Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is the eight night festival that begins on the 25th of Kislev. Historically, Hanukkah was a public festival commemorating the conquest by the Maccabees of the Greeks and the re-dedication of the Temple in 165 BCE. The Hebrew root of the word “Hanukkah” means “to dedicate.”
Since the Maccabees were not able to celebrate Sukkot during the war, they chose to celebrate their victory and the re-dedication of the Temple for one week, parallel to the length of Sukkot. In the Talmud, the rabbis transformed the holiday of Hanukkah to a home based festival. Central to the holiday was each family’s responsibility to light a hanukkiyah, a nine branched candelabra, in the doorway or window of their home publicizing their dedication to Judaism.
The rabbis also added the miracle theme to the holiday of Hanukkah. In tractate Shabbat 21 in the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis relate that after their triumph, the Maccabees rededicated the Temple but only had enough oil to last one night. A miracle occurred and instead of burning one night, the oil burned for eight nights.
Today, Hanukkah is still primarily a home based festival in which the blessings are recited and the hanukkiyah is lit, with one new candle added each night. Children and adults alike delight in the beauty and the incremental increase of the light each night. Hallel, an especially joyful prayer service praising God (traditionally recited on the pilgrimage holidays and Rosh Hodesh) is recited during the morning service every day of Hanukkah. There is also a special Torah reading every day of Hanukkah.
At B’nai Jeshurun, in addition to Hallel and the special Hanukkah Torah readings recited during morning minyan and Shabbat morning services, group candle lightings at BJ and in the homes of BJ members are organized and the BJ rabbinic fellows prepare kavannot (meditations) to add meaning to each night of Hanukkah. Every year fresh and inspiring ways to commemorate Hanukkah take place during the festival season including the Hag Habanot, an annual women’s celebration from the North African Jewish community, and the children’s Hanukkah play.