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Hanukkah, one of the most commonly celebrated Jewish holidays, is a joyful eight-day celebration that occurs during the darkest and coldest season of the year for many people. The holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, brings light, laughter, and comfort into our homes and communities as we celebrate with candles, wine, families, and friends.

Light comes both physically, with the illumination of an extra candle each day, and metaphorically, with a newer focus on charitable gifts and tikkun olam during the holiday. Hanukkah (also pronounced Chanukah) celebrates the triumph of a small party of Jewish rebels (led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, collectively known as the Maccabees) over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent liberation and "rededication" of the Temple in Jerusalem. Modern celebrations of Hanukkah focus on family and friends and include the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah (also called a hanukkiyah); singing and playing special songs and games (dreidel); and eating foods prepared in oil including latkes, sufganiyot, bimuelos (fried dough puffs) and keftes de prasas (leek patties).

Ritual Objects

Ritual objects associated with Hanukkah include the menorah and the dreidel.

Menorah is a Hebrew word meaning “candelabrum” and sometimes refers to the nine-branched ceremonial lamp in which the Hanukkah candles are placed and blessed each night of the holiday. The nine branches include eight branches, one for each day of the holiday, and one branch for the shamash candle that is used to light the other candles. In ancient times, oil was used in the menorah. Over time, candles were substituted for oil. The Hanukkah menorah can also be called a hanukkiyah

The word dreidel derives from a German word meaning “spinning top,” and is the toy used in a Hanukkah game adapted from an old German gambling game. (Historically, Hanukkah was one of the few times of the year when rabbis permitted games of chance.) The four sides of the top bear four Hebrew letters: nun, gimel, hey, and shin. Players begin by putting into a central pot or “kitty” a certain number of coins, foil-wrapped chocolate disks known as gelt, nuts, buttons or other small objects.

Each player in turn spins the dreidel and proceeds as follows:

  • נ‬ nun – take nothing
  • ג‬ gimel – take everything
  • ה‬ hei – take half
  • ש ​shin – put one in

Over time, the letters on the dreidel were reinterpreted to stand for the first letter of each word in the Hebrew statement, “Neis gadol hayah sham,” which means “A great miracle happened there” and refers to the defeat of the Syrian army and the re-dedication of the Temple. In Israel, one letter on the dreidel differs from those used in the rest of the world. The shin has been replaced with a pey, transforming the Hebrew statement into “Neis gadol hayah po,” which means “A great miracle happened here.


For many families and communities, singing is a particularly joyous part of Hanukkah celebrations. There are many traditional and contemporary songs for the holiday, and videos and recordings are widely available online.

Maoz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”) is customarily sung after the lighting of the candles each night, and at other times throughout the holiday. It was composed in Europe in the 12th or 13th century. 

I Have a Little Dreidel” is a modern-day children’s song frequently sung during the Festival of Lights. Other holiday favorites include “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah;” “Sivivon, sov, sov, sov,” a Hebrew folksong; “Light One Candle,” written by Peter Yarrow; and “The Latke Song,” by Debbie Friedman, z"l, the renowned Jewish singer and songwriter.

Preparing for the Holiday

To prepare to celebrate Hanukkah at home, you will need candles and a Hanukkah menorah with nine candle holders (also called a hanukkiyah), or, as is the custom in some families, one menorah for each member of the family. (For those living in places where open flames aren’t allowed or are unsafe, or those who are traveling, electric menorahs are widely available.) You also can decide together as a family how to celebrate each night of the holiday – whether with activities, cooking, or by bringing a social justice element to the holiday.

Many families like to exchange gifts during Hanukkah, and some families also use the opportunity to give charitable gifts. Designating the sixth evening as the Ner Shel Tzedakah (“Candle of Righteousness”) offers an opportunity to learn about poverty or other social justice issues and to make a donation or engage in other activities related to a cause that is important to you and/or your family. This social justice gift guide offers suggestions that emphasize tikkun olam.

Lighting the Hanukkah Candles

From one Hanukkah to the next, it can be a challenge to remember in which direction to add candles and in which direction to light them. Here’s what you need to know: When the menorah is facing you, the candle for the first night is placed in the right-most holder of the eight-branched menorah and the shamash is placed in its holder, which is raised or otherwise distinguished from the rest of the candleholders.

Anyone may chant or recite the blessings by lighting and holding the shamash, reciting the blessings, and then using the shamash to light the candles (from left to right, so that the kindling begins with the newest light).

Two blessings are chanted or recited every night of Hanukkah. The first is a blessing over the candles themselves. The second blessing expresses thanks for the miracle of deliverance. A third blessing – the Shehecheyanu prayer, marking all joyous occasions in Jewish life – is chanted or recited only on the first night.

On each successive night, an additional candle is placed to the immediate left of the previous night’s candle, and the candles are lit from left to right, so the kindling begins with the newest light. Since these lights are holy, we aren’t supposed to make practical use of them (e.g., using them to see or read by, or lighting other candles with them); therefore, we use the shamash to light the ones that mark each night of the holiday.


Moroccan Sfenj / Yemenite Zalabia (Fried Dough)


Recipe by Dina Korman









7 ½ cups flour

1 tablespoons salt

2 tablespoons dry yeast

2 ½ cups warm water

4 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups oil for frying



•     Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl.

•     In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast with ½ cup of the warm water add the sugar and the vanilla and mix well. Let rise.

•     Add the water mixture to the flour bowl mix. Add the rest of the water. Mix well with your hand until you get a soft somewhat batter/dough.

•     In the medium-size pot, warm the oil. Dip your hands in water, then take a small part of the dough, stretching to all sides.

•     Place, gently and carefully, in the oil, and fry until both sides of the dough are light brown, then transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.

•     Finish the rest of your batter.

•     Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve immediately. You may also top with syrup or with honey and butter.



Candles are added to the hanukkiyah (menorah) from right to left but are kindled from left to right. The newest candle is lit first. (On the Shabbat of Hanukkah, kindle the Hanukkah lights first and then the Shabbat candles.)

Light the shamash (the helper candle) first, using it to kindle the rest of the Hanukkah lights. As you do, say or sing:

Hebrew Text

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ
אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ, מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,
אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֺתָיו
וְצִוָּֽנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר שֶׁל חֲנֻכָּה.


Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah. 


Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.

Tue, June 22 2021 12 Tammuz 5781