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Rabbi explains significance, traditions of Chanukah

From a liturgical perspective, Chanukah is a relatively minor holiday. However, it has grown in popularity due to its proximity to Christmas.

DENVER — The eight-night celebration of Chanukah, or Hanukkah, began Sunday. 

> Video above: How the Jewish community in Cheyenne celebrates Hanukkah

Many folks have questions about Chanukah, so 9NEWS asked Rabbi Joe Black of Temple Emanuel in Denver to teach us about the holiday.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for context and clarity.)

9NEWS: Is Chanukah a big holiday for Jewish people?

Black: Yes and no. From a liturgical perspective, Chanukah is a relatively minor holiday. Unlike other major holidays like Shabbat, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Passover (to name a few), it is not based on the Torah. It commemorates an important period in Jewish history when a small group of freedom fighters called the Maccabees defeated the Hellenized Assyrians who had conquered the Kingdom of Israel during the Second Century BCE and the rededication of the Sacred Temple in Jerusalem. The Hebrew word Hanukkah means “rededication.” However, due to its proximity to Christmas, it has grown in popularity. 

What is Chanukah all about?

Black:  The story that is told in the Mishnah (the oldest Rabbinic text, from the year 200 CE), when the Maccabees defeated the Hellenized Assyrian General Antiochus, they purified the Temple in Jerusalem which had been defiled as a pagan shrine. The final step in the purification process was to light the menorah – the sacred lamp – in the Temple. This could only be lit with sacred, kosher olive oil that was produced in Galilee – in Northern Israel, far from Jerusalem. The process of manufacturing, certifying and delivering the oil took about eight days. The legend states that they only had enough oil in the Temple to last one day – but a great miracle happened that allowed that small cruse of oil to burn for eight days, not just one – thereby allowing for the manufacture and transfer of the proper oil.

Scholars debate if that is the actual story – but for the purpose of the holiday, it is vital. We light a special, eight-candled menorah called a Hanukkiah (pronounced “Cha-noo-kee-ah”) – adding one candle each night to remember the great miracle that happened in the Temple in Jerusalem.

How many days does it last?

Black: Eight days – but like all Jewish holidays, we begin counting each day on the night before. So Sunday night was the first night. Monday is the first day. Monday night is the second night, etc.

What is the significance of lighting the candles?

Black: To remember the miracle of the oil. There is a ninth candle called the shamash that is used to light all of the other candles. This is because the purpose of the light is to celebrate and remember the miracle. Therefore, it can have no utilitarian purpose (reading, warming, seeing in the dark, etc). If, per chance, we were to derive some benefit from the light of the Hanukkiah, we can ascribe it to the shamash – or ninth candle.

I’ve heard getting presents for Chanukah hasn’t always been a thing. Is that right?

Black: That is correct. Hanukkah has always been a joyous festival. There are special foods and games that we play and there is a tradition of giving coins or candies to children with which to play games. However, in the U.S. especially, because of its proximity to the major festival of Christmas, families started giving gifts.

What do you think the most common misconception about Chanukah is?

Black: That it is the “Jewish Christmas.” The only connection between the two festivals is that they are both festivals of light in the midst of the darkest time of the year. But since Christmas is such a major and important holiday for Christians, and Chanukah is a relatively minor festival, there is no theological, spiritual or historical comparison.

What are some of the traditions that go along with the holiday?

Black:  Eating food fried in oil. Ashkenazi (northern European) Jews traditionally eat potato pancakes fried in oil called latkes. Some Sephardic Jews also eat jelly donuts fried in oil called Soufganiot. (Soof-ga-nee-ot).

Another custom is playing the game of dreydl -- a four-sided top with the Hebrew letters Nun  נ, Gimmel – ג, Hey   ה and Shin  ש. Those are the first letters of the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham – “A great miracle happened there.” 

(In Israel, the letter Shin is replaced by the letter Peh פ – which stands for the Hebrew word, “Poh” -  which means “here” – so in Israel the phrase means: “A great miracle happened here.”)

The way dreydl is played is that, depending on which letter the top lands on after spinning, you either add to or take from the pot. Usually it is played with Chanukah gelt – chocolate coins.


Is there anything you’re not allowed to do during Chanukah?

Black: Religiously, no. There are no prohibitions on Chanukah, as there are on more major holidays. I believe that Jews should not try to copy Christmas customs such as Christmas trees – which do have religious significance. There is no such thing as a “Chanukah Bush”. 

In some interfaith households, in an attempt to celebrate both holidays, there are sometimes both Chanukah and Christmas decorations. That is a way that households with multiple faith traditions find ways to honor each other’s traditions.

I’ve seen it spelled Chanukah and Hanukkah. What gives?

Black:  Yup. It’s a Hebrew word – חנוכה – so there are different ways to transliterate the Hebrew.

Why does it fall on different days every year?

Black: The Jewish year follows a lunar calendar, while the Christian – or Gregorian – calendar is solar. Since lunar months are shorter, the holidays fall on different dates. Instead of a leap day, the Hebrew calendar adds an extra month every few years to ensure that the holidays correspond to the seasons of the year they celebrate.

Why do you think the holiday got more well-known than the others the Jewish faith celebrates?

Black:  Its proximity to Christmas.

What Jewish holiday or holidays do you wish people paid more attention to?

Black:  The most important Jewish holiday is the Sabbath, or Shabbat. It comes every week. It’s the only holiday mentioned in the 10 commandments. I wish more Jews celebrated Shabbat on a regular basis. It helps keep us in balance with ourselves, our world, our families, community and friends.


Temple Emanuel has several Hanukkah events over the course of the holiday. Their biggest is Hanukkah Hoopla on Dec. 23.

Check out their other events on their Facebook page.


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