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Jewish Holidays - Chanukkah

Orna Moore weaving

The Hebrew word Chanukah means "dedication." In the 2nd century BCE, the Syrian-Greek regime of Antiochus sought to pull Jews away from Judaism, with the hopes of assimilating them into Hellenism -- Greek culture. Antiochus outlawed aspects of Jewish observance -- including the study of Torah -- which began to decay the foundation of Jewish life and practice. During this period, many of the Jews began to assimilate into Greek culture, taking on Greek names and marrying non-Jews.

In response, a band of courageous Jews took to the hills of Judea in open revolt against this threat to Jewish life. Led by Matitiyahu, and later his son Judah the Maccabee ("The Hammer"), this small band of pious Jews led guerrilla warfare against the Syrian army.

Antiochus sent thousands of well-armed troops to crush the rebellion -- but the Maccabees succeeded in driving the foreigners from their land.

Jewish fighters entered Jerusalem in December, 164 BCE. The Holy Temple was in shambles, defiled and desecrated by foreign soldiers. They cleansed the Temple and re-dedicated it on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. When it came time to re-light the Menorah, they searched the entire Temple, but only one small jar of oil bearing the pure seal of the High Priest could be found. Miraculously, the small jar of oil burned for eight days, until a new supply of oil could be brought.

From then on, Jews have observed a holiday for eight days in honor of this historic victory and the miracle of the oil.

Today, the observance of Chanukah features the lighting of a special Chanukah menorah with eight branches (plus a helper candle), adding one new candle each night. Other customs include spinning the dreidel (a top with Hebrew letters on the sides), eating "oily" foods like potato latkes (pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), and giving Chanukah gelt (coins) to children.


To publicize which night of Chanukah it is, the menorah must easily display how many candles have been lit. Therefore, all 8 candle holders on the menorah should be at the same height -- and preferably in a straight line. Otherwise, the candles may not be easily distinguishable and may appear as more like ?one big torch."

In addition to the main 8 lights, each Menorah has an extra helper candle called the "Shamash." Since we are forbidden to use the Chanukah lights for any purpose other than "viewing," this way any benefit is as if coming from the Shamash.

Since the Shamash does not count as one of the regular 8 lights, your Menorah should have the Shamash set apart in some way -- either placed higher than the other candles, or significantly off to the side.

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The most important thing is that your candles must burn for at least 30 minutes after nightfall. (Those famous colored candles just barely qualify!) Many Jewish bookstores sell longer colored candles.

Actually, it is even better to use olive oil -- since the miracle of the Maccabees occurred with olive oil. Many Jewish bookstores even sell kits of pre-measured oil portions in disposable cups. These cups can simply be placed in the candle holders of any standard menorah.

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On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right (as you face the menorah). This applies whether the menorah is placed next to a doorway or by a window. (source: Code of Jewish Law - OC 676:2, MB 9)

Another candle is placed for the Shamash (taller helper candle) which is used to light the others. It is not counted as one of the candles.

The second night, place the Shamash, plus two candles in the two far-right positions -- and light the left one first.

The third night, place the Shamash plus three candles in the three far-right positions -- and light them in order, from left to right.

Follow this same procedure each night of Chanukah.

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To best publicize the miracle, the Menorah is ideally lit outside the doorway of your house, on the left side when entering. If this is not practical, then the Menorah should be lit in a window facing the public thoroughfare.

Someone who lives on an upper floor should light in a window. If for some reason the Menorah cannot be lit by the window, it may be lit inside the house on a table; this at least fulfills the mitzvah of "publicizing the miracle" for the members of the household.

Since the mitzvah occurs at the actual moment of lighting, the Menorah must be lit in a proper place. Moving the Menorah to a proper place after lighting does not fulfill the mitzvah.

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The Menorah should preferably be lit immediately at nightfall. It is best to wait, however, until all the members of the household are present. This adds to the family atmosphere and also maximizes the mitzvah of "publicizing the miracle." However, the Menorah can be lit (with the blessings) late into the night, as long as people are still awake.

The Menorah should remain lit for at least 30 minutes after nightfall, during which time no use should be made of its light.

On Friday afternoon, the Menorah should be lit 18 minutes before sundown. And since the Menorah needs to burn for 30 minutes into the night, the candles used on Friday need to be bigger than the regular "colored candles" (which typically don?t burn longer than a half-hour).