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The Celebration of Hanukkah Today

The letter showing on this dreidel is shin. A player who spins the dreidel and gets a shin must put a chocolate coin, or gelt, in the pot. Some players use peanuts or raisins as coins.
Photo courtesy of PhotoDisc

How to Play Dreidel

(a game for two or more players)

Each player begins with an equal number of candies. Raisins, coins, or nuts may also be used. Players each put one candy in the center and then take turns spinning the dreidel.

If the dreidel lands with the nun facing up, the player does nothing. If it lands on shin, the player puts one candy in the pot. If it lands on heh, the player wins half the pot. If it lands on gimmel, he or she wins the whole pot.

After each gimmel, each player again puts one candy in the pot, and the play continues until either one player has won all the candies or until an agreed-upon period of time has passed.

Hanukkah is the eight-day Jewish holiday of lights. It begins on the night of the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, which usually falls in December. The holiday celebrates events that happened over 2,000 years ago.

The Jews then lived in Judea, part of present-day Israel. Judea and the Jews were ruled by a foreign king, Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria. Antiochus stripped the beautiful temple in Jerusalem of all its gold and silver vessels and tried to force the Jews to worship his Greek gods. He placed a Greek idol in the temple. Any Jew who practiced any form of Judaism, who studied any Jewish law, or refused to bow and sacrifice an animal to the Greek idols, was killed.

Among the martyred Jews were Hannah and her seven sons. The Syrian governor of Judea felt that a public display of their obedience to the King’s decrees would help break Jewish resistance. But one by one Hannah’s sons openly disobeyed the King and were cruelly tortured and killed. King Antiochus even promised the youngest boy, six-year-old Solomon, a princedom if he bowed to the idol Zeus. But Solomon refused. After witnessing the torture and death of her children, Hannah collapsed on the bodies of her sons and died.

The King’s soldiers went throughout Judea to force Jews to worship the Greek gods. When they came to Modin, a town near Jerusalem, an old Jewish priest named Mattathias threw down the idol and called out, “Whoever is for the Lord, follow me!” He led his five sons and their followers to the hills where the rebellion against Antiochus began. It was the first struggle in recorded history for religious freedom.

The rebellion raged for three years. Antiochus sent his most trusted generals, Apollonius, Lysias, and Gorgias, with thousands of soldiers to fight the small band of Jews who hid in the hills. At first, Mattathias led the rebel Jews. After he died, his son Judah, known as Judah the Maccabee (the Hammer), became their leader. The greatly outnumbered Jews won again and again, and in the year 165 B.C., they recaptured Jerusalem.

The Jews cleaned and repaired the temple and looked for oil to light the ner tamid, the light in the temple’s seven-branched menorah (candelabra) that always burned. The Jews found only a small cruse (jar) of oil, enough to last just one day. But it is said that the oil burned for eight days until more oil could be prepared.

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The Celebration of Hanukkah Today

Children light a menorah on one of the nights of Hanukkah. Of the eight nights of Hanukkah, which night is this menorah being lighted?
Illustration courtesy of Sam Weissman
Today, in Jewish homes throughout the world, candles are lighted on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah to commemorate the glorious military victory and the miracle of the oil. The Hanukkah menorah has nine branches, with eight candles on one level and the ninth slightly higher. The ninth candle is the shamus, the “servant” candle used to light the others. On the first night the shamus is used to light one candle placed in the far right of the menorah. This candle and the shamus are allowed to burn until they are gone. On the second night two new candles are placed in the menorah, beginning with the far right. The order in which candles are lighted by the new shamus, however, is from left to right. The procedure is continued, adding one more candle each night, until the eighth night, when the shamus is used to light all eight candles.

Many people use menorahs that burn oil instead of candles, to remind them of the oil that burned in the temple. The menorah is lighted in front of a window so that people walking by will see the lights and remember the Hanukkah miracles.

Each night, before the candles are lighted, two blessings are said. The first blesses God, “Who commanded us to light the Hanukkah menorah.” The second blesses God, “Who did miracles for our forefathers.” And on the first night, a third blessing is added, thanking God, “Who maintained us and sustained us to this season.”

After the candles have been lighted, Maoz Tsur, a Hebrew hymn, is sung. Maoz Tsur was written in the mid-1200’s by a man named Mordecai—the first letters of each stanza spell his name. The hymn recalls the Jews’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt, from the Babylonian exile, from Antiochus Epiphanes, and from Haman, the wicked Persian official.

Latkes (potato pancakes) and, in Israel, sufganiyot (doughnuts) are traditional Hanukkah foods because both are fried in oil and remind Jews of the miraculous jar of oil.

Gifts are exchanged in many homes, and Hanukkah gelt (coins) are given to the children. The money is often used in the dreidel games, which follow the lighting of the candles. A dreidel is a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side. Outside of Israel the letters are (nun), (gimmel), (heh), and (shin) which are the first letters of the Hebrew words (nais gadol hayah sham), which mean, “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel the fourth letter is changed to (pei), and the fourth word is changed to poh. The phrase becomes (nais gadol hayah poh), which means, “A great miracle happened here.”

Hanukkah, a Hebrew word meaning “dedication,” has many English spellings. The variance is due to the lack of exact English equivalents for many Hebrew sounds.

David A. Adler
Author, A Picture Book of Hanukkah

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