Note: Some of this information applies to Chanukah 5765/2004 only.
The cruel tyrant Antiochus ruled the Syrian territories of the Greek Empire, which included the Land of Israel. The sweep of Hellenist culture in 164 b.c.e. forced the Greek pantheon and philosophy on the Mediterranean nations, promoting the supremacy of human reason, and worshipping physical beauty for its own sake.
The powerful Greek rulers appointed Hellenistic Jews to prominent positions. Rejecting their Jewish faith, the apostates adopted Greek names, dress and thought and reduced the holy Torah to mere literature and history, rather than Divine truth.
But many Jews remained loyal to the Torah, so the infuriated Antiochus sent soldiers to wipe them out and eradicate Judaism. The Greeks forbade Jewish practice, but Jewish martyrs defied the ban on Torah study, Circumcision and Shabbat observance.
Heroic Jews like Chana and her seven sons perished rather than bow to a Greek idol, and the aged priest Eliezer was slain for refusing non-kosher meat.
The elderly Matityahu and his five sons in the town of Modin started a rebellion, calling themselves the Maccabees, a Hebrew acrostic: Mi Komochah Beilim Hashem, Who is like Thee, G-d. The courageous band of faithful Jews prevailed over the mighty Greek army and expelled them from Israel.
The Maccabees then turned to clean and restore the center of Jewish life, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, searching the pillaged and defiled Temple for sacred oil to light the Menorah. They found only one small jar of oil that was not defiled by the Greeks. This oil was insufficient to light the Menorah for more than one day.
Miraculously, the oil burned a full eight days until newly pressed pure oil was obtained.
This year, we usher in Chanukah with the lighting of the First Candle on Tuesday evening December 7.
Before lighting the Menorah, we first kindle the Shamash servant candle, and recite the following three blessings:
We light an additional candle each night of Chanukah, leading up to the lighting of all eight candles on Tuesday evening, December 14. The Chanukah holiday actually continues until Wednesday night December 15.
The Menorah's 8 lights must all be of equal height, in a straight row. To differentiate it from the other Chanukah candles, the Shamash 'servant' candle that kindles the others is placed a little higher or lower.
Most Menorahs use candles, while some prefer olive oil. When lighting with oil, wicks can be purchased, or can be homemade by twisting a puff of absorbent cotton into a 2-3 inch string.
An electric menorah does not fulfill the Mitzvah obligation, but may be placed in addition to a candle or oil menorah to promote Chanukah awareness.
A holiday of renewal and rededication, Chanukah is the time to promote Jewish heritage. We encourage children to light their own Menorahs.
In the absence of a manufactured Menorah, metal bottle covers or containers may be used, but be sure there is no fire hazard. During the Holocaust and Communist oppression, Jews improvised Menorahs from hollowed potatoes filled with margarine or fat. Today, Israeli soldiers on duty have used spent ammunition canisters lined in a row as their Menorah.
On the first night, light the flame on the extreme right of the Menorah. Each succeeding night another flame is added to the left of the previous flames. The new flame is lit first, followed by the flame to its right, and so on, until all eight flames are kindled.
Many people place the Menorah on a windowsill facing the street, while some prefer lighting at the doorpost across the mezuzah. Kindled at sunset or nightfall, the candles should burn for at least half an hour after dark.
On Friday evenings (Dec. 10 this year) the Chanukah lights must be kindled before the Shabbos lights. (Shabbos begins once the Shabbos candles are lit, so it is forbidden to light the Menorah later.) Saturday night, the Chanukah candles are lit after the Havdalah ceremony bids farewell to Shabbos.
It is customary to sit by the kindled Menorah, tell stories and sing Chanukah songs. We are not allowed to benefit directly from the light of the candles, only from the shamash and other lights in the room.
Work is not to be done near the lit candles. Some women refrain from household chores during the half-hour that the lights burn, honoring the brave Jewish heroines who played crucial roles in the Chanukah story.
The full Hallel is recited during Chanukahs morning prayers. We add Al Hanissim in the Amida and during Grace after meals. We give Chanukah Gelt to the children, encouraging them to donate some money to charity.
Chanukah gifts of books, games and toys are welcome, but it is proper to also follow the Gelt coins tradition.
The Draydel spinning toy with Hebrew letters on its four sides is available in metal, plastic or wood in various colors and sizes.
The Syrian Greeks had forbidden Jews to study Torah. But the steadfast Jews defied the ban, and continued to learn in hiding. If a Torah class was discovered by Greek soldiers, the children disguised their studies by pretending they were just playing an innocent game of Draydel.
Oil is central to the Chanukah miracle, so it is traditional to eat fried foods, i.e. Potato Latke pancakes and Sufganiot doughnuts.
It is customary to eat dairy specialties. Cheese recalls the heroine Judith, who charmingly made her way into the enemy camp, and gained the confidence of Helifornos, a vicious Greek general. She served him salty cheese, followed by wine to quench his thirst. As he slept, Judith seized his sword and slew him. Realizing that their leader had fallen, his soldiers ran off in confusion, and the Jews were saved.
|Before lighting the Menorah, we first kindle the Shamash 'servant' candle, and recite the following three blessings:
Bo-ruch A-toh Ado-noi E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech
Ha-olom A-sher Ki-de-sha-nu Be-mitz-vo-sav Ve-tzi-va-nu Le-had-lik Ner Cha-nu-kah.
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us by His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the light of Chanukah.
Bo-ruch A-toh Ado-noi Elo-hei-nu Me-lech
(The following blessing is said only the first time we kindle the Chanukah lights.)