Lighting the Menorah

One of the purposes of Menorah lighting is to publicize the miracle to one’s family. Therefore, the entire family should be present during the Menorah lighting, including children old enough to watch.

If the entire household cannot be present at the lighting, they are nevertheless included in the lighting when one member is authorized to light on everyone’s behalf.

In order to increase the publicity of the miracle Hashem did for us, many people light the Menorah at the window (as was once the custom). Many people light the Menorah at the inner front door to their homes. They place it facing the Mezuzah, so that the entrance to their home is surrounded by Mitzvos (Commandments). But the truth is that anywhere the family can see it is acceptable.

Use a shammosh (a separate candle used to serve the others) to kindle the Chanukah Menorah lights. The shammosh has its special holder in the Menorah, and it should be above the other eight. Keep the shammosh burning also. Never use any Chanukah light to light anything else, even another Chanukah light. When necessary, use the shammosh.

The Chanukah Lights may not be used in any way, as they burn. We may especially not use them for light. Their purpose is to celebrate the miracles Hashem performed for our ancestors at this time of year. To remind us of this, we light an extra light, called a shammosh (attendant), which should be placed higher than the others.

The first night we light the light at the far right of the Menorah. The second night we add a new light to the left, the third night we add another light to the left of the first two, and so on, each night. After making the blessings, we light the leftmost light first, and then travel to the right, lighting as we go. So, on the eighth night, we place one candle (or oil and wick) in the holder at the right, then we place another one in the next holder, and keep on going to the left. Then we recite the blessings, and light the lights from left to right. So, the first one we prepare in the Menorah is the last one we light.

Anything that burns clearly without a smell is acceptable, however, olive oil is the most preferred, because the miracle took place with olive oil.

The flame of each light must be a small flame, like that of a single candle or oil light. The wicks should therefore not be a series of wicks plaited or held closely together, nor should they be very thick wicks.

One cannot fulfill the Commandment to light the Chanukah Menorah by using an electric Menorah. There are a number of reasons for this, but they involve a long, deep discussion of Jewish Law, and I’d like to keep this page easy reading.

The eight lights must all be at the same height, and should be placed in one straight line, with the shammosh a little higher. When looking straight at the Menorah, one should clearly be able to see that there are eight lights burning (or whatever number, for whatever night it is). The lights should not be arranged with some behind others.

If you cannot get hold of enough candles (or oil or wicks) to light each night, you may light just one each night, reciting all the same blessings first. The Rabbis instituted that we light at least one light each night of Chanukah to celebrate the miracle. However, the Rabbis also instituted that those who wish to perform the Commandment in the best possible way should light an extra light each night of Chanukah, so that on the eighth day we would be lighting eight days, and thus announcing how many days the miracle occurred. But the absolute necessary minimum is one light per night, and if you do it that way, you have fulfilled the basic Commandment.

If you miss one night, continue lighting the following nights the same number of lights the rest of the Jewish world is lighting.

The proper time to light is as soon as full night has arrived, as Jewish Law defines it (Halachic night). In North America, this is generally around 50 minutes after sunset. That is the proper and best time. Except in certain situations, like on Fridays (see below), one should not light before that time. Ideally, one should not light much later than that either, but if one could not light at that time, or one forgot to light on time, it is permissible to light the entire night (even a few minutes before dawn).

The lights must burn for at least half an hour. At least one half hour of burning must take place during the Halachic night. After the half hour is done, it is permitted to extinguish the lights, unless it is the Sabbath.

When you kindle the lights, there must be enough fuel in them to burn for the necessary time. If any of the lights accidentally burn out before the time has passed, it is not necessary to rekindle the lights.

When lighting on Friday evening, we cannot light once the Sabbath has started. So, we light just before lighting the Sabbath candles, which is 18 minutes before sunset. Therefore, the lights must have enough fuel (large candles, or lots of oil) to burn for at least 98 or more minutes. Why 98? It’s simple arithmetic: 18 minutes until sunset, 50 minutes until Halachic night begins, and another thirty minutes of required burning time during Halachic night. (18+50+30=98.)

Once the Sabbath is started, it is forbidden to light fires. If you missed lighting the Menorah and the Sabbath has already started, it is too late for that night. What you should do then is look for the lights lit in someone else’s window, or visit a Jewish friend who has lit a Menorah, and recite the second blessing (the one about the miracles).

On Saturday nights, the Sabbath must end completely (that is, it must be full Halachic night) before we may light the Chanukah Menorah. The Havdalah Ceremony is performed before the lighting of the Chanukah Menorah.

After lighting, women do no work (including cooking) during that first half hour. (Even if the lights burn longer, this law applies only for the first half hour.) This is the woman’s special holiday time, and does not apply to men. For the reason for this rule, see my page: The Courage of the Women.

It is forbidden to move the Menorah during that half hour of burning. This Law applies for only the first half hour, even if the lights burn longer. (Reminder: It is forbidden to move the Menorah throughout the entire Sabbath. Keep this in mind, if you have toddlers in the house. Always light the Menorah where children cannot reach it.)

The Lighting

Recite: I am hereby ready and prepared to fulfill the Commandment of Lighting the Chanukah Menorah.

Recite the blessings:

Boruch Attah Adonoy, Elohainu Melech ha-olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav, v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.

(Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has made us holy through His commandments, and commanded us to light the Chanukah light.)

Boruch Attah Adonoy, Elohainu Melech ha-olam, she-asah nissim la’avosainu bayamim hahaim bazman hazeh.

(Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.)

Only on the first night recite:

Boruch Attah Adonoy, Elohainu Melech ha-olam,
she-hecheyanu, vikiyamanu, vihigianu lazman hazeh.

(Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this time.)

Light the first light. As you light the other lights (or on the first night, after you have finished lighting) recite or sing the following threnody:

We kindle these lights because of the miracles, the wonders, the salvations, and the victories that You, Hashem, did for our ancestors in this season, through the agency of Your holy Kohanim (Priests).

Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are holy, and we may not use them for anything. We may only look at them, to enrich the experience of thanking and praising Your holy and great Name for Your wonders and Your salvations.

Afterwards, we sing the following hymn to Hashem, called:


Rock of Strength

O mighty stronghold of our salvation,

to praise You is a delight.

Restore our House of Prayer

and there we will bring a thanksgiving offering.

When You will have disposed of Israel’s enemies,

Then we shall complete, with a song of hymn,

the dedication of the Altar.

The soul of our people has been filled with troubles

our strength has ebbed from grief.

They embittered our lives with hardship

in this exile that is as bad as the exile in

Back then, Hashem brought forth His treasured people

with His great power,

and Pharaoh’s army, and all his offspring

went down like a stone in the deep waters.

To the Holy Temple Hashem then brought us.

But there, too, we had no rest for long.

An oppressor came and exiled us again

Because we had practiced foreign customs

and enjoyed forbidden acts that dulled our spiritual values.

But not long after we were exiled to Babylon

we returned with our leader Zerubabel;

after just seventy years of exile we were saved.

While we were in that exile,

Haman the Amalekite tried to destroy Mordechai and us.

Instead, it became a trap and a stumbling block for him

and his arrogance was put down.

You promoted the Benjamite, Mordechai;

You destroyed the name of the enemy

and he and his sons You hanged on the gallows.

During the time of the Second Temple,

Greeks gathered against us,

during the time of the Hasmoneans.

They breached the walls of our Holy Temple,

and they defiled all the oil jars.

And from one remnant of the flasks

a miracle was wrought for the Jews, the «roses.»

The men of wisdom established eight days

for song and jubilation.

Display Your holy might

and hasten the end of the exile, and give us salvation.

Avenge the death of Your servants,

whom the wicked nations have killed

The triumph has been too long delayed for us

and there seems to be no end to the days of evil

Repel those who would keep us in exile

and raise up for us the Seven Shepherds.

It is the custom among Hassidim to sit at the Menorah for the first half hour after lighting, studying Torah or singing Chanukah songs. Each moment we spend there is another moment fulfilling the Commandment of Chanukah Lights.

The Courage of the Women

Channah and her Seven Sons

The times of the Greeks were terrible times. The stretched their hand out in overbearing might; they oppressed us, and they murdered us. They were not content to take our money, they wanted our very souls.

The Greeks forced upon us terrible things, the worst of which was idolatry. Idolatry, the worship of false gods, is the worst sin of Judaism. Worshiping idols is ripping out the very heart of Judaism from within oneself. But the Antiochus, king of the Greeks, wanted total control. If we did not obey him, and worship his idols, we were rebellious, and he felt that he had to kill us.

Antiochus considered himself a god too. Antiochus gave himself an additional name: Epiphanes, which means «god incarnate.» He wanted us to bow down to him and worship him like we worship Hashem. He placed images of himself all over the land, and forced Jews to bow down to these idols.

But most Jews refused to bow down to the idols of Antiochus. So Antiochus and his officers went on killing sprees. One day, he assembled all the people of a Jewish town, and showed them a Jewish woman who refused to bow down to his idol. This woman was named Channah (Hannah), and she had seven pure sons who also refused to bow down before the idol. The youngest of her sons was only seven years old.

Antiochus warned the woman that if she and her seven young sons did not bow down to the idol, he would kill each of them one by one, while she watched. They did not flinch.

Antiochus started with the oldest son. He tried to convince him with flattery and bribes, but the boy would not hear of it. He stridently repeated our Tradition of steadfast devotion to Hashem, and told the king in no uncertain terms that he would never forsake the Torah of Hashem. «So kill us now — and send us quickly to Hashem!»

Antiochus became enraged. He ordered his servants to cut off the boy’s tongue, hands, and feet, and to flay the skin of his head. He then had them place it all on a frying pan over a fire, while the mother and all seven were forced to watch. Antiochus the Wicked then ordered his servants to place the still living victim into a copper pot over burning coals. As the Jewish boy was about to die, Antiochus had his servants remove the pot from the fire so that the victim would die more slowly. All this took place in front of Channah and her other six children.

But they all stood strong and steadfast. I will not go into any more detail of the horrible tortures perpetrated upon all seven children, all while the mother was forced to watch. Nor will I discuss how Antiochus tried to convince each child to abandon Judaism and worship him.

Last of all came the youngest son, the seven-year-old. He, too, refused to worship the king, and remained forever a loyal Jew. Just before they killed him, Channah made this statement: «Go, my children, and tell our ancestor Abraham, ‘You were prepared to kill one son for the sake of Hashem., I have given up seven sons for the sake of Hashem!’»

When the last child had died, Channah, the pious and pure, supreme in her devotion, stood over the bodies of her seven sons, and lifted her hands skyward.

«My heart exults in Hashem. My pride is uplifted through my G-d . . . my enemies were unable to entice even one of my sons to turn to the service of my enemies’ delusions, the idols, which are of no avail and cannot save anyone, for such idols are nothing and they are worth nothing. There is nothing that is as holy as Hashem, and He is the only one savior of the souls trusting in Him. . . Show me the place You have designated for Your servants, my sons who died for the holiness of Your Torah, and bestow upon me a small portion together with them. All Your creatures shall praise You, Your devout ones shall bless You, and so will I together with them.»

When she had finished praying to Hashem, her soul departed her, and she passed away. She fell over the bodies of her sons and lay on the ground together with them.

That is the story of Channah and her seven sons, the brave mother and children who gave up their lives for the Torah, as the Torah commands us to do. It was the mother who gave the children the strength to uphold their convictions. And so, on Chanukah, we celebrate the courage of this woman, and many other women like her. That is one story that illustrates the courage of the Jewish women, and the reason that women have a holiday for the first half hour after the Chanukah Menorah is lit.

