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The Celebration Of Chanukah Essay, Research Paper

The Celebration of Chanukah

The candle light flickered in Dorothy Abramawitz s eyes. In her tiny, pudgy right hand she held the shammus, the host candle, and burned the wick until the flame was glowing brightly. While she began to light the first candle on the menorah, she heard her mother s voice singing softly, Boruch Atoh Adonoy, Eloheinu Melech Hoolom, Asher Kideshonu Bemitzvosov Vetzivonu Lehadlik Ner Chanukah. Blessed are You, Lord our God King of the universe, Who has sanctified us by His commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Chanukah. She passed the shammus candle to her sister, who lit the second candle and then passed it to her brother to light the third. Boruch Atoh Adonoy, Eloheinu Melech Hoolom, Sheoso Nisim La’avoseinu Bayomim Hoheim Bizman Hazeh. Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season. This passing of the candle went until all eight of the siblings had had a chance to light a candle, and by the time that had finished, it left the Chanukah menorah fully ablaze. Boruch Atoh Adonoy, Eloheinu Melech Hoolom, Shehechiyonu Vekiyimonu, Vehigionu Lizman Hazeh. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.

Dorothy watched the hot wax glide from the top of the candle, down its body, and splatter on the wooden table on which the menorah was standing tall. Chanukah was her favorite Jewish holiday to celebrate. It was a time of family, good food, and gifts. It was a time for remembrance of the miracles that God had once done for her people, and could

do once again. But this year s celebration was different. There were no gifts or extravagant feasts. There was no laughter or loud celebrations. A black blanket covered the window, so that she could not see the Russian landscape outside the house, and so that the Gestapo could not see the family s Jewish practices. Everything they did had to be hidden now, had to be concealed.

Her brown eyes danced and her glossy brown curls shined in the firelight. Shifting them from the menorah toward her mother, she had to laugh. Even her mother s appearance was different this year. On top of her mother s head was a yammika, the traditional hat that the men of the family wore on their heads whenever they prayed or gave a blessing. Dorothy s father had been gone for months now, sailed from Mother Russia to America, the new promised land, to find them a home and freedom. Her mother was doing everything she could to make the holiday feel the same for Dorothy and her seven siblings, even sing the prayers. She hoped that, next year, her father would be wearing the yammika, singing the prayers, and retelling the story of their ancestors once again, with the American landscape as the view from the window.1

Chanukah, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of kislev. It falls sometime in the end of the month of December on the American calender. The Hebrew translation of this word is rededication. Chanukah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays. Many non-Jews think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as gift-giving and decoration. It is ironic that this holiday, which

came about being because of the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most secular holiday on our calendar. This celebration is a feast of liberation, symbolic of the victory of the few over many, and of the weak over the strong .

The story of Chanukah begins with the reign of Alexander the Great, more than 2,000 years ago. Alexander captured much of the Jewish territories, such as Syria, Egypt and Palestine. Because he was so benevolent a ruler, he allowed these lands to continue with the observation of their religions and traditions. After a century of being ruled by Alexander, Antiochus IV, who was Alexander s successor, took control of this area.

Antiochus, the Syrian-Greek king, began to suppress and oppress the Jewish religion and attempted to force paganism upon the Jews. He simply desecrated the Jewish Temple. He placed non-Jewish priests in their Temple, adorned them with pagan idols and tried forcing the Jews to worship them. He and his guards made offerings to Greek gods at their altars. They tore curtains, knocked down monuments, and completely destroyed the interior of the Temple. Then, they did the single act that defiled the Temple in itself– Antiochus brought in pigs. Pigs, in the Jewish religion, are a very unsacred, unclean animal that are forbidden to eat, and to give as sacrifices to God. They brought the pigs in alive, and let them walk over the thresh hold of the Temple. The pigs relieved themselves, leaving their feces on the floor. This was the last blow for the Jews.

