Understanding Hanukkah - For Non-Jews

Updated on May 19, 2016
Lighting the menorah
Lighting the menorah | Source

You've probably heard of Hanukkah - many non-Jews have. But you may be surprised to learn that it's not an especially religious celebration. Because it falls at the end of the Georgian calendar year - November/December time - it's often associated with Christmas but actually its origins are in the suppression of the Jewish faith.

History of Hanukkah

Antiochus was the Greek king of Syria around 168 BC. He outlawed Jewish rituals and decreed that Jews worship only Greek gods. This suppression included the seizure of the Jews' holy Temple which was then given over to the worship of Zeus.

Angry Jews fought back and won a revolution against the Greek government. In a demonstration of how 2 groups can join forces against a common enemy, Judah Maccabbe and his father's religious group teamed with a nationalist group and regained the Temple. It could then be re-dedicated to the worship of God.

The Greeks hadn’t given up easily and the Temple was destroyed in the revolt, so when the Maccabees wanted to light the menorah as part of the re-dedication, they could only find a tiny flask of oil. There was enough to light it for 1 day only. However a miracle occurred and the oil actually lasted for 8 days which meant more supplies could be found.

And this is why Hanukkah is often called the Festival of Lights and lasts for 8 days.

The menroah
The menroah | Source

The Menorah

The menorah is central in a Jewish home. They come in many shapes, sizes and styles but their most important feature is that each flame is separated from its neighbour so that it doesn't represent a pagan bonfire.

The shape we're familiar with today started to appear towards the end of the middle ages. There are pictures here and you'll see that it stands on a base and has 8 branches arcing upwards. In the middle, the shamus, or servant, candle is slightly raised.

On the 1st night of Hanukkah a candle is placed in the holder on the far right of the menorah. The shamus (servant candle) is lit and 3 blessings are said: one thanking God for His miracles for the Jews, a general prayer and a prayer thanking God for His grace in helping everyone reach Hanukkah again. That first candle is light via the shamus.

This ritual is repeated each night, adding a candle from the left to the right hand side, but lighting them right to left, and the first 2 blessings from the 1st night are repeated.

The candles for Hanukkah are not for lighting the room they're in but are for pleasure only.

The dreidel
The dreidel | Source

The Dreidel Game

There are a number of traditions associated with Hanukkah and hark back to the time of Antiochus and the suppression of the Jews. At that time it was illegal to study the Torah so this was done in secret. If the Greek soldiers came upon groups who were studying, the dreidel was kept near so that they could claim to be playing a betting game.

So today a game played is with the dreidel. A dreidel is like a child's spinning top and has 4 flat sides, each with a Hebrew letter. The letters are Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin and stand for the phrase 'a great miracle happened here' - the miracle of the oil.

The game is played by each participant putting penny (or a piece of candy or a matchstick) into a pot and then spins the dreidel in turn. If it lands on Nun then the next person simply takes their turn. If it lands in Gimel the spinner wins the whole pot. On Hei the player wins half the pot and if it lands on Shin the player has to put a penny/candy/matchstick into the pot.

This continues until one person has won everything.

Traditional Food.

No Jewish celebration or tradition would be complete without food! And because Hanukkah is a celebration around the oil in the temple, traditional Hanukkah food is cooked in oil.

An example is latkes (say 'lot-kuh') which are potato cakes fried in oil. There's a recipe below.

How to Make Latkes

Gift Giving at Hanukkah

Unlike Christmas in the Christian tradition, gift giving is mainly for parents to their own young children and is not a part of the celebration. It's thought that because Hanukkah falls near Christmas, Jewish children saw their non-Jewish friends getting presents and wanted the same.

Dates for Hanukkah, 2011 and 2012

The date of Hanukkah changes slightly in the Gregorian calendar each year. For 2011 it will be: (Jewish Year 5772) sunset December 20th, 2011 to nightfall on December 28th, 2011 (first candle: night of 20th December last candle: night of 27th December)

And for 2012, (Jewish Year 5773) sunset December 8th, 2012 to nightfall on December 16th, 2012; (first candle: night of 8th December, last candle: night of 15th December).


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    • Temirah profile image

      Temirah 5 years ago

      Glad you both enjoyed it - Happy Hanukkah!

    • Debby Bruck profile image

      Debby Bruck 5 years ago

      Good synopsis for the beginner. Thanks for posting. Happy Hanukkah!

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 6 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      Good information for us Christians. The Dreidel Game

      was new to me too.