The Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria and the Selucid Empire (175-163 B.C.E.), was both cruel and arrogant—typical of tyrants. The title he chose for himself, Epiphanes, is Greek for “god-manefest.” One of the unfortunate provinces under his rule was Judea. He became persuaded—probably by some Hellenized Jews—that the Jewish religion was the root cause of the widespread opposition to the process of Hellenization. He undertook the first systematic effort to wipe out Judaism.
In addition to a bunch of other heinous actions, he ordered his soldiers, and compelled the Jewish population of Jerusalem, to sacrifice pigs at the Temple—the most sacred site in Judaism. (To Jews, swine is considered ‘unclean.”) Antiochus’s oppression sparked a revolt, successfully led by the Maccabee family. It is from this revolt, and a subsequent incident, that the holiday of Hannukah came about.
The Books of Maccabees are the most famous volumes in the “Apocrypha”—the legends that are part of Jewish teachings. These are historical writings about the revolt against the Syrian monarch by the Jews . But they do not mention the “miracle” upon which the celebration of Hannukah is based.
The Temple (Solomon’s Temple, the first Temple) in Jerusalem, as it was:
The Celebration of Hannukah
Hannukah is not a religious holiday, but a secular one, in that there is no Jewish law requiring us to celebrate it–yet it is the most widely observed Jewish holiday in the United States. The reason for this is singularly un-Jewish: It occurs in December, right around the time of Christmas. Due to the fact that the Jewish calendar is a lunar one, Hannukah can actually occur any time between late November and late December, depending.
Because Western Jews live in a predominantly Christian society, and because of Hannukah’s proximity to Christmas, many parents have converted it into a Jewish form of a major Christian holiday. Hannukah is, after all, one of our happiest holidays.
Back to the Jewish revolt against Syria in 167 B.C.E. and the Maccabees. As I said, the Syrians defiled the holiest place in Judaism, the Temple. After the revolt against Antiochus was successful, the revolutionaries regained control of Jerusalem. As recorded by the historian Josephus, the Jewish troops wept when they saw the Temple’s degradation, and resolved to restore it to ritual purity. According to Jewish tradition, they could find only one cruse of uncontaminated olive oil—only sufficient for one day’s use. This was a big problem, as it would take eight days to prepared ritually permitted oil. However, so the legend says, a miracle happened and the small amount of oil continued to burn the entire eight days. To commemorate this event, Hannukah is celebrated for eight days.
We use a menorah—a candelabrum that has eight level openings and a ninth, raised opening. While the original used oil, today most people use candles. Here’s a classic example, but there are literally thousands of designs:
Jewish law requires that the candles be placed near a window, so that they can be seen from the street, because the rabbis of old declared we should “publicize the miracle.” You can use any kind of candle, even tea lights, but as far back as I can remember these little colored Hannukah candles – found in almost every supermarket, in almost every neighborhood around this time of year–were ubiquitous and have come to symbolize the holiday for me. I couldn’t find a photo of the candles, but this is the box:
A popular children’s game s spinning the dreidl, which is a kind of top:
On each side, a Hebrew letter is printed: Nun, Gimmel, Hay, Shin, which makes the acronym “Nes Gadol Haya Sham—A Great Miracle Happened There [in Israel].” ( In Israel, it says “Here.”) Bets are made on which letter will be face-up when the dreidl stops spinning; depending on the bet, the spinner either takes the pot, half the pot, puts money into the pot, or no one wins. Originally, the bets were made for nuts (as in walnuts!), but today we use chocolate candies wrapped to look like gold coins, called Hannukkah Gelt (gelt is Yiddish for money.)
OK, now back to Christmas. It’s not part of the old Hannukah tradition, but if we really want to keep it popular among our kids, gifts have to be part of it. And we up the ante considerably; we give the kids presents on each of the eight nights. LITTLE presents! (And maybe one really good one.)
Among American Jews, the latke, a fried potato pancake, is the traditional food eaten. Because the Hannukah story concerns oil, most of the holiday foods are fried. (This is the only part of the holiday my Chinese husband can get behind.) In Israel, they prefer a jelly donut. Another creeping (but highly discouraged) tradition is the so-called “Hannukah Bush.” This is only for those most assimilated families, or those of mixed religions. There is no two ways about it—it’s a Christmas tree pretending to be Jewish.
