The Idiot’s Guide to Chanukkah

Isn’t it interesting how the first Chanukkah candle was lit last night and the first Advent candle will be lit tonight? I’ve written posts about this special time twice in the past few years so when it comes to the story itself, I think I’ve got it pretty much covered & don’t really have too much more to say on the subject but if anyone has something to add, there’s always the CONTACT box above and I’d love to hear from you. I’ve also covered the rededication of the Second Temple after Antiochus IV destroyed it.

Plus, I’ve covered the story of the miracle of the eternal oil that burnt for 8 days when it should, by all accounts, only have lasted a day and I’ve done the bit about the victory of the Maccabees so do have a look in those. This time I thought that I’d write something for non Jews so that everyone who isn’t Jewish and will be spending Chanukkah with Jewish friends, will know what it’s about.


I wouldn’t get involved in too much of a discussion here unless you’re a scholar. There’s a lot of debate and too many schools of thought on the subject to make it a simple matter. Either stay out of it or learn as much as you can. If you want to prepare, have a look here:

  • Talmud: the story of the Jewish woman, Hannah & her 7 sons who were tortured & executed by Antiochus for refusing to eat pork because it Jewish law didn’t permit it.
  • 1 Maccabees (4:56-59 that covers Judah & his brothers & the whole celebration of the rededication)
  • 2 Maccabees pretty much repeats it & tells how long the celebration lasted.


The word Chanukkah basically means to dedicate but there are other more complex meanings ascribed to it; there are many Rabbinical schools of thought and if you’re interested, phone a local rabbi to help you.


  • In most cases Jewish homes have one light per household but there are some exceptions, see below; usually it’s put in a window closest to the street so that the miracle of the event can be made public.
  • One candle is lit every night for 8 nights: in other words, one on night one; another one on night two and so one.
  • There’s one extra candle, called the shamash that’s also lit every night; it’s usually higher, lower or to the side of the others.
  • The lights can be candles or oil lamps but in hospitals, electric lights are permitted nowadays.
  • Some Jewish people have a separate menorah for each member of the family (Ashkenazi Jews) but others have only one per household (Sepahardic Jews).
  • The lights may be hidden from public view if there is danger of persecution & – one would imagine that any Jews living in radical Muslim countries would be well advised to hide their lights from public view but in countries like India, where all faiths are tolerated and accepted with love, it would be fine.
  • Hasidic Jews put their lights near an inside doorway & not necessarily in public view.
  • The lights burn for at least half an hour after it gets dark;
  • In Jerusalem the lights are usually lit at sundown.
  • Hasidic Rebbes will light their candles much later because they have to publicize the miracle in the presence of their Hashim when they re-kindle the lights.
  • Friday night is a problem because candles may not be lit on the Shabbat itself & have to be lit before sunset  but they need to remain lit until 30 minutes after sunset though; in this case it’s advisable to use the longer candles because the small candles usually only burn for 30 minutes
  • The left hand candles are always lit first and after that they will be lit from left to right.


The Jewish historian Josephus is always worth a read & since I’m not Jewish, I gravitate towards his writings whenever the need arises; it makes things easier because he wrote in Latin which makes for a more accurate translation into English than the Hebrew & Aramaic translations into English. I’ve seen some humdingers in my lifetime. To the best of my knowledge he only called Hannukah the Festival of Lights.


  • This happened when Antiochus decreed that the Jews were not allowed to circumcise their newborn sons; to the Jews circumcision is a visible sign of their relationship with God – a symbol of the covenant between the people of Israel & God.
  • One day Antiochus’ soldiers slaughtered all the newborn boys who were circumcised & hung their corpses around their mothers’ necks as a warning.
  • Understandably the Jews were livid so, under the leadership of Judas Maccabees, they stood up against Antiochus to retake the Temple of Jerusalem Temple by force.


