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Answer By: 
Rabbi Julie Zupan
Hanukkah menorah with donuts, dreidels and gelt

I want to make a menorah as a gift for a good friend of mine. If, due to design constraints, I cannot make the candle holders vertically uniform, would that be an issue?

What a special gift!

There are two types of menorahs. The first is a seven-branched menorah that hearkens back to the candelabrum described in the Bible that was lit in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. That menorah is the national symbol of the modern State of Israel. The second type of menorah is a hanukkiyah, the special lamp lit nightly during Hanukkah. It has space for eight lights plus a ninth “helper” light (shamash), which is used to light the candles or oil in the other eight holders.

We surmise that you’re referring to the hanukkiyah. According to Jewish law (halakhah), the lights of the Hanukkah menorah should be vertically uniform and in a straight line. However, there are many commercially produced Hanukkah menorahs that do not conform to these rules. Please send us a photo of the finished product – regardless of the design choices you make!

Answer By: 
Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz
chocolate Hanukkah gelt

Hanukkah’s Money

The gelt of Hanukkah recalls the booty, including coins, that the Maccabean victors distributed to the Jewish widows, soldiers, and orphans, possibly at the first celebration of the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple. Also, in ancient Israel, striking, minting, and distributing coins expressed Hanukkah’s message of political autonomy. The Maccabee’s descendants, known as the Hasmoneans, ruled Judea and issued coins. As the book of 1 Maccabees records, Syria’s King Antiochus VII said to Simon Maccabee, “I turn over to you the right to make your own stamp for coinage for your country” (15:6). Since 1958, Israel has minted commemorative Hanukkah medals, reforging this connection of coinage, freedom, and the holiday.

Money and Hanukkah go way back in other ways as well, including the very observance of the holiday. As early as the sixth century, the legal text known as the Talmud taught that the poor must celebrate Hanukkah even if they had to wander door to door to beg for the money to pay for the lighting materials, which in those days were probably oil, clay lamps, and wicks. Later, in Sephardi and Oriental (following the customs of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East) Jewish communities, people walked through their neighborhoods burning special grasses to ward off the evil eye in exchange for gifts or money at the Hanukkah season. Yemenite Jewish children were given coins to purchase sugar and red food dye to make a special Hanukkah wine.

With time, additional customs evolved related to giving coins at Hanukkah. Hanukkah came to be associated with the Hebrew word for education, chinukh. The gelt or money for Hanukkah supported Jewish learning. In the days of the Chasidic leader, the Ba’al Shem Tov (1698–1760), rabbis often traveled to distant villages to give instruction to impoverished and illiterate Jews, generally refusing payment. However, at Hanukkah, the instructors accepted coins and food as tokens of gratitude. Hanukkah gelt signified appreciative, though modest, compensation for dedicated Jewish educators.

All of that history and tradition resides in your chocolate gelt.

Ancient Israelite Coins

One of the early Israelite coins, produced during the rule of Antigonus Matityahu (40–37 BCE), the last in this line of Hasmonean kings, portrays a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum) on one side and the shewbread (offering) on the other, each symbol a reminder of the centrality of the ancient Jerusalem Temple to the Jewish people and the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenists.

Excerpted from On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao (Second Edition, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2017) by Rabbi Deborah Prinz. The book includes a chapter titled:  “Hanukkah and Christmas Chocolate Melt into Gelt.” She also co-curates the exhibit “Semi[te] Sweet: On Jews and Chocolate,” on view at the Bernard Museum of Temple Emanu-El in New York City through February 25, 2018. Prinz is a popular speaker on topics connecting chocolate and Jews.

three teens each lighting a hanukkiyah

On Hanukkah, we can greet one another with “Hanukkah sameach!” which means “Happy Hanukkah!” or “Chag urim sameach” which means “Happy Festival of Lights.” As on any happy holiday or festival, we can say “Chag sameach!” (“Happy holiday!”)

And what about how to spell Hanukkah? A 2012 study from Evite ranks the most popular way to spell the holiday. You can clearly tell which one we prefer! 

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.

Related LInks
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. 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

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.

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