While traditionally Chanukah is considered one of the more minor Jewish festivals, it has become one of most celebrated, talked about and cherished.
When we think about Chanukah (literally meaning “dedication”), the first thing which often comes to mind are the miracles of the holiday. Indeed this holiday, first referred to by first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus as the “Festival of Lights,” is about miraculous events; the miracle of the oil burning for eight nights, the rededication of the Temple, the Jewish victory over the Syrian Greeks.
The story of Chanukah and its traditions are well-known, but did you know some of these lesser known facts about the holiday and its history?
- Chanukah is one of the few Jewish holidays not mentioned in the Bible. The story of the Maccabees and the liberty of the Jewish people from the Syrian Greeks was first written down by Josephus 250 years after the events took place. Only in the Talmud, compiled 600 years after the liberation do we have the first written version of the story of the miraculous oil which burned for eight days and nights in the Temple.
- This same Talmudic passage also contains a debate over how to light the Chanukah candles between two great rabbinic scholars, Hillel and Shammai. Shammai’s followers argued that on the first night of the holiday we should light eight candles, with each subsequent night taking away one candle from the lighting. Hillel’s disciples argued that on the first night we should light one candle and add an additional candle each night, culminating with the lighting of eight candles on the last night of the festival. It became Jewish tradition to follow Hillel, as the later rabbis state, “we raise up in matters of holiness, not bring down.” (Tractate Shabbat 21b).
- Our Eastern European game of dreidel (including the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin) may actually trace its origins to the English and Irish 16th century spinning-top Christmastime game called totum or teetotum. The name comes from the Latin "totum," which means "all." The top is inscribed with four letters representing four words in English: T = Take all; H = Half; P = Put down; and N = Nothing.
- Chanukah’s rise in popularity in recent history is often attributed to the holiday’s proximity to Christmas and its themes of religious freedom and cultural identity, which resonate strongly in a post-Enlightenment society. In Israel, Chanukah takes on additional meaning as Zionist pioneers and early fighters identified strongly with the story of the Maccabees, fighting for the liberty of the Jewish people in their homeland.
Learn more about Chanukah!