Yehudis (Judith), the Daughter of the High Priest

The Greeks forbade us not only our religion, they also forbade us our home lives.

The Sages of the Talmud were very reluctant to describe in detail the horrors of the indignities inflicted by the Syrian-Greeks, especially the decrees they made concerning women. The Sages would only hint at some of these things, out of respect for the dignity that is woman. But we do know of some things, mainly because the heroism of those great women was recorded by the Rabbis.

In order to destroy the sanctity of the Jewish home, the Syrian-Greek kings would appoint officers in the towns of Israel to take advantage of all brides. It was forbidden for any woman to get married without first visiting the presiding officer. This decree was in effect for three years and eight months.

During that time the Hasmonean Priests were victorious in their battle, and regained the Temple Mount. They restored the holy service to the Holy Temple, but continued to be under the political control of the Syrian-Greeks. Greece was still in control, and they still demanded that the women be brought to them. Ten months passed.

One day, a daughter of the High Priest’s family became engaged. Her name was Yehudis (Judith, feminine form of «Judah»), and it means «Jewess». She was given that name because of an allusion within it: The name Yehudah (Judah) is spelled like the Name of G-d with the letter daled in it, and the word daled, in Hebrew, means poverty. As if to say: the Name of G-d looks poor now, but soon shall it rise.

In most cases, people would either refrain from getting married, or get married secretly. But this option was not open to Yehudis, who was of a priestly family, and who was marrying a priest. Her family was too well known. And so, the king’s official came to collect her. The family did not allow him to enter.

A fierce battle began, as the family of the Hasmoneans fought against the official and his troops. The official and his troops were all killed, and a joyous day was celebrated by all the Jews.

But the Syrian king, Eliporni (Holofernes in Greek), heard that his officials had been killed, and he gathered his army and marched upon Jerusalem. He surrounded the city, and lay in siege.

Yehudis saw that this would bring no good, for all the people would die of starvation and thirst if nothing were done. So she volunteered to go to the king and rescue the city. At first they would not let her go, but she prevailed upon them, saying that G-d would surely help her, and they finally let her go.

She prepared a large bag of food to take to Holofernes, salty cheeses and other delightful foods. She left the city, and announced herself to the Syrian guards, showing them what she had in her bag, and explained who she was. They took her to the king.

When she came before Helefornes, he greeted her with joy, and he made a lavish feast in her honor. She refused the food (as it was not kosher), and invited the king to share the food from her bag. And so, she and the king ate cheese from her bag, and the king added food from his own table. Soon, the king asked all his officers to leave, and he and Yehudis sat alone together, eating. She pretended to eat, but really she only nibbled. But the king ate with great gusto.

As King Helefornes ate the cheese, he became more and more thirsty. In those days one didn’t drink water or juice at the dinner table, one drank only wine. And drink he did. He was so thirsty, he drank goblet after goblet of wine, until he fell into a deep sleep. Like the noble and brave Yael, in the days of the Prophetess D’vorah (Deborah), Yehudis did not quaver, she did not fear. She did as she knew must be done to save her people. She drew the king’s sword, and took his head off with it.

She put Helefornes’ (king no longer) head, and put it into her bag. She left his private place, and returned to the city, announcing herself to the Greek guards as she did so. She brought the head of the dead king to the leader of the army of the Jews, who hung it on the wall of the city, where it would be visible to the Greeks. When morning came, the Greeks arose, and gazed with bewilderment on the head of their king. Panic-stricken, they broke ranks and fled.

And thus was that decree of the evil Greeks broken. In honor of the women, who like Yehudis, gave much towards the miracle of Chanukah, a minor holiday was declared especially for them, and they are to do no work for the first half hour that the Chanukah lights burn.

Many people, in remembrance of the miracle at the hand of Yehudis, eat cheese or dairy products, to remember the noble deed of Yehudis.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The version I cite here is from three primary sources: the Midrash, a work called Chemdas Yamim, and a liturgical poem found in some prayerbooks for recital on Shabbos Chanukah.

Other versions of this story have been told. Most are retellings of the Apocryphal book of Judith, which has a confused version of the story, citing, for example, that Helefornes was a general (instead of a king) in the army of Nebuchadnezzar (who was Babylonian, not Syrian-Greek), about 300 years earlier. There are many problems with the version found in the Apocrypha, not the least among them the fact that during the rule of Nebuchadnezzar there was no Jewish community in the Land of Israel. And contrary to the book of Judith, when it was all over it was Nebuchadnezzar who was victorious, not the Jews against him. So I wouldn’t take the version from the book of Judith too seriously.

May G-d grant us peace in this world, in our lifetimes, and may all the wicked repent today.

The Customs of Chanukah

and Their Meanings

Q. What Are Latkes And Why Do We Eat Them?

A. A latke is a sort of potato pancake.

One of the miracles of Chanukah occurred with olive oil. For this reason, the custom is to eat things made with oil. In America many people eat potato latkes, because that’s what most Europeans were able to make. In Israel, they eat sufganiot, donuts. I guess flour was easier for Israelis to get in the old days than potatoes.

Here’s a recipe for latkes. It’s pretty universal.

5 large potatoes, peeled

1 large onion

3 eggs

1/3 cup flour (some people advise this; I have never done it.)

1 tsp salt (optional, obviously)

1/4 tsp pepper (or to taste)

1/2 cup oil for frying (assuming you use a 10 inch pan or skillet; I doubt this would work without oil in a teflon pan. This is a frying thing.)

Grate potatoes and onion on the fine side of the grater. You can use a food processor or grinder, but I find that the hand-grated are best. If you use a blender, many people advise adding a little water before blending.

Strain grated potatoes and onion through a colander, pressing out the excess liquid. Add eggs, flour, and seasoning. Mix batter well.

Heat oil in frying pan. Lower flame, and place a large tablespoon of batter into the hot oil. Fry on one side for approximately 5 minutes; turn over, and fry on the other side for about 2 or 3 minutes. (Bachelors’ note: A higher flame does not result in a latke finished sooner. It results in a latke burned on the outside, and raw on the inside. Or, if the latke is very thin, it will be just burned all the way through.)

