Before we can delve into both the historic and current practices at surround Hanukkah, we first have to discuss what the event is celebrating. In the year 168 B.C.E., the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes sent his soldiers to Jerusalem. The Syrians desecrated the Temple, the holiest place for Jews at that time (History.com Editors, 2009,). The holiday is a calibration and remembrance of what happened after. According to stories, when the temple was reclaimed, there was only olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day (History.com Editors, 2009,). Instead of only lasting for one day, a miracle occurred and the menorah stayed lit for a full eight days, long enough for the Jews to find a fresh supply.
Now, before I jump into the differences between the historic and current practices surrounding Hanukkah, it is important to note that historic isn’t necessarily a correct term. The “historic” practices I will be referring to could be more accurately describes as traditional practices. Most of the world still practices the historic method of celebrating Hanukkah. The historic, current, split in this case is referring to a change in how the religion was practiced and why is was practiced in the 1920’s in North America.
In the historic version of Hanukkah, the holiday was a time to reflect on Jewish oppression, identity, religious freedom and expression (Mjl.). This is in reflection of the story of the temple being sacked. As the story goes, the Jews were oppressed, but their beliefs and methods of expressing their self-identities were rewarded with a miracle that allowed them to continue partaking in their time honored practices. The traditional practices of Hanukkah is centered around three main components; The menorah, The dreidel, and Gelt.
The menorah is a candle holder that fits nine total candles, one in the center and four on each side. On the first day at sunset the center candle and the left most candle are lit. The center candle is a representation of the one initial day or oil that the Jews had to light their menorah when they reclaimed the temple. At the sunset of each day the candles are replaced and a new candle is added to the left most available slot in till all eight candles have been lite, representing the eight days the oil lasted.
A dreidel is a four sided top in which the phrase “A great miracle happened there” is inscribed with the Hebrew letters, Nun, Gimel, Hey, and Shin, on each side. Dreidel is a simple betting game in which the side of the top you land on after spinning dictates what you do. Nun or “nothing” results in well nothing. Gimel or “all” allows the spinner to take everything currently in the pot. Hey or “half” tells the spinner to take half of the pot (rounding up). Shin or “put in” has the spinner putting put one coin in the pot. How much starts in the pot and what is being used to bet varied from group to group.
Gelt is the Yiddish word for money. In this case it is being used to refer to the practice of giving to the money to the poor and teachers. This was a practice to both bring the community together and raise up the “lowest” of the group (Mjl.). The idea being that as a community, one shouldn’t let others suffer when they have a means to help them.
Modern Hanukkah, or more specifically, Hanukkah in North America since the 1920’s, has a slightly different meaning. While still a holiday celebrating identity, it is also a celebration of family. It was important for North American Jews to feel a kinship with their neighbors in a place whose population may be overwhelmingly Christian (History: The Hanukkah Story, 2018). In addition to this slight change in meaning two more aspects were added to Hanukkah. Those being food and gifts.
The food was a way to feel connected to ones heritage in new land surrounded by strangers. By baking dishes like latkes and rugelach individuals could feel more connected to their Jewish heritage in a predominantly non Jewish area.
It is important to note that in modern Hanukkah, Gelt turned from a giving of money, to a giving of chocolate coins. With this change the giving of actual gifts and presents was added as a way to continue the themes of generosity and charity that the original practice of Gelt was supposed to implement. Some argue that the addition of gift giving to Hanukkah is a Christianization of the holiday, mirroring the tradition of giving presents on Christmas day (History: The Hanukkah Story, 2018). But the reason for giving gifts and why Jews started giving gifts varies from individual to individual.
For more information on Hanukkah check out the following links:
History.com Editors. (2009, October 27). Hanukkah. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/hanukkah.
History: The Hanukkah Story. (2018, November 26). Retrieved from https://reformjudaism.org/hanukkah-history.
Mjl. (n.d.). The History of Hanukkah. Retrieved from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-history/.