On the 25th of Kislev are the days of Chanukkah, which are eight... these were appointed a Festival with Hallel [prayers of praise] and thanksgiving.
-Shabbat 21b, Babylonian Talmud
Chanukah (“dedication”), also known as the Festival of Lights, begins on the 25th day of Kislev.
There are as many ways to celebrate the holiday as there are to spell its transliterated name. Historically though, Chanukah, like so many Jewish holidays, is the story of a small Jewish army defeating a larger oppressing one.
In the time of Alexander the Great, Jews in Syria, Egypt and Palestine were free to practice their religion openly. But around 167 BCE, Antiochus IV, a successor of Alexander’s, changed the laws and prohibited the practice of Judaism. The Temple was desecrated by the sacrifices of pigs on the alter and many Jews were killed.
Two groups rose up against Antiochus IV, and joined forces to defeat him. As the victors sought to rededicate the Temple, it became hard to find pure oil for the ner tamid (everlasting light). Only enough oil was found for one day, but it miraculously burned for the eight days that it took to purify a fresh supply and a festival was declared that would last for the 8 days in celebration.
That’s the popular belief for the celebration. 1 Maccabees says “For eight days they celebrated the rededication of the altar. Then Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication...should be observed...every year...for eight days. (1 Mac.4:56-59)"
From a religious standpoint, whether the celebration is for the rededication or the miracle, Chanukah is not a prominent Jewish holiday. In modern times, it has become one of celebration and gift-giving though, to mirror that of Christmas.
The only observance called for during the holiday is the lighting of the candles. One candle plus a shammus (servant) is lit in a candelabra called a menorah or chanukkiah. On the first night three blessings are recited: a prayer over these candles, a prayer thanking God for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time, and a prayer thanking God for allowing us to reach this time of year. On subsequent nights, only the first 2 are said.
The first candle is placed at the far right and one candle is added to the left of the first and so on throughout the holiday. The candles are lit by the shammus from the left to the right in order to honor the newest first and are allowed to burn out on their own. One stipulation is that the light of the candles be enjoyed as a reminder of the miracle but not used as a light source for practical purposes (although this is not the case for the shammus). The menorah is also meant to be placed in a street-facing window in order that passersby can also be reminded of the great miracle.
Because all Jewish holidays revolve around food to some extent, on Chanukah we eat food fried in oil to commemorate the miracle; latkes and jelly donuts being the preferred choices.
Another common symbol of Chanukah is the dreidel, a spinning top marked on four sides with the Hebrew letters Nun, Gimmel, Heh, and Shin for "Nes gadol hayah sham" (“a great miracle happened there”), referring to the miracle of the oil. The game, which is usually played with peanuts or pennies represents the (legal) gambling games that Jews in Antiochus’ time used to conceal the fact that they were (illegally) studying Torah whenever an official happened by.
All at WRJ wish you a Happy Chanukah. May your menorahs glow brightly and proudly as we remember the miracles of the past.