Remove from pan and place them on paper towels to drain the excess oil.

Serve with applesauce, if you prefer. Some people serve latkes with sour cream. Personally, I put on salt, and I’m happy. My doctor isn’t.

Q. What is a Dreidel?

Picture of dreidelA. A dreidel is a little four-sided, spinning top. The word dreidel is Yiddish.
Hebrew-speaking people often call it a svivon, which means the same thing.

Every dreidel has four Hebrew letters on it: Nunn, Gimel, Heh, and Shin. In Jerusalem,
the four letters are Nunn, Gimel, Heh, and Peh, but everywhere else the fourth letter is Heh.

What do these letters mean? They stand for four words in Hebrew: «Nais Gadol Hayah Shom,» A Great Miracle Happened There.

The Jerusalem dreidels (actually, the Yiddish plural form is dreidlach) say a «Great Miracle Happened Here,» since the miracle happened in Jerusalem.

The dreidel came about because of the Greek persecutions. At one point, the Greeks declared that it was forbidden to study Torah. The Rabbis would take their students and hide in the woods and in caves, and study Torah with them there. They took along dreidels. If a Greek soldier found them, they would pretend they were gambling with the dreidels.

To remember how G-d saved us from those terrible times, the people took on the custom of playing with dreidels.

Q. How Do I Play the Game of Dreidel?

A. Most people play with pennies, and some people play with nuts; it doesn’t really matter. At the beginning of the game, everyone donates two pennies to the pot in the middle.

We take turns spinning the dreidel.

If the dreidel lands on that is the nunn. You lose a turn. (Nunn = nothing.)

If the dreidel lands on that is the gimel. You get the entire pot. (Gimel = get.) Everyone
donates another two cents to the pot, including you.

If the dreidel lands on that is the heh. You get half the pot. (Heh = half.)

If the dreidel lands on that is the shin. You give two cents to the pot. (Shin = share.)

You keep playing until everyone is out of money except one person, if that ever happens. In my experience, the game just goes on until everyone wants to do something else. The best way to play the game is to play it until the latkes are ready to be eaten.

Q. What is Chanukah Gelt?

Gelt is the Yiddish word for «money.» It is the custom to give children a little money on Chanukah and to teach them how to give charity. Since children like money, many people also give children some money for their very own.

There are other reasons for Chanukah Gelt too. One of the reasons people gave money to their children was as rewards for Torah study. One should wonder, however, why that is specific to Chanukah, and not throughout the year. The reason for that may be that if you do it too often, it becomes bribery. Bribery is not the best method of inducing the average child to study, and should be used only rarely. Done once a year, or a few times a year, it takes the nature of a prize, and not bribery. But this is just my own educated guess.

I was once told that some people have the custom to give Chanukah Gelt «in increments of 36 to represent the total of all the candles lit throughout Chanukah (except the 8 shammoshim).» (The shammosh is the extra light that burns higher than all the others. See The Lighting of the Menorah, where I explain the reason for the shammosh.)

See below for more references to the number 36.

Q. What is the Custom Regarding Chanukah Gifts?

A. Well, this is a toughie. It is very hard — and perhaps unfair — for Jewish children in public schools or in integrated societies to see their Gentile friends showing off their Xmas presents, when they get nothing. So, some time within the last 100 years, probably in America and not in Europe, parents began giving their children Chanukah gifts.

Remember, even in Ultra-Orthodox circles, up until around the 1940’s most children went to public school in the morning, and what they called «Talmud Torah» in the afternoon. It was unavoidable. Children are very prone to jealousy, and it is important to make a Jewish child happy with Judaism. While Judaism forbids copying Gentile customs, this is a case where children are in danger of leaving the fold.

So, while it is correct to say that there is no such custom, there is good reason for it to be done in many circles. In places like Brooklyn, New York, where it is easy to raise children in a completely Torah environment with only minimal harmful influences from the outside world, giving Chanukah gifts is out of place. Outside of such insular areas, however, the necessities are very different, and Torah wisdom must dictate where and how to apply such measures.

Q. What are some of the meanings attached to the number 36?

A. The Talmud teaches that there is nothing that is not alluded to in the Torah. We do indeed find many Biblical allusions to Chanukah in the Torah. Some are merely oblique allusions, and some are more elaborate.

We find, for example, that the 25th word in the Torah is the word «light,» and that is the first occurrence of that word. Chanukah occurred, of course, on the 25th day of Kislev.

In addition, the 25th place in which the Israelites encamped in the desert was «Chashmonah,» related to «Chashmonai,» the Hebrew word for «Hasmonean» (Numbers 33:29). «Hasmonean» was the name of the Priestly family that led the Maccabees in the fights against the Greeks during the Chanukah period.

Another allusion: in Genesis 32:32 we find the words «Vayizrach lo hashemesh,» «and the sun shined for him.» Since it has no vowels, we can revocalize it to say «and the shammosh shines for 36 [lights]» (lo has the numerical value of 36). I.e., the shammosh shines for the 36 lights of Chanukah, since we may not use them or derive benefit from them. Instead, we use the shammosh, which is higher, and thus shines «for them.»

There are other allusions as well.

Q. What Other Meanings does the Word «Chanukah» have?

The literal meaning of Chanukah is «dedication.» When the Hasmoneans and their small army regained the Holy Temple, they found it desolate and overgrown with vegetation, its gates burned, and the Holy Altar desecrated. They tore their garments in mourning, spread ashes on their heads, and raised their voices in crying and mourning. They routed the garrison of soldiers quartered in the citadel, so as to enable the kohanim (priests) to cleanse and prepare the Temple. They cleansed it, and removed the idols.

