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The Guide: Hanukkah Symbols and Traditions

Because of its relatively recent development as a holiday, there are far fewer Hanukkah traditions than other major holidays such as Rosh Hashanah or Passover. This means that celebrating Hanukkah can be relatively easy for families, and also that there is lots of room for innovation and personalizing your own family’s observances.

Hanukkah Traditions: Lighting Candles

A Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, is a nine-branched candelabrum used to light Hanukkah candles. (Technically, a menorah is a seven-branched candelabrum, but the one we use on Hanukkah has nine branches. Often these words are used interchangeably.) One of the branches is always different in some way. This branch holds the shamash, the helper candle, which is used to light all the others.

According to Hanukkah traditions, candles should be lit after sundown. On the first night, two candles are lit (one for the first night of Hanukkah plus the shamash). Each night after that, an additional candle is added (three on the second night, four on the third night, and so on). The candles are added each night from right to left (the “old candles” are put in first), and then they’re lit from left to right. The new candle for that night gets lit first.

There are two blessings that some people say every night while lighting the candles. You can say them in Hebrew, in English (click here for the words) or you can find or create your own interpretation that feels right for your family. The first blessing is said while holding the lit shamash. The second blessing is often said while lighting the candles, though traditions may vary between families. There is another blessing, called the Shehecheyanu, which is said only on the first night. It’s the same blessing that is traditionally said on the first night of all Jewish holidays and for other special occasions (including wearing new clothes and eating something you haven’t tasted in a while).

After all the blessings are recited, you put the shamash back in its holder… and watch the candles glow! Hanukkah candles are meant to burn themselves out rather than be blown out, so putting them in a safe place is essential. Colorful commercial candles tend to burn about 30 minutes, while hand-dipped candles can burn up to an hour or more. Fire safety is of course important, and children can be taught from a young age both how to light a candle safely and how to look but not touch. Turning off the lights after lighting the candles is a nice touch—and great for family photographs.

Menorahs come in all shapes and sizes and designs. You can even make your own: Some popular DIY projects include using wine bottles, gluing bolts onto heatproof tile, shaping candle holders out of clay or creating a non-flammable version for kids out of toilet paper rolls and yellow tissue paper. You can also pour small amounts of olive oil into glass candle holders and light a floating wick, as a special connection to the olive oil from the Hanukkah story, but be aware: Olive oil burns much longer than candles!

Another important aspect of the holiday is the commandment to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah by putting a menorah in your window for people to see as they walk by. Electric menorahs, glow sticks or other window decorations (possibly of Hanukkah symbols) can be colorful and fun. Plus, it is safer than putting lit candles where they might get bumped. Be creative with how you choose to observe the holiday and get the whole family involved in making decorations.

Playing Dreidel

This gambling game uses a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side that represent the words, “Nes gadol ha-yah sham,” which means, “A great miracle happened there.” The Hebrew word for dreidel is sevivon, and in Israel, the letters on the sides spell out, “A great miracle happened here.” The shape of the top and structure of the game almost certainly originated in a culture outside of Judaism and this is a great example of how traditions get borrowed and changed depending on where people live and the customs around them.

How to play: Everyone gets a few coins or candies. Chocolate coins, called gelt, are a popular option. At the beginning of each round, everyone puts one coin into the “pot” in the middle. If your spin lands on the letter nun (nes), nothing happens and your turn is over. Best case scenario, it lands on gimel (gadol), and you get everything in the pot. However, if it lands on hey (ha-yah), you get half the pot. Worst case scenario is if it lands on shin (sham), then you have to put in one of your coins.

See how many dreidels your family can get spinning all at once, or who can get theirs to spin for the longest. It can take a little practice to get used to spinning a dreidel, which is usually made out of plastic. They come in all sizes and can also be made of wood, metal or clay. You can make an edible dreidel out of a pretzel, Hershey’s kiss and marshmallow. Or, like the song says, you can make one out of clay!

Hanukkah Songs

Speaking of songs, there are many Hanukkah favorites to choose from, and while they may not rise to the popularity or well-known status of many Christmas carols, they can add to the festivity of a Hanukkah celebration and create a more inclusive feeling when added to holiday playlists. Searching for a Hanukkah station on Pandora, Spotify or Apply Music can be a great way to find and learn new songs and add some music to your holiday.

There are many more songs representing the Hanukkah traditions. After lighting candles, some families sing Al Hanisim, an additional prayer about God’s miracles. Some people also have the custom of singing Ma’oz Tzur (Rock of Ages) around the menorah. There are several other Hanukkah songs in Hebrew, and there are also many in English like “Oh Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah,” and “The Dreidel Song.” The song “Ocho Kandelikas” is in Ladino, a combination of Spanish and Hebrew that has its roots in the Sephardic community.

Some American folk songs also have a distinctly “Hanukkah vibe” and are incorporated into the repertoire, like “Light One Candle,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Contemporary Jewish American musicians like Debbie Friedman have written popular Hanukkah traditions songs. Of course, as discussed in the section on modern celebrations, there are plenty of Hanukkah parodies on YouTube, too. Feel free to add your own favorite song about light or miracles to your family’s celebration.

Read on in the next section of this guide, Hanukkah Food

18Doors

Author: 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.


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.