Hanukkah, 1949, Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection


The holiday of Hanukkah marks the victory of the Hasmoneans (also known as the Maccabees) in the revolt against the Seleucid Empire, a Hellenistic state that existed in western Asia during the Second Temple period. Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev. Unlike most Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah, but was added by the sages in the days of the Second Temple. The earliest sources which mention the holiday and the events of the rebellion are the First Book of Maccabees and the Second Book of Maccabees, which were written not long after and are considered relatively reliable as historical sources. The events were also described by the historian Josephus in "Antiquities of the Jews" in the first century AD. A different version of the events appears in a later text known as the Scroll of Antiochus

The Hasmonean victory provided a number of reasons for celebration: It brought about the end of the decrees imposed by the Hellenists against observance of the Jewish commandments and the purification of the Temple once more allowed the free practice of a Jewish way of life. This rededication of the Temple is likely the source of the holiday's name - hanukkah meaning "dedication" in Hebrew. In addition, the end of Greek rule restored Jewish rule, another cause for celebration, though this would not last for very long.

There are several possible explanations for the festival lasting eight days. One is that the victory over the Seleucids was celebrated for eight days to make up for the festival of Sukkot which had not been celebrated that year. Another theory is that the eight days of Hanukkah symbolize the eight days over which the Tabernacle was consecrated and dedicated in the wilderness of Sinai.

The most well-known explanation for the length of the holiday, however, is the famous story of the miracle of the cruse of oil. The story appears in different sources, including the Babylonian Talmud and the Scroll of Antiochus, yet it does not appear in the Books of Maccabees or in Antiquities of the Jews.  According to this story, upon entering the Temple, the Hasmoneans found only one cruse, or jug, of pure oil that would ordinarily have sufficed to light the Temple Menorah for only one night, yet it miraculously lasted for eight.

The Order of the Hanukkah Candle Lighting

Lighting eight candles is the holiday’s main commandment. To spread the word about the miracle, the menorah, also called a hanukkiah, is placed at the entrance to the house or in a window. The commandment is fulfilled by lighting only one candle each evening, but it is customary to light an additional candle on each of the holiday's nights. Hence, on the first evening, one candle is lit, on the second evening—two candles, and so on, until on the last evening eight candles are lit.

Due to the Hanukkah candles’ sanctity, they may not be used for any utilitarian purpose.  Hanukkah candles, for example, cannot be used for lighting or transferring fire. It is therefore customary to light another candle (the shamash) for this purpose. The location of the shamash on the menorah is distinguished from the other eight candles.

Blessings for Lighting the First Hanukkah Candle

On the first night, before lighting the candle, three Hebrew blessings are recited, translated as:

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light.”

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.”

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.”

The third blessing, called the Sheheḥeyanu, is recited on the first night only, while the first two blessings are said on all eight nights. After lighting the candles, it is customary to sing the song Hanerot Halalu ("These Candles") followed by the piyyut (liturgical hymn) Maoz Tsur.

A Special Video Series

Join the National Library of Israel in celebrating Hanukkah with eight stories, eight historical treasures, eight languages, and eight candles; part of the National Library’s “A Look at the Jewish Year” series.

In the video below, dedicated to the first night of Hanukkah, we join Dr. Aliza Moreno-Goldschmidt, head of the Israel and Judaica Reading Room, as she explores a small, rare booklet of Ladino Hanukkah verses, printed in the Ottoman Empire!

Explore the rest of this special series, which includes a video for each of Hanukkah's eight nights, here.

Hanukkah Laws and Customs

Apart from lighting the menorah, another important commandment is the reciting of the complete Hallel prayer (a prayer of praise) on all the days of Hanukkah following the Amidah (lit. "Standing [prayer]") during Shaḥarit, the morning prayer. A special paragraph for Hanukkah is inserted into the Al HaNissim ("On the Miracles") blessing in the “Grace after Meals” prayer.  It is forbidden to deliver eulogies or to fast during Hanukkah, as it is a holiday of celebration, even though it did not originate from the Biblical text.

Another custom (especially popular with the public) commemorating the miracle of the jug of oil is to eat deep-fried foods including sufganiyot (jelly donuts), latkes (potato pancakes) and sfinge (Moroccan donut, similar to donut-shaped funnel cake). Customs especially loved by children are playing with dreidels (sevivonim), spinning tops with the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, heh, and peh written on the sides (acronym for the phrase nes gadol haya po, “a great miracle happened here”). Outside Israel, the last letter is shin for sham, meaning "there" (in the Land of Israel). Children also receive gifts of money on Hanukkah. According to one explanation, the source for gift giving on Hanukkah is its proximity to the Christmas holiday, which is known for the exchange and giving of gifts.

Hanukkah Stories

The Library blog is an inexhaustible database filled with the latest and often exciting or surprising information. The blog articles about Hanukkah focus on the holiday’s lesser known or least talked about aspects. You can listen to rare recordings of child Holocaust survivors singing Hanukkah songs they remembered from the ghettos and camps; discover Hanukkah blessings and greetings from 1,000 years ago; and read the surprising story of the dreidel's origin and how sufganiyot and levivot came to be Hanukkah’s favorite edible treats.