However, the invaders had defiled the Holy Altar with offerings to their abominations. The Torah forbids using an altar that has been thus contaminated. They therefore dismantled the Altar and stored its stones in the Bais HaMoked, a structure situated in the northern wall of the Temple Court. (Even though the stones had become irrevocably contaminated, they were formerly holy stones, and had to be treated respectfully. They could not be used for anything else, so they were put away in the Holy Temple.)

The Hasmoneans quickly constructed a new Altar to be used for the next day’s services. The Torah states that an Altar may not be used before being dedicated, which is a special service in itself. Thus, they also had to perform a «Chanukas haMizbei-ach,» a Dedication of the Altar (Chanukah = dedication).

That is the main reason the Holiday is called Chanukah, and that is one of the things we celebrate on Chanukah. For that reason, many people recite Psalms 120-134, The Songs of Ascents, which the Levites would sing each morning in the Holy Temple before the Kohanim (Priests) lit of the Menorah. There were fifteen steps that led up to the Main Court of the Holy Temple, and the Levites would sing one for each step, every morning.

During Chanukah, we recite two each night, until the last night, when we recite three, finishing all fifteen Psalms.

Another interesting allusion is that the word can also be a contraction of: Chanu «chof» «heh.»

Chanu = they rested/encamped. Chof and heh are the two final letters of the word Chanukah, and have the numerical value of 25.

In other words: «on the 25th day they rested (from battle).» So, the name Chanukah actually means two of the reasons we celebrate Chanukah.

Is Chanukah Jewish in Origin?

I often get this question:

Q. Wasn’t Chanukah created in imitation of the Gentile winter candle-lighting festival?

The answer is a most emphatic NO.

I did quite a lot of research about this, and I discovered that in the Middle East there were no cultures that had any winter festival of lights. Way up north, where the winter days are very short, some societies had festivals during which they lit ritual fires to in hopes that the daylight would return. But in the Middle East the winter days are not all that short. Thus, there were actually no such holidays in or near Israel at all. So there was no one to imitate.

The Zoroastrians did have a fire ritual, though it did not resemble Chanukah in any way.

The Talmud mentions that there was a Persian (or Parthian) pagan festival that sometimes coincided with Chanukah. Their law was that no one was allowed to light any lights at all at home during that festival. Lights were allowed only in their religious temples. Anyone who lit a light in their own home would be killed. It therefore makes no sense to assert that the Jews began to light candles in their own homes in imitation of the pagans. (And would they have risked their own lives to do it as well?)

Generally, the Jewish custom was to light the Chanukah Menorah at the window, to advertise to the world about the miracle that took place during Chanukah. (This is not obligatory, but a good thing to do.) But since during that pagan festival people were forbidden to have lights in their homes, it was dangerous for Jews to light their Menorahs in the windows. The later Mishnaic Rabbis therefore taught that when Chanukah coincides with the pagan holiday it is permitted to light the Chanukah secretly, where only the family can see it. (It was never really obligatory to put the Menorah in the window anyway.)

What is hard to understand is why people insist that Chanukah (or any Jewish Law) came from a Gentile festival. The Prophets and Rabbis, ever since the beginning of Judaism, from Moses to the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis today, have vociferously condemned any borrowing of practices from Gentiles.

The Torah is full of such warnings. Moses warns us not to even study the practices of Gentiles:

Be careful, and do not be caught in the trap … of studying their religions, wondering “How do they worship their gods? Maybe I can do the same?” Do not imitate their practices when worshiping Hashem, because they do all the things that Hashem hates. Some of them even pass their children through fire for their gods!

— Deuteronomy 12:30

So we see that imitating the practices of the Gentiles even for worshiping Hashem is forbidden. We see further that even imitating a custom of the Gentiles is forbidden, as explicitly stated in Leviticus 18:3.

The Prophet Zephaniah even condemned those who wear the clothing of the people of another religion!

At various times throughout Jewish history we find Jews or groups of Jews who assumed some Gentile practices, and at each occurrence we find that the Prophets or Rabbis aroused the public to eradicate those practices. The Rabbis never allowed any foreign practices in Judaism.

Yes, as some neo-pagans insist, Jews at times have worshiped a goddess. That is, some Jews worshiped a goddess, and they were severely punished for it. The Rabbis and Prophets railed against them, and in earlier days the Jewish people rose up in warfare against the sinners. That surely does not make goddess-worship a Jewish practice. It never was, and it never will be.

The long and the short of it is, the Rabbis never allowed Jews to adopt Gentile religious practices. How can anyone entertain the notion that the Rabbis would institute an entire Holiday based on a Gentile Holiday? Suddenly the Rabbis stopped caring about Jewish Law? Suddenly the Rabbis had no desire to utter one word of protest against a terrible deviation from Judaism performed by the masses? The thought is ridiculous.

It’s also ridiculous to assume that suddenly all Jews spontaneously decided to adopt a foreign holiday and the Rabbis not only did not protest, but supposedly adopted it as well and taught everyone else to observe the holiday as well! It makes no sense at all.

But probably most significant of all is the fact that the primary message of Chanukah is that we should reject Gentile influences. The revolt of the Macabees began when a Syrian-Greek governor forced a Jewish man to bow down to an idol. The Macabeean Rabbis also fought (and I mean literally fought — with swords, spears and arrows) against the Jewish Hellenizers, Jews who were trying to bring Greek influences into Jewish life.

The Rabbis, in instituting Chanukah, spoke of the “Light of the Torah,” verses the “darkness of the pagan beliefs.”

Thus, Chanukah was specifically about not assuming non-Jewish beliefs, ideas and practices. It makes no sense to claim that the Rabbis took a Gentile holiday and made it into a Jewish Holiday as a statement against borrowing non-Jewish practices.

I hope this puts the matter to rest.

The Meaning of Chanukah

And Other Questions People Have Asked Me.

Q. Why did the Sages institute the Holiday of Chanukah?

A. Well, we all know about the miracle of the lights, but that is not the real reason the Sages instituted the Holiday of Chanukah. The miracle of the lights is the reason the Sages instituted the lighting of the Chanukah Menorah lights, but the Miracle of the Lights teaches us something bigger than that.