  • Once Antiochus had destroyed the Second Temple he  outlawed Judaism and in 167 BC decreed that an altar of Zeus be erected in the temple.
  • He banned circumcision for no good reason and ordered that pigs be sacrificed on the altar of the Second Temple.
  • The Jews paid no attention to him and embarked upon the mother of all revolts led by Mattathias, a priest, and his five sons: Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan and Judah (he was later known as Yehuda HaMakabi or Judah the hammer).
  • Matthiatas died in 166 BC & Judah took over from his dad; by 165 BC the Jews trounced the Seleucid monarchy & the temple was freed & rededicated; he is known as the ‘father’of Hannukah.
  • There are schools of thought that clash on this subject and many modern scholars believe that Antiochus was only intervening in a civil war between traditionalist Jews & Hellenist Jews but this it’s a touchy subject and I strongly advise you to leave it to the scholars.
  • The Maccabees were a priestly family of from Judea (actually the countryside) & weren’t part of the Jewish priestly caste who lived in Jerusalem; unlike the urban priests who tried to live with their occupiers, the Maccabees refused to be dominated by the Seleucid Empire.
  • As they became more powerful, they became the Hasmonean dynasty of priest-kings & ruled Judea from about 160 BC – 70 AD at which point the Roman legions, instructed by Vespasian’s son Titus, obliterated the Second Temple and crushed Jewish independence.




  • 750 g baking potatoes
  • 3 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 large, organic egg
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp fresh parsley, very finely chopped
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


  • Preheat oven to 200 C.
  • Use a non-stick baking tray or use a little butter for greasing – it won’t kill anybody.
  • Peel, wash and dry the potatoes and grate them using a coarse grater & then peel the onion and grate with coarse grater.
  • Combine potatoes and onion in a colander and press down firmly to remove excess water and then transfer this into a medium sized bowl, stir in the egg, baking powder, flour, parsley, salt and pepper.
  • Drop the potato mixture onto prepared baking tray using a spoon – make about 1 or 2 tbsp at a time or even larger if you prefer.
  • Bake for 20 minutes, until the bottom of the pancakes are light golden brown and then flip them and bake for another 10 – 15 minutes until the latkes are golden and cooked right through.
  • Served warm with apple sauce, sour cream or tomato sauce for a difference.


  • Hannukah is not a Sabbath and Jews can go to work on this day if need be.
  • It is actually a minor festival (more of a more of a nationalistic, historical holiday to celebrate the defeat of Syrian Greeks) & there’s no basis for it in the Jewish Bible.
  • There are extra prayer services and special blessings after meals.
  • Families exchange gifts and eat fried foods to commemorate the event; it’s a good idea to take gifts for the children and certainly for the hostess.


  • There are three blessings called the Brachach and on the first night, all three of them are recited but after that only two per night.
  • While the lights are lit, the Hanerot Halalu is sung.
  • After the candles have been lit, the Ma’oz Tzur (which originated in Germany during the Middle Ages) is sung.
  • After that the Chanukkah songs are sung; many of the Psalms are also sung and then gifts are handed out in homes where gifts are customarily handed out; just make sure before you go.
  • The last day of Chunukkah is called the Zot Hanukkah


  • Dreidels: these are four sided spinning tops with which children play on Hanukkah; each side is embossed or printed with a Hebrew letter & these are an acronym for the words Nes Gadol Haya Sham (a great miracle happened here). It’s a good idea for a gift if the children are still small.
  • Gelt: this is given to children by parents & even though the amounts are generally small in the case of small children, in the case of the larger children, the amount can be quite large; the custom originated in Poland in the 17thcentury when Polish Jews gave their small children coins to give to their teachers; in time this changed and the children got to keep the coins.


Jews traditionally eat cheese at this time and even though this story has nothing to do with Chanukkah,  this is why:

Once upon a time Holofernes, an evil Syrian general who was at war with Judea, surrounded the Jewish village of Bethulia and vicious fighting broke out. Jews being Jews, not a single one was about to give in without a sizeable fight and it happened that Judith, a beautiful widow, had had just about enough and lost her cool. She told the leaders of her village that she had a plan & walked over to the Assyrian camp pretending to surrender; as luck would have it, she was forced to appear in front of Holofernes who immediately fell in love with her and for some reason, she fed him wine and lots of cheese; naturally he fell into a very deep sleep but before he could get a headache from all the wine and cheese, he lost his head when Judith lopped it off; she wrapped the head in a piece of cloth, popped it into a bag and escaped. When the soldiers found their general they realized they had a problem but the Jews were filled with Judith’s courage and attacked, trouncing the Assyrians soundly.

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