[LOL! I looked for a photo of a Hannukah Bush and this is representative of what the Google search engine came up with]:
A Small Dose of Spirituality
Most people who have read a little about Kabbalah probably know that this mystical tradition of Judaism talks a great deal about light—what it calls the Endless Light. The Kabbalah teaches that through our actions we draw and increase this divine light into the world or diminish its presence. ( I feel the need to stop and emphasize that these teachings are in no way connected to the Kabbalah Centre, where Madonna and other celebrities study “kabbalah.”)
According to Jewish law, when we light the Hannukah menorah we are prohibited from using its light–from reading by it, or doing some other task by it. Instead, we are supposed to simply look at the light. All year long we are looking at what we see in the light, but on Hanukkah we are to focus on seeing the light itself. We are to fill our eyes with the light of Hanukkah so that when Hanukkah is over, we will continue to see our lives in this special light. What is special about the light of Hanukkah?
When King Solomon wrote in his famous work, Ecclesiastes, “everything is vanity . nothing is new under the sun” he was talking about what it is like to see the world in the light of the sun, in the light of nature.
But the Zohar, the chief work of Kabbalah, teaches us everything is new when seen in the light beyond the sun.
The light of Hanukkah is the light beyond the sun, it’s the light beyond nature, it’s the light of miracles. In that special light, the world looks like a miracle.
Albert Einstein once said: “There are two ways of looking at the world—either you see nothing as a miracle or you see everything as a miracle.”
Hannukah reminds us to see everything as miraculous.
Jon Stewart and Stephan Colbert on Hannukah
Lewis Black on Hannukah vs Christmas
Hannukah began at sundown on Friday December 11, in the year Hebrew year 5770.
I’m glad you explained the dreidl and the chocolate gold foil wrapped coins.
I always see the gold wrapped chocolate coins and wondered.
Aren’t they also used for bar-mitzvahs or bat-mitzvahs?
I seem to recall a TV show or maybe it was a movie, heck, I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast, but seem to recall a show whereby the character pretended to be Jewish and became quite popular and he always went to bar-mitzvahs for the food and chocolate coins.
And is the old testament that Christians and Catholics use, the same old testament the Jews use?
BTW, went to the library yesterday and requested the book by Rabbi Telushkin, since they did not have it.
Supposedly they will look into ordering it and let me know.
It’s hard to say if they will order it with the cuts in funding for our library.
Oh, and off topic, are you a fan of Craig Ferguson?
We just returned his book – ‘American On Purpose’ – and it’s quite good.
He’s had an amazing life that my husband and I could relate to in so many ways, and he really is an intelligent person.
He’s self-taught for the most part.
We love Craig Ferguson, and love him even more since reading his book.
Hiya Javez! I’m not 100% sure about the chocolate– my guess is, they are left-overs from Hanukkah, since that’s the only time I can find them in the stores. A parallel would be candy canes– they’re traditional for Christmas, but heck, I like them anytime!
About the Old Testament. First, I’m going to say something that might hurt your feelings, and I don’t want to, but here goes: We don’t call it the Old Testament, because we don’t recognize that there is a New Testament. We call it the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses, or even “the bible”. (I may be off base, but I had an intuition that after our last discussion about Jesus that you felt kinda bad the we don’t believe in him.)
But I do believe it is the same as the Christian OT. However, I once read something that said Catholics have a slightly different version. Anyway, the stories are the same: Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses and the exodus from Egypt, etc. And listen, if you can’t get that book, I have it and you can ask me. If I don’t know, I can look it up.
Alas, I go to sleep before 11, so I never catch Ferguson. But since you recommend him, I’ll try to watch maybe on a Friday, Javez.
Oh no, you didn’t hurt my feelings at all.
Not at all.
Believe it or not, I’m very open minded and there’s a lot of people that do not believe, and I’m not even sure that I do, even though I want to believe.
Believe me, I’ve had these discussions in real life with others, and I know that not everyone believes, and as I said, even I wonder.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with questioning our ‘faith’ or brainwashing, since I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school for 12 years.
I was a rebel of sorts when it came to religion classes in high school as I always questioned everything.