Everyone agrees that there was some sort of victory. The Jews won something from the
Syrian-Greeks. The point of popular misconception is what exactly we won.

As you may have seen from reading my article The History of Chanukah, we won the right to live our own religious lives.

But how does the Menorah fit into that?

Why did the Rabbis focus on the Menorah more so than any other service in the Holy Temple? It is true that a miracle happened with the Menorah in the Holy Temple. Then the question almost asks itself: why did the miracle happen with the Menorah, and not with some other element of the Temple service?

The truth is that there is a lot of symbolism there.

The Menorah symbolized the wisdom of Hashem, i.e., the Torah.

What were the ancient Greeks most famous for? Their wisdom and knowledge; art, architecture, philosophy.

It was in fulfillment of Noah’s blessing. You remember how Noah blessed his sons Shem and Jefeth?

In Genesis, Noah blessed them with: «May Hashem give beauty to Jefeth, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem.» The Greeks were descended from Jefeth (Yavan, the ancestor of the Greeks, was the son of Jefeth), the Jews are descended from Shem. The Greeks were devoted to creating beauty. The Jews were devoted to experiencing G-d. Jefeth had beauty, but Hashem dwelled in the tents of Shem, i.e., in the Holy Temple.

The Greeks displayed much beauty, but it was all external. It was all with self-promotion, not with the intent to glorify G-d. This was why they invented narcissism. They would exercise and compete in the nude, for example.

The Greeks built beautiful edifices, but it was all so that they could worship false gods and hold orgies. So, while there was beauty and wisdom among the Greeks, it was alien and repulsive to Jews and Judaism.

And that was the essence of the friction between the Jews and the Greeks. The Greeks did not mind if we worshiped Hashem, as long as we also worshiped their gods and did things their way. As long as we studied their wisdom, learned to admire the naked human body, and the beautiful statues of the gods, we could worship what we wanted. Wisdom and beauty it is, but not our kind.

And that is also the point of the Menorah. The Menorah gave light. Light is a euphemism for wisdom.

When G-d created the universe, He created a special light that He later hid for the righteous to enjoy in the World To Come. The Rabbis taught that if you wanted to get wise, you should go to the Holy Temple, face the Menorah, and pray for wisdom, because the Menorah represents wisdom. Even the olive oil that went into the Menorah had to be pure, according to the Bible’s Commandment. The oil could have no admixtures from outside. So, it was very significant that it was oil that they found! Of all the things they could have had a miracle with, it was the oil. This symbolized the triumph of the wisdom of Torah over the wisdom of the Greeks.

And that is what we celebrate on Chanukah.

There are popular misconceptions about Chanukah. Many people think that the Hasmoneans were farmers who wanted back the land that had been stolen from them by the Syrians. But the truth is that the Hasmoneans were priests, and priests were forbidden to own land! They could not have been farmers who owned land!

The only land they won back was the Temple Mount, which had been converted to a pagan temple. I think it had been used as a temple to Mercury. Whatever it was, it was horrible. Even the city of Jerusalem was still under Greek control. At no point did the Jews actually gain political freedom from the Greeks.

The only real victory was the right to restore the Holy Temple service. So, in essence, what was won from the Greeks at that time was religious freedom. The right to keep our own wisdom, without being forced to keep the wisdom of the Greeks. And that is the real reason for the miracle of the oil and Menorah.

So many people find strange ways to celebrate Chanukah, and often it contradicts the very message of Chanukah! Like Chanukah bushes, one of the more startling examples of diluting our religion. A Chanukah bush is an imitation of the Xmas tree. It is an example of the very thing the Hasmoneans were fighting against!

Q. Who Established Chanukah?

A. The Sanhedrin established Chanukah. The Sanhedrin was the highest Jewish Court, and its judges were only the most respected and most observant Rabbis of the time.

The Sages of the Sanhedrin instituted that on Chanukah we should thank G-d with praises, joy, and Torah study, and that we light the Menorah each night of Chanukah.

This happened during the time of the Second Temple, around 164 BCE.

The first Chanukah was celebrated a year after the incident took place. The Rabbis instituted that it be celebrated every year, and it has been celebrated ever since.

Q. Don’t you find that the message may not be the same for everyone?

A. It is true that many people miss the religious significance of Chanukah. Some people see it as a family gathering, or a celebration of military victory over the Greeks, or any odd number of misconceptions. Yes, it is indeed a celebration that involves family, as must all religious growth and all religious observance. But there was no military victory, and it involved the Holy Temple, not Jewish families.

No political victory was won. They still had to pay tribute to Syria. They were still under the yoke of the Syrians. To attach political concepts to Chanukah is to ignore history.

Who established Chanukah in the first place? The Hellenist Jews? The political powers? Or the Rabbis, who established it BECAUSE it had religious significance!

Chanukah was established by RELIGIOUS leaders. Not by temporal political leaders. Chanukah was established for religious reasons.

In other words, Chanukah was established to send a specific message, to teach a specific lesson. To learn any other lesson is like celebrating «Trick or Treating» on Veteran’s Day. It has no place at that time, if ever, and it is a mockery of the original purpose.

Q. When does Chanukah End?

A. At sundown after day eight.

In Judaism, the day always comes after the night. It does not end on the eighth night, as so many people think, but at sundown after the eighth day, that is, as the ninth night begins.

So, in other words, we light eight lights on the last night of Chanukah. The next day is the eighth and last day of Chanukah. We still pray the Chanukah prayers that eighth day. When the sun goes down, and the stars come out, Chanukah is over.

Q. Why Eight Days?

A. Well, you will remember that when the Greeks defiled the Holy Temple they destroyed all the jars of olive oil. The Hasmoneans found only one jar of oil — a jar that should not have even existed, and it had the seal of the High Priest on it.

