1. What Is Chanukah?
During the period of the second Temple, the Syrian-Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jews in an attempt to cause them to assimilate culturally. They refused to allow the Jewish people to observe the Torah and to follow the commandments. They disrupted the Sanctuary of the Temple and rendered it ritually impure. G-d sent redemption through a rebellion led by the Chasmonaim (Hasmoneans), a family of kohanim (priests) popularly referred to as the Maccabees. Following the overthrow of the invaders, the Jews regained sovereignty, which they retained for more than 200 years.
After overcoming the Syrian-Greeks, the Jews entered the Sanctuary the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev. They found only a single cruse of pure oil in the Temple. This was only enough oil to keep the Menorah burning for a single day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, until a new supply of oil could be produced.
The Sages of that generation therefore decreed that the eight-day period beginning on 25 Kislev, should be should be observed as days of rejoicing and of praise to G-d. Candles are lit each evening to commemorate the miracle.
2. Is Chanukah All About the Oil?
Not at all! In fact, that is a very common misconception. We do light the Chanukah menorah (also known as a “chanukiyah”) in commemoration of the miracle of the oil but the holiday itself celebrates the victory over forces that were trying to impose cultural assimilation on the Jews. Al Hanissim, the prayer recited throughout the holiday, spells it out for us:
“…when the evil Syrian-Greek regime arose against Your people Israel in an attempt to make them forget Your Torah and violate Your decrees, You, in Your great mercy, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged battle for them, You defended their rights, and You avenged the wrongs that had been done to them. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the evil into the hands of the righteous, and the sinful into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah…”
Not a word about the oil!
3. Why Isn’t Chanukah Seven Days Long?
A day’s worth of oil lasting for eight days is certainly miraculous – on days two through eight! The oil lasting the first day is pretty normal, so why is the first day commemorated? The commentators have various explanations for how this might be. For example, the Maccabees might have divided the oil into eight parts so that they could use a little each day. In such case, even lasting the first day would have been a miracle. Another explanation is that they might have poured all the oil into the lamps on the first day, only to find that the cruse from which they poured it was still full. There are many other possible explanations. What all agree to, however, was that the first day was indeed part of the miracle.
4. From What May a Menorah Be Made?
Kaf HaChaim by Rav Yaakov Chaim Sofer (1870–1939) lists 15 common substances from which a Chanukah menorah. These range from such precious metals as gold and silver to more common materials like glass, wood and china. It is important for a person to acquire a beautiful menorah, to the best of his ability. For this reason, substances like egg shells, hollowed out potatoes, lemons and other fruits and vegetables may not be used as a menorah because, even though they are functional, doing so degrades the mitzvah. Anything use as a menorah must also be able to stand on its own without being propped up. Wax candles do not need to be placed into a menorah per se; they may be connected to a common surface like a wall or a ledge.
5. Why Do We Really Give Presents?
Many people think that giving presents is a modern practice, instituted solely to keep our kids from feeling bad while their non-Jewish peers are being showered with holiday presents. Actually, giving gifts of money – “Chanukah gelt” – is an ancient tradition. There are different theories as to the origin of the practice. Some feel that it is because the Talmud tells us (Shabbos 22a) that we may not use the Chanukah lights to count coins. We therefore give our children coins to teach them how to use and not to use the light of the menorah. Regardless of its origin, giving Chanukah gelt is a very old practice among Jews, approved of by the great rabbis of previous generations (see, for example, Magen Avraham on Orach Chaim 670). Some have the practice to give Chanukah gelt to their children specifically on the fifth night of Chanukah. This is because the fifth night of Chanukah can never fall on Shabbos, when the distribution of money would be prohibited.
6. Why Do We Play Dreidel?
The origin of the practice to play dreidel on Chanukah is subject to debate. The most popular theory is a legend that the game dates back to the time of Roman persecution, when Torah study was banned. Groups of Jews would meet, at great personal risk, to study Torah. If a Roman Legionnaire would approach, they would start spinning a dreidel and pretend that they had simply been playing an innocent game. Another theory suggests that the custom of playing dreidel was instituted to ensure that the children would be present for lighting the menorah and then remain for a while. A final theory posits that the dreidel represents a concession on the part of communal authorities to enable people to engage in some lighthearted gambling, an activity otherwise frowned upon. Regardless of its origin, the dreidel remains popular because of its thematic significance in representing the miracle of the holiday.
7. Is There An Obligation to Make a Festive Meal on Chanukah?
While there is no specific obligation to eat a meal on Chanukah, Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserlis, 16th century Poland) writes that it is nevertheless appropriate to prepare such a meal to recall the rededication of the Temple and to sing songs of praise and thanks to remember the miracles. If one does so, the meal is elevated to the status of a seudas mitzvah (i.e., there is a mitzvah to partake of such a meal). Additionally, there is a practice to eat cheese on Chanukah, to remember how Yehudis, daughter of Yochanan the High Priest, was able to behead the Greek general Holofernes after serving him dairy products. There is also an ancient custom to eat foods fried in oil, such as doughnuts, to remember the miracle of the oil. Rambam’s father wrote that this was already an established practice in his time (i.e., the 12th century) and that one should not treat it lightly.
8. Why Is a Minor Holiday So Popular?
While Chanukah is certainly an important holiday, it is not as important as such Biblical Festivals as Sukkot and Shavuot. And other rabbinically-instituted holidays, like Purim and Tisha b’Av, are nowhere near as well-known as Chanukah. It’s obvious that Chanukah’s proximity to another winter holiday has given it a big boost over other equally deserving Jewish occasions. But isn’t it ironic that the holiday celebrating the triumph over assimilation is the most popular because it’s seen as a Jewish alternative to Christmas?
Far from ironic, it’s actually quite appropriate. For generations, Chanukah has been observed by many families and individuals as the last vestige of a Judaism otherwise lost to them. Chanukah has been the thing that kept them connected to the Judaism and enabled just one more generation to know they were Jewish. Many of these later found their way back into the fold. Hardly a Jewish Christmas, Chanukah has actually helped to stem the tide of assimilation!