I mean, come on, a virgin birth?
Even I don’t buy that one.
And had a girlfriend in high school that thought about telling her parents that was how she got pregnant, and we laughed and laughed.
I wouldn’t ask about other religions if I wasn’t interested.
The things I like about Jesus, whether he lived or not, but I like the tolerance, and love for the poor thing he had going on.
Oh yeah, and he was also a commie, pinko, socialist, liberal without a genuine birth certificate when he tossed the moneychangers out of the temple.
I’d like to reply to myself, since I do not feel worthy to discuss my limited understanding of the health care articles here.
My stepdaughter, and I refer to her as my daughter, since I met my husband after his wife died, and Mary Lou was only 12 years old, so she became mine.
And she died, too, a month after her 30th birthday and on the exact same day as her biological mother, but I digress.
Anyway, my daughter’s maternal grandparents loved me and I them, and when it came to religion, all three of them had it going on.
They went to church regularly, but never did they go for long to one particular faith.
I learned so much about religion from their experiences and their search for whatever it is people search for when it comes to religion.
Her grandparents even had a son that moved to Israel because he and his wife somehow became Jewish, but because they were not actual Jews, or something like that, they could not actually buy land or live there for long.
It’s all so fascinating to me that we as humans strive to find the answer – “why are we are here?”
Wow– did your daughter and her biological mother die at different times, on the same day, how?! That is truly tragic, Javez. And what an unbearable loss. My best friend lost her 18 y/o son may years ago, and of course, the pain never goes away. But the reason we became very close friends after that was because so many other friends deserted her– they couldn’t deal with the pain. I guess I could.
Someone once told be that unless I deal with the pain, I’ll never grow, never change, and never heal.
People, when you lose a child, or when you have an illness, as we’ve done that, too, and almost at the same time, we lost friends.
That’s an entirely different article, but yes.
Friends and even family are there initially, but after?
You’re on your own.
And then somehow people put time frames on the grief period, you know, “You should be over this by now.”
We are happy but we still carry the pain.
This is depressing, and I am down already again from my brother dying last week, so . . .
The older we get, the more people we know will die, and my husband and I want to be the last ones standing.
Oh, and BTW, about your health care debate comment– please! You are plenty smart!!!
Have you ever seen the Julia Sweeny one-woman shoe on how she went from a devout Catholic to athiest? It is truly moving and absolutely brilliant!!! What a lifelong, searching journey. I think it is on YouTube, in segments. But she also wrote a book about it. (Back to the library!) Honestly, it was amazing, funny, poignant.
The thing that I’ve realized since we’ve started this discussion and it is a “DOH” moment, because I think I knew this already, but it is a reminder.
But how many Christian beliefs came from the Jews.
That makes sense.
You come from a true ancient people.
Your traditions are beyond 6000 years old.
I wonder, why don’t the Jews acknowledge Jesus, because he is the most popular famous Jew of all.
Do you understand my question?
I asked my husband that, because we do talk about these things, and his opinion was that there was a time whereby people held it against Jews for killing Jesus, even though we all know that it was the Romans and it was political, because if a man called Jesus existed, he was a pinko, commie, liberal without a genuine birth certificate.
I love talking religion, I really do, because I, too, am trying to figure it out.
If Jesus didn’t exist, and the bible, or New Testament is really old, who in the hell invented him and why?
It was Disney.
Just like they invented Britany Spears, and Sarah Palin.
(oh, I’ve got to add this, as a Catholic, even me writing the things I did, dooms me to hell.
You think Jewish people have the monopoly on guilt?
(I am making dinner, but want to continue this, if you are around, later!)
I’m sort of drunk now, 5 glasses of wine might do that to a person.
Get back to me tomorrow, and let me say before I log off, well, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.
Am I am going to pay for this tomorrow?
I shouldn’t have done it.
People of all faiths need to remember these Four Great Religious Truths:
1. Muslims do not recognize Jews as God’s chosen people.
2. Jews do not recognize Christ as the Messiah.
3. Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the leader of the Christian
4. Mormons do not recognize each other at Hooters or the Liquor Store.
(thought we could use a bit of humor today)
LOL!! j’avaz, I needed that.
(The Wasilla Public Library does not recognize Sarah Palin?)
