Hanukkah Etiquette

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 The “Festival of Lights,” is a celebration of victory over oppression.

As my recent blog entries — as well as those of past years — have addressed the diversity of celebrations during the month of December, I’d like to devote this entry to the celebration of Hanukkah, which begins tonight and will be observed by millions of people worldwide. The first night of Hanukkah typically falls on the 25th day of the Jewish calendar month of Kislev and lasts for eight days and nights. Because my husband was raised Jewish and I was raised Christian, since our marriage we have celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. If you work with, are related to or will be visiting those who celebrate Hanukkah, I hope this entry will provide you with some insight to, as well as the etiquette of, this holiday.

Also called the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah revolves around a successful revolt that occurred a couple of millennia ago, when the Jewish people were overpowered by Antiochus IV following the death of Alexander the Great and the breakup of the Greek Empire. The history and story itself is much more gripping and detailed than I have the space to go into here; but in simple terms Hanukkah celebrates the recapturing of the Jewish Holy Temple led by the family known as the Maccabees. To rededicate the Temple, the lamps were lit with the small amount of remaining sealed, pure oil, only enough to keep the lamps lit for one night. Miraculously, however, the oil kept the lamps burning for eight nights. Thus, we call the holiday both “Hanukkah (which means “to dedicate“) and the Festival of Lights, and it is celebrated for eight nights — one for each night that the oil kept the lamps burning brightly in the Temple back in the Jewish year of 3597, or circa 165 BCE.

The Celebration

Hanukkah is a joyous holiday that revolves around the lighting of the Menorah for eight nights. Many families celebrate with a special dinner or party, usually on the first night. These celebrations range from very simple to very lavish, and can variously include prayer and readings, food, drink, games, the giving of gelt or gifts to children and sometimes the exchange of gifts among adults as well.

The Menorah

The Menorah is the most recognizable symbol of the celebration of Hanukkah. It is a nine-holder candelabrum in which eight of the holders are for candles that symbolize the eight days and nights of Hanukkah. The ninth candle, which sits in the center holder, is the Shamash. The Shamash is the “service” candle that is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, and is then used to light the other candles — one on the first night, two on the second night, and so on each night for all eight nights. The Shamash is the only candle that can be used to light the others.

Blessings and Readings

Customs and the level of observance vary among families. In some, it’s customary to read the story of Hanukkah on the first night or in installments over the eight nights. Rituals often include prayers and blessings, as well as readings from the Torah, which consists of the Books of Moses (the Law, or the first five books of the Old Testament of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). There are also children’s and other Hanukkah-themed books that some families read and enjoy.

The Food!

There are various recipes for the delicious food of Hanukkah, of which my personal favorite is latkes, potato or otherwise! Oil, cheese, and fried foods such as doughnuts, also play a significant role in the celebration. I think Martha Stewart’s recipes are great, and the Food Network website has many Hanukkah recipes for you to browse through. בְּתֵאָבוֹן (obon appétitfor those who, like me, do not read Hebrew). 

Games

There are two Hanukkah games that I have played: Dreidel, and a game with filberts, or hazelnuts, that my husband taught me nearly two decades ago, which is similar to the game of marbles. When I asked my husband how he came to play the filbert game, he replied that Hanukkah was the only time there were filberts in his house! I’m sure the filberts were meant primarily for eating, but that was a simpler time when kids made up games with available materials instead of going on Amazon.com to order them! And, how refreshing it is to play such made-up games, as well as board, word and card games with each other and with children — and turn off the computer, electronic games and smartphones. It’s nice to reconnect with others and recapture that time when we had fun while being screen free.

Gelt and Gifts 

There are varying opinions and reports regarding the giving of gelt (money) and gifts. Today, chocolate coins wrapped in foil are typically given to children. As to gift giving, some believe that it is merely a custom that has developed in response to the gift-giving associated with Christmas. If you’re invited to a Hanukkah party or dinner it is appropriate to bring a hostess gift in keeping with the season, to bring gifts for children, or to give a Hanukkah gift to a friend or colleague. But what is appropriate or appreciated? Here are some suggestions:

  • Bottle of kosher wine
  • Bottle of kosher cooking oil or oil from Israel
  • Macaroons and/or rugalah from a good bakery, or bake them yourself
  • Set of dreidels for children or other non-electronic gifts and games for children
  • Children’s books of the Hanukkah story
  • Menorah – classic or modern — depending on for whom the gift is intended and how much you want to spend
  • Chocolate, coins or otherwise (I can’t vouch for either of these chocolate companies, although I have purchased non-kosher chocolates from Godiva.)
  • Jewelry (for someone special)
  • Fruit, fresh or dried

Observing Shabbat During Hanukkah

Because Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration, one of the days will coincide with Shabbat, the Hebrew word for the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sunset on Friday evening. Because it’s forbidden to light candles (among other activities) on the Sabbath, candles are lit shortly before sunset. So, the question is, which candles do you light first, the Shabbat candles or the Hanukkah candles? The answer is not so simple! Here are two views on the topic for your consideration.

If you celebrate Hanukkah, or will be joining friends or colleagues who celebrate, all the best wishes for a lovely holiday filled with warmth and happiness. If you wish please share how you celebrate, or feel free to add information!

Until next time,

Jeanne

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