Religion & Liberty Online

FAQ: What is Hanukkah?

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, runs from the evening of Thursday, December 10 until Friday, December 18, 2020. Here is what you need to know.

What is the history of Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for “dedication,” and the holiday celebrates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple after pagan desecration.

The Syrian ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes captured the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 168 B.C. and dedicated it to the worship of Zeus. To add insult to injury, he sacrificed a pig on the altar. The illegitimate “high priest” appointed by the government, Menelaus, erected a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies, and he forced Jews to worship Greek idols or accept martyrdom.

The faithful priest Mattathias and his family, known as the Maccabees or Hasmoneans, led a seven-year rebellion (167-160 B.C.) to reclaim their freedom of religion. After Mattathias’ son, Judas Maccabeus, won a series of David-and-Goliath victories against the Syrians, his forces liberated the Temple in 165 B.C. They immediately repaired the damage the pagans did to its sacred furnishings, destroyed and rebuilt its desecrated altar, and reconsecrated the Temple to the worship of God (Yahweh).

A tradition emerged that they found only one container of olive oil not contaminated by the pagans, enough to burn for one day. However, the flame miraculously gave its light for eight days.

What are Hanukkah customs about lighting the menorah?

Jews light the candles on a menorah, or hannukiah, an eight-branched candelabrum with a ninth branch for the central candle. The eight Hanukkah candles are level, but the central candle – known as the shamash (“servant” or “helper” candle) – is usually taller than the rest. Only this candle is used to light the Hanukkah candles. Candles are placed in the menorah beginning on the farthest spot on the individual’s right, and each day, a new candle is added to the left of the previous one.

The menorah is traditionally placed in a window, or on the left side of an external door, so it can serve as a public testimony of the holiday.

Each evening of Hanukkah, the family gathers near sunset to say prayers, then light the Hanukkah candles. The prayers of the first night, in English translation, say:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this season.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.

The third prayer is recited only on the first night.

One person lights the shamash (“server” or “helper” candle) and uses it – and it alone – to light the rest of the candles, which are lit one at a time, newest to oldest, while singing the “Hanerot Halalu.” The Orthodox Union gives its translation as follows:

We kindle these lights to commemorate the miracles and the wonders and the acts of salvation and the battles that You fought in behalf of our ancestors long ago, at this time, through Your righteous priests. And during all the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are holy! And we have no right to make use of them, but only to behold them, in order to give thanks and to praise Your great Name, for Your miracles, and Your wonders and Your acts of salvation.

Afterwards, the family may sing a six-stanza hymn titled “Maoz Tzur,” which recounts Jewish history, and add other prayers. (You can read a translation here.)

The menorah is considered a living testimony of God’s miracles so, as the “Hanerot Halalu” prayer states, observant Jews are not supposed to use the eight Hanukkah candles as a source of light for their home; they should light other lights in the home.

On the Sabbath (Shabbat), families light the Hanukkah candles before the Shabbat candles. Hanukkah candles should burn for at least 30 minutes. All the candles are replaced with new candles each evening.

Can you use something other than candles for the menorah?

Some Jews continue to use pure olive oil for the hannukiah, like the Maccabees.

What traditional foods are associated with Hanukkah?

Rabbinical literature prohibits fasting during the eight days of Hanukkah. To acknowledge the role of oil in its history, those who celebrate Hanukkah often eat fried foods – especially potato pancakes known as latkes, or jelly-filled donuts known as sufganiyot. (Here are recipes for latkes and suganiyot, respectively.)

What is gelt?

In modern observance, gelt consists of chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil that parents give to children.

According to Gina Glasman, a professor of Judaic Studies at Binghamton University, the Hanukkah tradition of giving gelt (Yiddish for “money”) began by giving local workers and merchants “a little bit extra” pay – essentially, a small holiday bonus. Over time, parents gave children money to give to their teachers. “It wasn’t until the 19th century that Hanukkah gelt was given primarily to children,” according to the Union for Reform Judaism.

Is Hanukkah mentioned in the Bible?

Yes and no.

