A Jewish Holiday of Light and Freedom

For each of eight consecutive nights, candles are lit as part of a commemoration of the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE, following its destruction and desecration by the Syrian Greeks. One candle is lit the first night; an additional candle is added each night.

Popular legend holds that when the Maccabees, the heroes of the era, re-entered the Temple, they found only one cruse of oil intact for lighting the seven-branched menorah. That the oil lasted for eight days is considered to be the miracle of Hanukkah, according to rabbinic sources.

The story of Hanukkah comes from the Book of Maccabees, which is not part of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. The miracle of the oil appears only in the Talmud. Historians now suggest that an eight-day festival was held to make up for the missed holiday of Sukkot, which the Maccabees had been unable to celebrate at the appropriate time because of the demands of war and their inability to access the Temple.

Hanukkah, a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, has taken on greater significance in a world with other popular and pervasive winter celebrations. We mark it today by lighting an eight-branched hanukkiah, enjoying foods prepared in oil (like potato pancakes, or latkes, and donuts, or sufganiot), playing games with a spinning top known as a 'dreidel' and giving gifts. The hanukkiah is meant to be placed in a prominent and visible place, to publicize the miracle.

At its core, Hanukkah is a celebration of freedom and heroism, of finding light in the midst of darkness.