Wow– just what the doctor ordered! (And I don’t recognize myself in the mirror– it’s my mother.)
LOL…what’s even sadder is when one of your family members, (like all three of my sisters), say, “You pulled a Mommy”, when you did or say something that you swear when you were younger that you would never, ever do!
hah!Tell me about it!
I really needed that after reading the health care thread.
LOL…thanks javaz, here’s one more:
5.) The Christian fundies say that the rest of us, (non-fundie believers), are all going to HELL!!!!
Have a nice day!
Wow Cher, I had no idea about this beautiful celebration.
I guess my Catholic upbringing just turned me off to organized religion in any way that I never bothered to find out about Jewish traditions. It actually makes so much sense I want to join in.
The idea of looking to the light and not using the light is very thought provoking.
It puts the Santa and baby Jesus stories to shame.
I appreciate that Hopeington. But organized Judaism is no better than any organized religion, IMO. I have studied Judaism for many years with a mystical rabbi. Many of the teachings are hidden, and not the usual fare of the synagogue. Many of us complain about the way the vast body of Jewish knowledge is taught– it is taught for children. And having studied many other religions formally, I can say that it seems to be the case for all of them.
Anyway, such a nice article, Cher.
Are you old enough to remember a really long time ago, Saturday Night Live (this is back in the John Belushi days) actually did a really cute skit about the meaning of Hanukkah?
Of course I’m old enough, you dear, dear man! I remember those days well. I don’t remember the Belushi Hanukkah skit, but I remember Gilda in an ad for “Jewess Jeans” and later, Jon Lovitz as Hanukkah Harry. He just gave socks as gifts!
Thank you so much, Cher, for writing about Hanukkah.
I had no idea and you summed it up in a way that even I can understand.
My mother was Austrian and Catholic, and we did a version of latke, as do the Polish, which is potato pancakes more or less, no?
But fried in oil.
Now, would you be so kind as to explain Rosh Hashanah?
My birthday is in late September and there have been years whereby it starts or ends on my birthday and I’ve always wondered what that holiday meant.
The Jewish faith or religion or tradition has always been such a mystery.
And then you have Orthodox Jews, and aren’t those the ones that wear the long curly hair and black?
Oy vey, how do you keep it all straight?
And what does, Oy Vey (?) mean?
I was raised Roman Catholic, but yet I know there is an Orthodox Catholic sect, and Greek Orthodox Catholic sect, and they are supposedly more strict, but I don’t know the differences.
We do have a very close friend that partakes in some dinner with his Jewish friends, and I don’t remember which holiday it is, but before eating unleavened bread and eating special foods and drinking wine, they read from a book, which would be a Catholic version of the bible, but our old Testament.
Is that Hanukkah?
Or is it another holiday that coincides with Easter?
Thank you again for such a wonderful article and you, Cher, are a writer.
(do you write? and if so, are you published?)
Oy vey! That’s a handful, Javez. (And before I reply– I just want to know: how you are doing? I have been thinking about you.)
Oy vey–so cute to see you write that!–is short for the Yiddish expression “Oy vey iz mir,” that translates as “Oh, woe is me!”
The meal you referred to is the Passover seder– that was Christ’s Last Supper (of course, for us, as for Jesus, it was just Passover.)And yes, it coincides with Easter and but has nothing to do with Hanukkah.
BTW– my birthday is 9/29– yours? And it also usually falls on Yom Kippur– or The Day of Atonement (our holiest day).
I know you have lots of questions and I actually wrote this partly because of your prompting– I really appreciate your interest.
As for all the rest of your questions– let’s leave those for another time, if that’s OK? As I may have mentioned, I’ve spent many years studying this and have a degree in religious studies, so it’s hard to stop me, but at the same time, it’s hard to keep it short and sweet– and interesting. What I’d like to do is maybe write about the holidays as they occur. But if you have any burning questions, please ask– apropos of nothing, anytime.
My birthday is September 28th!!!
We’re both on the cusp, if you’re into that, and me?
But I am aware of that, as I am open to anything and everything that explains life or ‘why are we here?’
What is Yom Kippur?
I think that as a Catholic, we have very similar traditions, but more along the lines of Jesus.
Now, you mentioned Christ, and yes, we’ll leave it for another time, but do Jewish people believe Christ lived?
