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Hanukkah

Three sufganiyot on a white plate

Sufganiyot are donuts, usually jelly-filled, that commemorate the miracle associated with the oil that burned for eight days in the Hanukkah story. Foods cooked in oil are traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.

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A pile of gelt, or chocolate coins in gold colored wrapping

Gelt are chocolate coins given to Jewish children on the festival of Hanukkah. They are usually wrapped in gold foil, and their history can be traced back to the decision of the Hasmoneans to mint their own nation’s coins after their military victory over the Greek Syrians. Gelt are often used to gamble with in the game of dreidel.

Latkes with sour cream and apple sauce

A latke is a potato pancake fried in oil, and is a traditional food eaten to celebrate the miracle of the oil in the story of Hanukkah. Foods cooked in oil serve as a symbol of the legend of the jar of oil that lasted for eight days.

child playing with dreidel

The word dreidel derives from a German word meaning “spinning top,” and is the toy used in a Hanukkah game adapted from an old German gambling game. Hanukkah was one of the few times of the year when rabbis permitted games of chance. The four sides of the top bear four Hebrew letters: nun, gimel, hei, and shin. Players begin by putting into a central pot or “kitty” a certain number of coins, chocolate money known as gelt, nuts, buttons or other small objects. Each player in turn spins the dreidel and proceeds as follows:

  • nun – take nothing;
  • gimel – take everything;
  • hei – take half;
  • shin – put one in.

Over time, the letters on the dreidel were reinterpreted to stand for the first letter of each word in the Hebrew statement “Neis gadol hayah sham,” which means, “A great miracle happened there” and refers to the defeat of the Syrian army and the re-dedication of the Temple.  In Israel, one letter on the dreidel differs from those used in the rest of the world. The shin has been replaced with a pey, transforming the Hebrew statement into Neis gadol hayah po, which means, “A great miracle happened here.

ReformJudaism.org has a new spin on playing dreidel, with fun rules to keep your family playing all eight nights of Hanukkah.

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A menorah with all candles lit

A menorah is a candelabra, and can be used for Hanukkah if it has nine stems. Another word for a Hanukkah menorah is hanukkiyah. A hanukkiyah has one stem for each of the eight days of Hanukkah, and one for the shamash, or “the helper candle” that is used to light the other candles. Candles are added each night from right to left and they are lit from left to right.

a family lights the menorah on the third night of Hanukkah

Two blessings are chanted or recited every night of Hanukkah. The first is a blessing over the candles themselves. The second blessing expresses thanks for the miracle of deliverance. A third blessing—the Shehecheyanu prayer, marking all joyous occasions in Jewish life—is chanted or recited only on the first night.

Any member or members of the family may chant or recite the blessings. One person lights and holds the shamash (helper candle), the blessings are pronounced, and then the candles are lit. The shamash is used to light the others, and one candle is lit for each night. The candle for the first night is put on the right side of the eight-branched menorah. On each subsequent night, an additional candle is placed to the immediate left of the previous night’s candle, and the candles are lit from left to right, so that the kindling begins with the newest light. Since these lights are holy, it is forbidden to make practical use of them; therefore, a special shamash(helper) candle is used to light the others.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell
latkes

A common explanation is that we eat latkes (potato pancakes) because they are cooked in oil and this remind us of the miracle that a single cruse of oil found in the Temple lasted for eight nights. Some scholars suggest that the popularity of latkes is due to the fact that the potato crop became available around the time of Hanukkah in Europe. No one knows for certain how the association began, but for anyone who feasts on latkes at Hanukkah time, a historical rationale is unnecessary. Sephardic Jews eat different fried food on Hanukkah, including sufganiyot, jelly-filled doughnuts, and birmuelos, raised yeast doughnuts. To learn more about the connection of oil to the Hanukkah story, see The Miracle of Expanding Oil.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

A menorah refers to a candelabrum, usually one with seven branches. A hanukiyyah is a menorah used specifically on Hanukkah, which includes eight branches, one for each day of the holiday, and one extra branch for the shamash (servant) candle that is used to light the other candles.

Blessings are recited over lighting the candles. One candle is lit for each night. The candle for the first night is put on the right side of hanukiyyah. On each subsequent night, an additional candle is placed to the immediate left of the previous night’s candle, and the candles are lit from left to right, so that the kindling begins with the newest light. Since these lights are holy, it is forbidden to make practical use of them; therefore, a special shamash (servant) candle is used to light the others. Watch our how-to video and enjoy lighting our virtual hanukkiyah.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

We fulfill the mitzvah of Hanukkah by lighting a hanukkiyah (the menorah specifically for Hanukkah) with candles. Some hanukkiyot (plural of hanukkiyah) use actual oil to even more closely replicate the miracle in the Hanukkah story. We use electricity for illumination during the year. We mark sacred and special occasions, such as Shabbat and holidays, by lighting candles. Of course, there are certain places that do not permit open flames, including hospitals and nursing homes. In these cases, some will opt to use an electric menorah.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Daniel B. Syme

In a celebrated Talmudic dispute, two great Jewish teachers, Hillel and Shammai, argued whether we should begin by lighting eight candles and gradually decrease to one (Shammai), or begin with one candle and add an additional one each night, thus continuously increasing the light and joy of the holiday (Hillel). The majority ruled with Hillel. Thus, on the first night of Hanukkah, we recite or chant the blessings and light one candle with the shamash, two on the second night, and so on. Customarily, the candles are placed in the menorah from right to left but lit from left to right.

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