The history of Hanukkah and how it is celebrated today in Israel

Jews and Arabs light candles in Jerusalem during Hanukkah, 2015. The "shamash" or "servant candle" is in the middle. (Photo: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Hanukkah is around the corner and the telltale signs have been everywhere for many weeks.

Much like Christmas decorations make an appearance even before Thanksgiving in many countries, Hanukkah shows its face in Israel from as early as October as soon as Sukkot ends.

The holiday officially begins Tuesday at sunset with the lighting of the first candle on the hannukiah. In schools, children learn Hanukkah songs and play with dreidels as we approach this winter holiday. Shopping malls offer Hanukkah specials. Grocery stores sell gelt (foil-wrapped, coin-shaped candy) and have sales on potatoes, onions, flour, sugar and oil — ingredients for the oil-drenched foods associated with the holiday.

Synagogues and municipalities erect giant hanukkiot (nine-branched candelabra) across country while bakeries are brimming with sufganiyot, jelly-filled and other designer donuts. In short, festivity is in the air.

But in our quest to understand how the non-biblical holiday became one of Judaism’s biggest celebrations, how the menorah became the hanukkiah and how sufganiyot, dreidels and gelt wound their way into tradition, we must delve into Jewish literature, uncover obscure history and embrace myths and legends that have evolved over time.

If you ask an Israeli what Hanukkah is about, the range of answers will include: “It’s the Jewish Feast of Lights,” “It’s the Feast of Dedication,” “It was from Judas the Maccabee, wasn’t it?” and “It started when there was a miracle of oil in the Temple.”

In effect, all of the above are true. Hanukkah is an amalgamation and conglomeration of stories and rituals that have wound their way through time from the period of the Greek Seleucid Empire in the year 168 BC, to the time of the Romans and beyond.

Its full name is Hannukat HaMizbe’ach, which means Dedication of the Altar. The details of the day and its name are first found in a 1st century AD document called Megillat Ta’anit (The Scroll of Fasting). At this time, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes issued decidedly anti-Jewish decrees which set out to eradicate all biblical and extra-biblical commands and creeds.

To add insult to injury, three months after the decrees were issued, the Greeks dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem to the sun god, Apollo, and sacrificed pigs on the altar. This outrageous act led to a three-year uprising in which the Maccabees, a band of Jewish rebels in Judea led by Judah Maccabee and his four brothers, resisted the Greeks and eventually liberated the temple. They destroyed the unclean altar and dedicated a new one, hence the name Dedication of the Altar.

The victory led to special coins being minted and that is why today it is customary to give chocolate coins to children to remember the victory of the Maccabees.

Hanukkah, therefore, first and foremost commemorated a military victory for the Jewish people and the day was remembered as such for a few hundred years.

The apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees 4:49-59 says: “They…made new sacred vessels, and they brought the lampstand…into the Temple. They burned incense on the altar and lit the lights on the lampstand, and the Temple was filled with light…For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar….Then Judah, his brothers and the entire community of Israel decreed that the days of rededication of the altar should be celebrated with a festival of joy and gladness at this same time every year beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev and lasting for eight days.” 

At this point they constructed a hanukkiah, a candelabra with nine branches instead of the biblical seven commanded by God.

The story continues in the following book, 2 Maccabees, giving an explanation of oil spontaneously igniting. Josephus Flavius writes in Antiquities 12:325 that Hanukkah is called “The Feast of Fire,” but at this point we still have no information of any miracle of oil burning for eight days. Neither the Babylonian Talmud written 300 years later in the 4th century, nor the Midrash-Pesikta Rabbati in the year 845 AD mention any miracle of oil in their cryptic references made to the lighting of candles on Hanukkah.

Theory has it that over time, rabbis and Jewish leaders decided to shift the focus away from glorifying the Maccabeean military success and instead focus on the miraculous divine light mentioned in 2 Maccabees. A miracle was fabricated in lore and the military victory became secondary to the wonders of oil that burned — or not — for eight days.

The dreidel, a spinning top, sevivon in Hebrew, also claims an obscure reference to the miracle and became the holiday’s traditional toy, even inspiring dreidel competitions.

As is typical with Jewish feasts, Hanukkah also requires corresponding traditional food to go with it. Another apocryphal character, Judith from the Book of Judith, set hundreds of years before the Maccabees, was a catalyst to eating dairy for the holiday as meat was avoided when in enemy territory.

In the 1600s, a rabbi wrote a poem mentioning “Levivot with cheese in Hanukkah and crunchy sufganin.”

In the late 1700s, mention is made in a Moroccan manuscript of “sufginin al sfindj fried in oil in memory of our blessing.” Today, the sfindj, a sweet fried pastry, is a Moroccan Jewish specialty similar to a doughnut or beignet.

In 1938, an expert committee on all things Jewish decided to assign names to the fried foods of Hanukkah. This resulted in the latke (potato fritter) derived from regular pancakes filled with cheese in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the sufganiya (doughnut).

Today fierce competitions occur over who makes the best latkes at home, while bakeries try to outdo each other — and themselves — each year, inventing fancy fillings and toppings in order to claim the most unusual and trendy sufganiyot.

For the home cook, many online recipes for latkes are similar. But if you plan to attempt these savory treats at home, this author has a tip for you: To avoid the smell of onions or oil permeating the house, heat up a solution of vinegar and water — equal parts of each — in a small pot before and during the frying process, and keep topping it up with vinegar as the solution evaporates.

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Dee Catz
Israeli-born Dee Catz is a Jewish believer in Yeshua, happily married with children. She has an interest in cooking and baking and all things Biblical. History, Geography, and Archaeology are some of her favorite hobbies, as well as touring Israel's national parks and landmark sites with her family and friends. She has been contributing to Kehila News Israel since December 2015.