Shalom, everyone! The holiday of Chanukah, also known as the Festival of Dedication or Festival of Lights, is celebrated from the 25th of the Ninth Month (Kislev) to the 2nd/3rd of Tenth Month (Tevet) on the Hebrew Calendar. Please note that Chanukah is a post-Exilic holiday instituted by rabbinic ordinance; it is not one of the appointed times/festivals commanded by The Creator in the Torah.
Hanukkah commemorates the purification and re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, after the victory of the Judeans over the Hellenistic (Greek) Seleucid Empire in 160 BCE. During this time in history, the land of Israel was known as “Judea,” and was a part of the Seleucid Empire, a remnant of the empire of Alexander the Great. The Seleucids, led by King Antiochus III the Great of Syria, had tried to systematically destroy all traces of Torah observance from the Judeans. Antiochus III erected an altar of Zeus in the Holy Temple, outlawed brit milah (male circumcision), and ordered pigs to be sacrificed on the altar in the Temple. A priestly family, the Maccabees, led by Yochanan the High Priest, revolted against these evil decrees and drove the Seleucids out of Judea.
According to Rabbinic tradition, Chanukah is celebrated over eight days because of the miracle of a small jug of uncontaminated oil used for lighting the Temple Menorah. The jug, found in the Temple after the Maccabees drove out the Seleucids, was only supposed to provide enough oil for the Temple Menorah for one day, however; the oil supply miraculously lasted for eight days until more oil could be procured.
Holiday Observances and Customs
The holiday is celebrated by the lighting of candles in a nine-branch candelabra called a Hanukkah menorah or chanukiah, which is placed on display by the front window or door of the home. On each night of Chanukah, candles are placed into the chanukiah from right-to-left. Special blessings are then recited before the lighting of the candles. The center branch of this menorah is called the “shamash” (“attendant”) candle and is lit first every night. The shamash may be used to light additional candles on the chanukiah. An additional candle is lit each night, starting from one candle on the first night, progressing to eight candles on the eighth and final night. These candles are lit from left-to-right. On Erev Shabbat, the Chanukah candles are lit prior to the lighting of the Shabbat candles. After Shabbat, the Chanukah candles are lit after havdalah.
In some communities, the Hanerot Halalu (“These Candles which we light”) is recited after all the candles are lit. This is then followed by the singing of the hymn, Ma’oz Tzur (Rock of Ages), recitation of special Tehillim for example, Tehillim 30, 67 and 91, and the singing of other traditional Chanukah songs. In North America, gift giving has become a custom during Chanukah. Other customs include eating oily foods like fried potato latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), giving Chanukah gelt (chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil) to children, and spinning the dreidel.
During daily prayer services, special additional blessings of thanksgiving called the “Al Ha-Nissim” (“About the Miracles”) are added the to Amidah (“Standing Prayer”) prayer, which is recited thrice-daily during the morning (Shacharit), afternoon (Minkhah) and evening (Arvith) prayer services. Special selections from the Book of Numbers are read every day of Chanukah during Shacharit prayer services, following by special haftarah readings. The chanukiah is lit at the synagogue every day except on Shabbat.