The Story of Hanukkah

A dreidel

“A great miracle happened here.”

The Hebrew words for that sentence are “nes gahdol hahyah shahm.”

And you’ll find the first letter of each of those words on most dreidels — the little tops that Jewish kids spin during the holiday of Hanukkah.

“It is our festival of light,” said 11-year-old Dov Hirschfield of Portland, Oregon, in an interview with the Oregonian newspaper.

The miracle involved light.

And it happened nearly 2,200 years ago.

That’s when a group of Jews called the Maccabees, led by a man named Judah, recaptured the main Jewish temple in Jerusalem after the temple was trashed by foreign invaders.

“The word ‘Judah,’ (which) ‘Jew’ comes from, means ‘thanks giver,” Dov told Oregonian reporter Nancy Haught.

As the legend goes, the Maccabees found only enough oil inside the temple to keep the sacred Nair Tahmeed (everlasting light) burning for just one day.

But miraculously, the oil kept the light burning for eight days.

And it never went out.

This year, Hanukkah starts the night of December 8th and ends at sunset on December 16th.

It lasts eight days – just like that little bit of oil.

The dates of Hanukkah change from year to year because the Jewish calendar is lunar (moon-based), while the calendar we use in our daily lives is solar (sun-based).

And the two calendars don’t match up the same every year.

In the United States, Hanukkah has become a gift-giving holiday.

“That’s mostly because of Christmas,” Dov said.

“We get presents,” Dov’s twin brother, Elisha, told the Oregonian.  “(But) usually one – not eight days of them.”

In Israel, even there’s less gift-giving on Hanukkah.

But kids have the holiday off from school.

And there are lots of Hanukkah festivals with music, plays and dancing.

Every night of Hanukkah, Jews light a special Hanukkah lamp called a menorah, to remind them of the miracle at the temple in Jerusalem.

The menorah has eight branches — one for each day of the holiday, plus a branch in the center for the Shamash.

That’s the candle that’s used to light all the other candles.

The first night, one candle is lit.

The second night, two candles are lit, and so on.

On the eighth night, all eight of the menorah’s candleholders are filled with burning candles.

Jews also celebrate the miracle of the oil with food.

They eat latkes (potato pancakes) fried in oil and fried jelly doughnuts (soofgahnyoht), too.

But Hanukkah is more than just the story of the oil that lasted eight days.

It celebrates the survival of the Jewish people.

It’s a holiday that’s all about religious freedom – and hope.