All You Wanted to Know About Hanukkah

Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights. It is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. If you’re in Israel during Hanukkah you might notice that there are many windowsils with candelabrums and beautiful lit candles. Why do we light candles on Hannukah? What are we celebrating? And what are some more traditions? In this post I’ll tell you all you ever wanted to know about the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

Here’s a nice video by National Geographic:

Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?

In short – Hannukah is meant to commemorate the rededication of the Second Jewish Temple at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire.

And in more detail – The area of Judea, and Jerusalem within it, fell to the hands of the Seleucid Empire in 200 BCE. The king at the time, Antiochus III the Great, allowed the Jewish people to continue with their ancestral customs and to continue practicing their religion in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. But then came his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who in 175 BCE took over Judea and was less tolerant towards the Jews. He spoiled the Jewish Temple, stopped the Jewish practice of offering a daily sacrifice of expiation, and and in face outlawed the Judaism. Amongst other things, he ordered to build an altar to Zeus in the Holy Temple, which is completely against the Jewish beliefs.

The actions done by Antiochus led to a huge revolt led by the Maccabees, a group of Jewish rebels who later founded the Hasmonean dynasty. The Maccabees were able to liberate and rededicate the Holy Temple. They wished to light the Temple’s menorah, as required, but only found a small tin of pure olive oil, that would be enough only for one day. They needed eight days in order to prepare more oil. According to the legend, they used this tin anyway, and miracously the olive oil burned for eight days, which is also a reason for celebration!

Why do we light the candles?

Just as the Maccabees lit the Temple’s menorah for eight days, we also light our little menorahs (called hanukkiahs) for eight days. Why do we do that? To remember and remind of the miracle that happened in the Temple! That’s why you see all those hannukkiahs on the windowsils. It is important to light the candles where people from the outside can see them, so the passerbys would also remember the miracle. Each day, another candle is lit until all candles are lit on the hanukkiah.

Hanukkah candles

Why are there nine candles?

If we only need to light the candles for eight days, why do we have a ninth candle? The ninth candle, which is usually positioned higher or lower than the other candles, is called a Shamash. It is used to light the other candles, but also has another purpose. According to the laws of the holiday, it is forbidden to use the Hanukkah candles for any practical purpose. That’s why we keep the Shamash, which is not one of the eight Hanukkah candles. If there ever arises a need to use a candle, there’s the Shamash.

What is the dreidel?

The dreidel (meanng “spinning top” in Yiddish) is a popular toy played with during Hanukkah. It’s a four sided top, which you can spin. On each side of the dreidel is a Hebrew letter. The four letters form the acronym of the Hebrew phrase: “Nes gadol hayah po”, which means “A great miracle happened here”. On dreidals which are not sold in Israel is written “Nes gadol hayah sham”, which means “A great miracle happened there”. This is, of course, meant to remind us of the Menorah miracle.

Hannukah dreidel

What do we eat on Hanukkah?

The oil is a central part of the Menorah miracle, and that’s why we eat oil-fried food during Hanukkah. The most popular food in Hanukkah is the sufganiya, which can be seen almost in every bakery starting weeks before Hanukkah. The sufaniya is a deep-fried jelly doughnut, which in recent years is filled not only in jelly but also in other types of sweet fillings. It is also covered in powdered sugar, what makes it extra sweet. Apart from the sufganiya, there are also the latkes, which are fried potato pancakes.

Sufganiyot on Hannukah

Why is there public transportation on Hanukkah?

Many of the Jewish holidays originate from the Torah, the Bible. On those holidays, people need to observe the holiday as if it was Shabbat, the most holy day of the week. This means that on those holidays people do not work, do not use electronical devices and do not drive. On those holidays, there’s no public transportation. Hanukkah, on the other hand, doesn’t limit public transportation. Does this mean that Hanukkah does not originate from the Bible? Yes. The Bible was completed about two centuries before the miracle of Hannukah, so it didn’t reach the holy book. Nevertheless, this fact does not damage the importance of Hannukah, which is seen as a major holiday in the Jewish community.

Want to experience and learn more about Hanukkah? Join our Hanukkah Tour in Jerusalem’s Old City.

You can also book a private tour in Jerusalem during Hanukkah. Just contact us or send an email to and we’ll send you all the relevant details.

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