A man named Matthias and his five sons, the Maccabaeus, stood up to Antiochus

and his men. They proclaimed that they themselves would not worship a god other than their God, and would not let them make other Jews do so either. When the Syrians pursued them to end their lives, they fled to the hills and gathered people who were willing to fight for Jewish freedom. Though their army was small compared to the Syrian legions, after fighting for nearly three years, the Jews were able to reclaim their freedom and independence.

Then began the time of rebuilding and rededicating the Temple. There was much cleaning and mending to be done so that the Temple would be completely restored. At this time, there was very little oil left that had not been made impure by the Syrians. Oil was needed to light the menorah, or candelabrum, and there was only enough oil to last through one night (Tracey). And so the Jews began the cleansing of the Temple. They restacked the alters with new stones, washed pig s blood from the walls, burned the idols of other gods, and swept the floors. Miraculously, the oil that should have burned out after one night lasted the Jews eight days, the time it took them to complete the task of restoring the Temple (Krythe 245).

After the restoration had been completed, on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, the priests made a sacrifice on the new alter and rededicated the Temple to God. The Jews celebrated a feast in symbolism of their oppression and fight for religious freedom (Krythe 245, 246).

In Book XII, Chapter VII, of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus describes this celebration: Now [the Maccabaeus] celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but [they] feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so

very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this, we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to the festival… (qtd. in Krythe 246).

Today, we celebrate Chanukah by lighting candles. These candles are arranged on a candelabrum, called a menorah. The menorah holds nine candles: one for each night, and the shammus candle, the servant candle used to light all the others (Tracey). Each evening another light is added to the menorah until all eight lights shine on the eighth night. While the shammus candle is lit, three berakhot, or blessings, are recited. The candles are to burn all the way out, undisturbed. After the lights are kindled, a thanksgiving prayer is said (For Every Jew).

During this celebration, members of the family exchange gifts, eat traditional foods, and play games. Each night of Chanukah a gift is given, (Krythe 247). Small amounts of gelt, or money, is also often given. Fried foods are traditional, because of the significance of the oil. Potato latkes, which are fried potato cakes, are most popular. Of all the Chanukah games, dreidal is the most played. It is a gambling game, played with a square top for pennies, chocolate coins, and things of that sort. Many songs are sung, and a good time is had by all (JSOURCE).

To Jews in all ages, the story of Chanukah dramatically demonstrates that there was no force in the world that could succeed in crushing the free and dedicated spirit in man (Ickis 89). Though these Jews were persecuted, their God proved Himself to be a powerful, loving and miraculous God. The Jews definitely have cause for celebration.

By now, there was a large collection of different colored wax on the wooden table. Little Dorothy and her brothers and sisters sat around the table, waiting for the final Chanukah candle on the menorah to burn its last. Finally, the flame flickered, the flame died and a slow column of smoke began to rise. Dorothy smiled as her mother sang the concluding prayer, Hanairos Halalu Anu Madelikin, al hatesuos, ve’al hanisim, ve’al hanifelaot, sheasisa la’avosaynu bayamim haham bizmman haze, al yeday cohanecha hakedoshim. Vechal shemonas yemay chanukah, hanaros halalu kodesh ham, veayn lanu reshus lehishetamash bahayn, elah lireosan bilebad, ceday lehodos ulehalal leshimechah hagadol, al niseychah veal nifeleosecha, val yeshuosecha. We kindle these lights to commemorate the saving acts, miracles and wonders which You have performed for our forefathers, in those days at this time through You holy Kohanim. throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your salvations (For Every Jew: Chanukah).1


1 Adapted from an interview over the phone with Dorothy Young, my Russian-Jewish great-grandmother. She retold memories of Chanukahs during her childhood. Through elaborations of her reflections, I was able to create the story that I have about Dorothy Abramawitz.

Works Cited

Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festival Holidays. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co, 1964.

Krythe, Maymie. All About American Holidays: How More Than 50 of Our Holidays Originated and Are Observed Today. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962.

Mitchell, Bard. Chanukah. American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise s The Jewish Student Online Research Center (JSOURCE). 4 December 2000,

Tracey, Rich. Chanukkah. Judaism 101. 7 December 2000,

For Every Jew: Chanukah. For Every Jew. 4 December 2000,


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