They had only that one little jar, and it had to last until they could get fresh oil.

Getting fresh oil took eight days.

They had to send a rider to Mount Ephraim, where the olives grew. The rider set out on the day after the battle. It took him three days to get there, one day to press the oil, and three days to get back. Thus it took eight days to get fresh oil. (There’s another reason why 8 days were necessary, but it’s more complicated.)

The History of Chanukah

After the death of King Solomon, the kingdom of Israel got broken up into two kingdoms: Israel and Judah. Israel comprised the Ten Tribes, with Ephraim as their leader. The Kingdom of Judah consisted of the Tribes of Judah and Benjamin. (For more background on this and earlier periods in Jewish history, read my article on early Jewish History.

In Hebrew, Judah was called Yehudah, after the name of the Patriarch Yehudah (Judah). The people were called «Yehudim.» (Singular: Yehudi for a man, Yehudis for a woman.)

The Greeks, however, called Yehudah «Iudea.» When the Roman Empire eventually replaced the Greek Empire, they, too, conquered Iudea, as you know. In Latin, Iudea became Judea; Iudeans (Yehudim) became Judeans; and our religion came to be imprecisely known as «Judaism.» Eventually (I don’t know when), the term «Judean» was shortened to the now familiar «Jew.»

We start this story during the time of the First Holy Temple, built by King Solomon. Late in the First Temple era, the Assyrians came to power, and conquered many lands. They conquered the Kingdom of Israel, and exiled the Ten Tribes to far away lands. The Holy Temple was in the Kingdom of Yehudah, and so it was not touched. The Assyrians had the policy of moving conquered people from their native country to distant lands, as a method of controlling them. In place of the people of Israel, they moved people from the ancient land of Cutha into Samaria, a region in Israel. The location of the land of Cutha has long been forgotten, even by the Cutheans themselves. Now they call themselves Samaritans. The Samaritans hated the Yehudim, and caused them a great deal of trouble.

Eventually, the Babylonns came to power, and they began to conquer that part of the world. Among the many conquests of the Babylonns, they defeated Yehudah, destroyed the Holy Temple in 3338 (423 BCE), and exiled her people to various countries, taking most of them to Babylon. For seventy years there were no Jews in Yehudah.

The Prophets of G-d had foretold these events centuries earlier. They also prophesied that Yehudah would return after seventy years and rebuild the Holy Temple. Our exile in Babylon did indeed last only seventy years. During that exile, the Medians overcame the Babylonns, and were themselves overthrown by the Persians. It was during the Persian reign that we were granted the permission to return to Yehudah and rebuild the Holy Temple.

After that seventy-year exile many of the Yehudim returned to Yehudah, but most did not. Many stayed in their places of exile. Thus, we have Jews who have been living in places like Yemen and Iraq (Babylon) ever since the Babylonn Exile, over 2420 years ago.

Slowly, we rebuilt the Holy Temple, despite the cruel attempts of the Samaritans to harm us and prevent our rebuilding the Temple. The Temple was completed in the year 3408 (353 BCE).

The Persian Empire did not last very long, though Persian historians later added a fictitious 166 years to their history. (Historians today still accept those 166 non-existent years, and it throws off many calculations.) The Persian Empire was replaced by the empire of Alexander the Great. Thus, Yehudah and Samaria came under Greek rule. The Greeks called Yehudah «Iudea.»

Alexander the Great kept a tight but mostly benevolent command over his empire. The Samaritans persuaded Alexander the Great to destroy Jerusalem, telling him that the Iudeans were disloyal, but their efforts were thwarted. Alexander met the leader of the Idueans, Simon the Just, and decided to spare Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.

Alexander attempted to create a new universal culture that would bind his empire and keep it together. He blended the Greek religions with Eastern philosophy, and built temples and gymnasiums throughout Egypt and Iudea to spread these new teachings. He founded Alexandria to be the seat of this new culture, and peopled it with members of every nation.

A large number of Jews eagerly embraced this new culture. They became known as the
«Hellenisers.» Not satisfied with simply rejecting their ancestral Torah Traditions, they also vied for power. They convinced the Greeks that the most prestigious political position among the Iudeans was the post of High Priest. They then proceeded to periodically buy the position of High Priest from the Greeks. They were incapable of fulfilling the functions of the High Priest, and so Assistant High Priest would most often do the job.

After Alexander’s death, his immense empire fragmented, and was divided between three of his generals, who fought constantly. Iudea and Samaria fell temporarily under the control of the Egypt-Greek empire, which is known as the Ptolmaic Empire.

These Greeks were also drawn to knowledge, and happily traded philosophy whenever they could, especially where it would help them control their subjects. But their wisdom was superficial, and concerned with outer beauty, instead of inner beauty. They were most concerned with their own beauty, and the beauty of the works of their own hands, which was indeed impressive. The Greeks, in love with themselves and their bodies, gave the world the word «narcissism.»

Similarly, they noticed Judaism, and in attempting to glean from it knowledge they deleted the essence and kept the trappings. It was Ptolemy II who locked up seventy-two Rabbis and forced them to translate the Written Torah into Greek, deliberately divorcing the words from their meanings by ignoring the Oral Torah.

The Written Torah was mistaken by the Greeks for a code of Law within itself, and that error has never been successfully corrected among Gentiles. This work, the original Septuagint, was rewritten by Gentiles numerous times, became the basis of the Saduccean Heresy, and eventually was incorporated into the Christian Bible. It bears today, little resemblance to the Hebrew original.

Greek Influences

The spread of Hellenism had its unfortunate effects on many Jews. During this era, there sprung up a heretical group known as the Tzadokim (which the Greek language turned into «Sadducees»). This group was created by a man named Tzadok (hence «Tzadokim«). Tzadok actually wanted to erase all of our religion, but he felt that he wouldn’t succeed, so he began by claiming that we must follow only the Written Torah and reject the Oral Torah. They assumed many of the aspects of Hellenism. That is the form that the Saduccean religion kept for as long as they lasted.