Dagnabbit! I just wrote a long reply and before I finished, my husband came home and I lost the whole thing! I’ll write it all again in a while. Rats. I do that a lot.
It’s always faster the second time, and when it comes to me losing things on the computer, the 3rd and 4th time.
It’s all good and happens to everyone.
I’ll read it tomorrow morning as it’s my bedtime.
Have a good night.
Have a good rest, javaz.
I must be tired too– I just wished myself sweet dreams instead of you!
Sweet dreams, sweetie.
Good morning Javez! I was so tired and uncoordinated last night
Good morning, Cher!
Thank you for your reply and honestly, the more I learn, the more questions I have and this leads me to research and hope I can find a “Jewish Beliefs for Dummies.”
My gosh, how would a person ever remember all of them?
Heck, I have a hard time remembering 10!
As for the question about Jesus, I just wondered if Jewish people believed that he existed as a man, a fellow Jew.
I guess if there’s nothing written about him, then they do not acknowledge his existence.
Would that be a correct assumption?
Officially, yes (re: Jesus)
And about those commandments– hardly anyone follows all those. They are very ancient and weird. Example: Don’t wear clothes made of a combination of linen and wool (!)
If you are really interested this is a great book:
“Jewish Literacy” by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. A large book, but each topic is only one or two pages.
I have written it down and will see if our library has it.
A truly wonderful post and very enlightening. I love traditions and try hard to keep up with most of them living here in a place so far away from my family, my friends and my roots.
Holidays are tough but my memories manage to keep me afloat.
Thank you for this delightful glimpse into your world, into your life, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Embarrassing (and funny) story time. When I was 18 I escaped Boulder and moved to the Bay Area. I got a receptionist job at a “newspaper publisher” on Mission Street in San Francisco (back when Mission Street was still the ghetto). This company was basically a phone room selling ad space for the “Jewish Community Press,” the “Italian-American News,” and the “Senior Citizens Commerce News.” They’d cut articles out of the SF Chronicle (literally) and glue them onto sheets, surrounded by these pathetic little ads they sold in the phone room.
Well, I was young. I was thrilled to have a job in San Francisco and living independently. I also wanted to be a writer. I asked if I could write an article about Hannukah for the “Jewish Community Press.” They said sure, so I went to the library and did some research and wrote my little article about the Macabees. (This was the first time I’d ever heard of Hannukah.) I was so proud! I sent my article home to my parents. Of course, later, around the time when the IRS came after my bosses and they suddenly shut down the place, I realized they never distributed these “newspapers” anywhere except to the companies who were dumb enough to buy ads.
Later on, the boss who didn’t have to leave the country started a new business selling Elvis plates.
Love it! I went to SF too, but at 17– to be a hippy, of course. I don’t think you should be embarrassed at all. That is just so adorable, E’cat.
Here’s my embarrassing ecumenical story:
I was about 20, dating an much older man, and we decided to go to a Christmas midnight mass at a big Catholic Church.It was my first time in a church and it was gorgeous.
At some point in the service, an elderly woman sitting next to me whispered, “Are you going to take Communion?”
I had no idea what she was talking about, so I said, “Sure, if my boyfriend will get it for me.”
The look she gave me!
I lived in San Francisco for six months when I was at a grad school program at SF State.
I dropped out, tuned in, turned on, as Leary recommended. I left home with about $50 and I starved. Who but teenagers with shit-for-brains would do that?
I just smoked grass and read a lot of Steinbeck and hung out on Ocean Beach all summer.
Thanks. I’ve got books sitting on my bookshelf on the Jewish experience I’ve been meaning to get to, but they gather dust. That, and by brief dabbling into Hermetic Kabbalah doesn’t quite qualify me to comment on the ‘stream’ as passed on within the Jewish tradition.
I can’t help but take a broader view, though. That cultures throughout the Northern Hemisphere all adopted similar light-defeating-darkness celebrations, Yule, Divali, etc. Many Jewish festivals are of course different than others as existing in definite history, not cosmic myth (which many a devout Hindu, for example, will still insist really happened). In that Kabbalistic bit about the ‘light’, forgive me if I spied some Persian influence – perhaps they were developed independently – such themes as darkness and light are universal symbols hearkening back to the campfire in primitive times – and hardly went to the length of harsh dualism which would be a better indicator (as with the Essenes – diffusion theories which are of course rarely given much attention among Judeo-Christian scholars). Although indeed, the subtlety of Kabbalah would discredit my initial assertion of such influence.
