Menorah-Lighting Ceremony is Jewish tradition


Hanukkah (or Chanukah), the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.

This year, Jews began the celebration of Chanukah with the lighting of the first candle of the menorah at sundown on December 6. The final or eighth candle will be lit on Sunday, December 13.

In Canyon Lake, the Torah Club held a lighting of the second candle for Chanukah (as Torah Club members prefer to call it) on December 7, in the POA Board Room. Canyon Lakers Sam, 12, and Nathaniel, 6, lit the candles during the ceremony.

Chanukah is one of the best known of Jewish holidays most likely because of its proximity to Christmas, according to Tracey Rich of Many non-Jews and assimilated Jews think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting some of the Christmas customs of gift giving and decoration; however, Chanukah is not a significant religious holiday.

The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height.

On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three blessings are recited. After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder.

The ritual is repeated each evening for eight days by first lighting the shammus candle and reciting the blessings, then lighting the candle at the far right and adding a new candle each night for eight days until all eight candles are lit.

There appears to be no definitive reason for the order of lighting the candles. Although it could be because Hebrew is read from right to left, Canyon Lake’s Rabbi Steve Rahmannan prefers to believe that “because our hearts are located on the left side of our bodies, we light the candles from right to left, working towards the heart. All the lights being lit signifies the fullness of the heart.” The candles are not to be blown out but allowed to burn themselves out.

For practicing Jews, the holiday’s religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu’ot. The story of Chanukah is not mentioned in Jewish scripture; however, it is related in the book of Maccabbees, which Jews do not accept as scripture.

That story is as follows: When the Greek Alexander Antiochus IV was in control of the region that included Israel, he began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar.

Two groups of Jews joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Selucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.

According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day yet, miraculously, it burned for eight days, just the right amount of time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah.

An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Mr. Rich notes the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory, as Jews do not glorify war.

It is traditional to eat fried foods during Chanukah because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Among some Jews, this usually includes “latkes,” or potato pancakes. Gift giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians.

Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus’ oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a common and legal activity) whenever an official or inspector was within sight.

A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimmel, Heh and Shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” or “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the miracle of the oil.