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Hanukkah: The Basics

What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” is a beloved winter festival celebrating both a military victory and a miracle.

It’s eight days are filled with menorahs, dreidels and fried foods. The date of Hanukkah on the American calendar changes each year and ranges anywhere from late November to late December. And like all Jewish holidays, it begins at sundown the night before.

Best known for its proximity to Christmas, this minor Jewish holiday can stir up lots of questions for interfaith families. Not to worry, though, because we can help with that. Head over to 18Doors.org for advice on answering these questions about celebrating multiple holidays, together.

Download a print-ready PDF of this guide here.

How Do We Light the Candles?

Let’s break down one of the most important rituals of Hanukkah: lighting the menorah. A Hanukkah menorah (also called a hanukkiah), is a nine-branched candelabra. Menorahs come in all shapes and sizes, and you can even make your own.

One of the branches always sticks out, whether it’s in the middle and taller than the others or at the front and shaped differently. This branch holds the shamash, which in Hebrew means “the helper candle” and it lights all the others.” We light candles after sundown and (attentively) let them burn out.

On the first night, be sure to light two candles (one for the first night of Hanukkah plus the shamash). Each night after that, add a new candle from right to left (the “old candles” are put in first), and then they’re lit from left to right. The new candle gets lit first.

What To Say When Lighting the Candles: The Blessings

It’s easy to forget the blessings for Hanukkah, since we only say them once a year. Read on for two blessings that can be said each night when lighting the candles and the Shehecheyanu, which is recited only on the first night.

On the first night, say the Shehecheyanu:

Blessed is the One who inspires the universe, sustains us, raises us up and enables us to reach this season.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam. Shehechianu v’kiyamanu, v’higianu, laz’man ha-zeh.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלוֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָּנוּ, וְקִיְּמָנוּ, וְהִגִּיָּענוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה

When lighting the shamash, say:

Blessed is the One who inspires the universe and instills within us the holiness of mitzvot by commanding us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu, l’hadlik ner, shel Hanukkah.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי, אֱלוֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִידְשָׁנוּ בְּמִצוֹתָיו, וְצִיוָּנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר שֶׁל חַנֻכָה

When lighting the candles, say:

Blessed is the One who inspires the universe and created miracles of our ancestors in those days at that time.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, she’asah nisim l’avoteinu, bayamim ha-haim, baz’man ha-zeh.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי, אֱלוֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ, בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה לוּלב

What’s the Story?

Hanukkah, like Passover, revolves around storytelling. In the historical tale, the main characters are the Maccabees: a band of fighters from a priestly family trying to preserve and reclaim a certain Jewish way of life.

We celebrate the victory of this small group of fighters who defeated the powerful army of the Syrian Greek empire and cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been occupied.

Once they reclaimed the temple, they only found one can of oil. That can of oil, which was supposed to last one day, ended up lasting eight. That’s why we celebrate the miracle of light.

What Do We Eat?

Because the oil lasted for eight days and nights—so goes the legend—we fry lots of foods in oil on Hanukkah. Latkes (potato pancakes) are the most popular holiday food from an Ashkenazi (Eastern European) tradition, and they’re typically served with applesauce and sour cream. Jelly doughnuts, called sufganiyot, are a sweet holiday treat that originated in Israel.

Jewish cultures, worldwide, have their own versions of fried foods eaten during the holiday. You can peruse our  many Hanukkah recipes, which include recipes appropriate for Hanukkah/Christmas gatherings and kid-friendly recipes. Eight nights means eight opportunities to try new recipes, so get creative and fry up some foods from another culture!

Let’s Play a Hanukkah Game

We love playing “dreidel,” a family-friendly game where chocolate coins, gelt are the prize. A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side that represents the words, “Nes gadol ha-yah sham,” which in Hebrew means, “A great miracle happened there.” That’s because this holiday is all about celebrating the miracle of something unexpected happening.

The shape of the top and structure of the game almost certainly originated in a culture outside of Judaism. It’s a great example of how traditions are borrowed and changed depending on where people live and the customs around them. Grab the instructions, purchase some gelt and get spinning!

To Gift or Not To Gift

Since Hanukkah often takes place around Christmas, many families give presents during the Jewish holiday in an effort to keep their kids from feeling left out. Others see gift giving as a sweet way to connect with loved ones. Some families enjoy giving each other small (or not so small) gifts each of the eight nights, or maybe just the first or last night—there’s no right way to do it. Some families that go big on Christmas choose to center Hanukkah around giving to others (tzedakah). Check out our guide on navigating both holidays as an interfaith couple or family.

Celebrating Our Whole Selves: Discussion Starters

menorah and tree

Everyone should choose to celebrate whatever they want, however they want. Some years, Hanukkah ends before Christmas begins, and other years the holidays overlap. Some people choose to celebrate Hanukkah in their home, and Christmas with extended family somewhere else (or vice versa). Some interfaith families celebrate everything at once.

If you’re in a relationship with someone of a different religious background, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed when delving into so many decisions together.

The winter holidays are a great opportunity to learn about your partner (and maybe even yourself), and to strengthen your communication skills. Try out our December holiday conversation starters to get things going. This is also a time to honor and share traditions from your family of origin and consider what kinds of new traditions you want to create as a family.


18Doors

18Doors is here to support interfaith couples and families exploring Jewish life. We offer educational content; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship provides offerings for couples in cities nationwide. If you have questions, please contact info@18doors.org.

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Author: 18Doors