It is so interesting to be reminded this was under the Seleucid Dynasty. My experience with this empire is usually focused further east.
I’ve heard many couples compromising and syncretizing the two seasonal ethnic/faith traditions. Often goes over my head, but always interesting, nonetheless.
Thank you for your insightful response to this Hannukah overview, Khirad. I had no idea you were Hindu
There is version that I know both Swedes and Germans use. It is basically the same but you use the left-over mashed potatoes from Sunday’s big meal. This may be a depression/war/frugal time recipe. (?)
My grandma(bubby)from Kiev used to make those too. I do think it’s the frugal version, but still yummy. What’s not to like?
Cher, Delightful article and happy Hannukah! I love that line “Hannukah reminds us to see everything as miraculous” and your description about how to relate to the light. Those little details hold an entire way of life in them. What more do you need? Amazing. And I love that Hannukah bush. Hehe.
Hi E’cat– and thank you! Did you see my other reply to you about VP?
Thank you so much for such an informative article. I knew some things, but not everything. I never knew Hannukkah was a secular holiday. I was just watching a program yesterday, not only did the host discuss the holiday, she also demonstrated how to make latkes and the jelly donut. The donut part was very cute because her grandchildren were “helping” — up to their elbows in flour, jelly, and sugar. I’m definitely going to try your recipe, just to see if I can.
Thanks again Cher — very interesting.
My pleasure, Boomer. If you want a recipe with flour– the traditional way– here’s a link:
Hi- I loved this, and am indeed familiar with the traditions partly out of interest and partly out of family. My sister-in-law and nephew are Jewish, and I once spent Hanukkah-Christmas with her family and had the most wonderful time! We did have a Christmas tree (though her mother worried how she’d explain it to the neighbors – who were actually doing the same) but put stars of David on it along with Christmas ornaments. The whole thing was about warmth of family and friends, the feelings of connectedness and spirituality, and I STILL have the tiny bottle of perfume I got on Eighth Night. It’s all joyous which is really the point.
Hi Choice, you’ve got it! It’s about family and love most of all. Everyone’s holidays are. And as Black Elk said, “The Holy Land is everywhere.”
Cher, I always learn so much from your posts. This one of my favorites. Thanks for the history lesson, the insights, and the laughs. They are all very appreciated on this Monday afternoon.
Really?! From you, Nellie, that means a lot to me. Thanks.
Cher, if I could write as well as you do, I’d be a very happy writer!
Wonderful post, Cher! Many people know generally what other Hanukkah is but not much detail at all. Thanks for sharing your “light” with everyone!
And Happy Hanukkah all!
AdLib, thanks for the kind words. Growing up in L.A., I too used to think most people knew something about Hannukah, but I’ve since learned otherwise. Probably most people on The Planet know though. Still, since I don’t celebrate it as much as I did when the kids were younger, I felt like writing this as a way to reconnect to the holiday. And to take a short break from politics!
Great post with great pics!
Love that Hannukah Bush !!
and the links…
We celebrate both Christmas and Hannukah -the kids really make out!
I haven’t really celebrated Hannukah in a couple of years, since my son grew up and my two step-daughters became teenagers. I miss it– but still make those fried latkes!
Oh, yes – mmmmm! The BEST! Thanks for this great post, Cher. Got any good recipes without flour though? I can’t eat wheat, and I’m not sure how to make latkes without flour. Flour substitutes are pretty awful.
3 large potatoes
1 samll yellow onion
3 tbsps. milk
1/2 tsp. baking powder
salt and pepper to taste
Do not peel the potatoes- just scrub. Then grate 1 potato on the large holes of a grater and the other two on the medium holes. Grate the onion on the small holes.
IMPORTANT: After you grate the potatoes, grab a handful and squeeze as much liquid out as you can.
Beat in the milk, egg and baking powder. Season with salt and pepper; blend well. If there is a large amount of liquid in the mixture, drain off some of it. Heat a scant