The Books of the Maccabees are not part of the Hebrew Bible but are recognized by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, and they are included by some Protestants in the Apocrypha. The rededication of the Temple, and the institution of an annual holiday to commemorate it, is mentioned in I Maccabees 4:30-61 and, in a shorter form, in II Maccabees 10:1-8. The most succinct verse states: “Judas, and his brethren, and all the church of Israel decreed, that the day of the dedication of the altar should be kept in its season from year to year for eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month of Casleu [Kislev], with joy and gladness” (I Maccabees 4:59).

However, the later tradition about oil miraculously burning for eight days is not found in the Bible. Instead, it is described in the Talmud, in Shabbat 21b.

The Christian Scriptures, the New Testament, also record that Jesus observed Hanukkah: “And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.  And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch” (St. John 10:22–23).

What do the letters on the dreidel mean?

The small spinning top known as a dreidel (sevivon in Hebrew) has four Hebrew letters inscribed on each of its sides: nun (נ), gimel (ג), hei (ה), and shin (ש). They stand for the phrase, “Nes gadol haya sham” – “A great miracle occurred there.” In Israel, the fourth letter is peh (פ)for the Hebrew phrase, “Nes gadol haya po” — “A great miracle occurred here.”

How do you play the dreidel game?

Everyone begins with an equal number of items to play with – either gelt, other foods, or small items. At the beginning of each round, every player puts a gelt into the pot. Each player then spins the dreidel, and the outcomes are:

  • nun (נ): “Nisht,” the player does nothing;
  • gimel (ג): “Gantz,” the player gets everything in the pot;
  • hei (ה): “Halb,” the player takes half the pot; or
  • shin (ש) or peh (פ): Add one piece to the pot.

If a player runs out of pieces, he is out of the game, or asks other players for a loan. The game ends when one player wins everything.

Is it traditional to give gifts during Hanukkah?

It has become customary for Jews to exchange gifts on one or more nights of Hanukkah. However, that is a modern, Western phenomenon. According to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, “Hanukkah gelt is an old custom, well attested in Europe. Gift giving, by contrast, is new.”

Is Hanukkah a major Jewish holiday?

The high Jewish holy days occur in the fall, culminating with Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe. Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, but researchers say it has grown in significance in the West.

“Surveys we conducted in both Israel and the U.S. confirm that Hanukkah is perceived to be much less important in Israel,” write Stanford researchers Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav, and Oren Rigbi in The Economic Journal. “[T]he importance of Hanukkah among American Jews is driven by its proximity (in the time dimension) to Christmas, and that many American Jews use Hanukkah as a way to provide their children with an exciting alternative.”

What is the earliest and latest dates Hanukkah can fall?

Technically, Hanukkah begins on the same day every year: the 25th day of Kislev (the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar). However, the lunar-based Hebrew months do not perfectly coincide with the Gregorian calendar. Hanukkah usually begins in late November or December. However, in the year 3031, there will be no Hanukkah … and in the year 3032, there will be two: one in January and one in December.

What is the appropriate Hebrew greeting for Hanukkah?

If you want to wish someone a blessed feast in Hebrew, you may say “Hanukkah sameach!” (“Happy Hanukkah!”), or “Chag urim sameach” (“Happy Festival of Lights”). Alternately, “Chag sameach!” (“Happy holiday!”) is an appropriate greeting for any joyful holiday.

Further resources from the Acton Institute on Judaism and economics:

Judaism, Law & the Free Market: An Analysis by Joseph Isaac Lifshitz

Judaism, Markets, and Capitalism: Separating Myth from Reality by Corinne Sauer and Robert M. Sauer

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson (@therightswriter) is an Eastern Orthodox priest and served as Executive Editor of the Acton Institute (2016-2021), editing Religion & Liberty, the Powerblog, and its transatlantic website. He has extensively researched the Alt-Right. Previously, he worked for LifeSiteNews and, where he wrote three books including Party of Defeat (with David Horowitz, 2008). His work has appeared at, National Review, The American Spectator, The Guardian, Daily Caller, National Catholic Register, Spectator USA, FEE Online, RealClear Policy, The Blaze, The Stream, American Greatness, Aleteia, Providence Magazine, Charisma, Jewish World Review, Human Events, Intellectual Takeout,, Issues & Insights, The Conservative,, and The American Orthodox Institute. His personal websites are and His views are his own.