The mainstream Rabbis called themselves the Separatists, or in Hebrew—the «Perushim,» which Greek later somehow turned into «Pharisees.» It was not a political separatism that they espoused, but a religious separatism, isolating themselves from syncretism and other harmful influences. Syncretism is the practice of adding ideas from other religions, something which is strictly forbidden by the Torah. Therefore, Judaism has included nothing at all from other religions. Whenever people have included acts or beliefs that do not belong to Judaism, the Rabbis have always acted very sternly and effectively to remove any such influences from our people. At times, however, people would break off and create their own movements, and refuse to listen to the Rabbis. That was how the Sadducee Movement was created.

The Sadducees, who were mostly rich priests, often bought the position of High Priest from the Greeks. The Sadducees infiltrated the Sanhedrin as well, the highest Jewish court, and finally the Sages abandoned the Sanhedrin and reformed under a different name. (Thus the Sanhedrin mentioned in the Christian Bible was actually a Sadducee organization, not a Pharisee one.)

A Religious Victory

Ptolemy V was king of the Ptolmaic Empire, but he was too weak a king to keep all of his empire, and the Syrian-Greeks under Antiochus III wrested away Iudea and Samaria. His kingdom was known as the Seleucid Empire.

Antiochus III’s successor, Antiochus IV, was not as subtle or as philosophical as Ptolemy IV and V. In order to consolidate his control, he would force all conquered peoples to assume the Greek religion. The Syrian-Greeks would often add the gods of the conquered peoples to their own pantheon as well. (This was a pattern later followed by the Catholic Church, which led them to adopt local gods as «saints.»)

This worked in most places, but not with the Yehudim. Our religion does not allow any
syncretism. To be sure, the Greeks succeeded in converting many of us. Tragically, some Yehudim abandoned their faith and accepted Hellenism. But most withstood the test, and openly fulfilled their religion.

The Greeks, fearing that they would lose political control of Iudea, enacted barbaric punishments against anyone found teaching, studying, or practicing Judaism. They defiled the Holy Temple by using it as a pagan temple. They forced many Yehudim to bow before Greek idols. They outlawed circumcision. They killed anyone they found celebrating Sabbath or Rosh Chodesh (the New Month).

Antiochus did not mind the Jews worshiping Hashem, as long as they also worshiped the Greek gods. They erected idols in every city, and forced all the Jews to bow down to them, in violation of Jewish Law.

Finally, a man named Mattisyahu (Mattathias) the Priest, of the family of Hasmonea, arose and organized a revolt. He, his children, and a small band led by his son Yehudah Macabee, fought the Greeks against overwhelming odds, and won many battles. They did not gain any political victories, nor did they regain any land. The only temporal victory gained was the reclamation of the Temple Mount, and the ability to practice our religion.

The entire country was still under the control of the Greeks. Even the city of Jerusalem was in the power of the Greek soldiers. It was only the small little mountain of the Holy Temple that was under the control of the Yehudim.

That day they regained the Temple Mount. They cleaned and purified the Holy Temple, dismantled and rebuilt the defiled Holy Altar using fresh stones, and resumed the Temple Service. As the Torah commands, they rededicated the Altar. They therefore performed the eight-day Rededication Ceremony. The Hebrew word for dedication is «Chanukah.»

The Service at the Holy Temple involved a number of ceremonies that the Torah commands the Priests to do every day at the Holy Temple. One of these Commandments is to light the Temple Menorah every morning. Another is to bring certain sacrifices every day. Another is to burn incense.

However, they could not find enough oil to properly fulfill the Commandment of lighting the Temple Menorah, so until they could make more they rationed the one small jar of oil they could find. Hashem performed a few miracles, and they found a jar of oil that should not have even existed. And then, Hashem performed another miracle, and the lights lit from that one small jar of oil burned for eight days straight, throughout the Rededication Ceremony.

The Sages then understood that a greater victory had taken place here. The Torah had vanquished assimilation and the darkness of the superficial Greek «wisdom.» A lesson had to be taken for all time. So the next year they instituted a new Holiday, named after the Rededication Ceremony. Thus we have an eight-day Holiday called Chanukah, during which we light oil or candle lights, sing praises to G-d, and study G-d’s Torah.

Chanukah does not celebrate any political or temporal victory, because there actually was none at that time. Chanukah does not celebrate the conquering or regaining of land, because it was not a war over land, and in fact we did not gain any land at that time. (Remember, the Hasmoneans were priests, and priests were not even allowed to own land in Israel.)

Chanukah celebrates our freedom to worship G-d without the negative influences of the cultures around us.

What had happened? The Hellenists (Greeks) had forced us to stop keeping Judaism. They prevented us from fulfilling the Commandments of the Torah. They entered our Holy Temple, disrupted the Services, and used the Holy Temple for idol worship.

The Hasmoneans took back the Holy Temple, and gave us once again the ability to continue observing the Torah and Commandments. No longer did we have to worship idols, as the Greeks were forcing us to do. No longer did we have to accept foreign ideas from other cultures and other religions. Now we could keep the Torah as Hashem had commanded us to.

That is what we celebrate on Chanukah.

The Hasmoneans were righteous people, and therefore the prayers of Chanukah mention that the wicked fell to the righteous. The prayers of Chanukah don’t make mention of the miracle of the Menorah, because the miracle of the Menorah is not the reason we celebrate Chanukah. The miracle of the Menorah was simply a sign from Heaven that we should celebrate a Holiday to commemorate the restoration of Judaism.

Therefore, the celebration of Chanukah is a celebration of religious freedom. And so we celebrate Chanukah by doing Jewish things: we study Torah, we sing songs of praise to Hashem, and we joyfully recite (and sing) prayers. Since our religion was in danger, we celebrate by increasing our acts of religion. The Greeks forbade the study of Torah and the Temple Service. So we celebrate by increasing those things.