidel and then either adding or subtracting candies or coins from a communal pot. As part of the Hanukkah tradition, the Dreidel represents the spinning tops that Jews used to study the Torah in secret when it was forbidden by the Syrians.
  • Setting an Extra Place: An old Hanukkah tradition dictates that families set an extra place at the dinner table in case a hungry stranger wanders by. This tradition reflects Hanukkah themes of generosity, as well as reminding families of all they have to be grateful for.
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