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EBSTEIN: Finding Particular Meaning in Lighting This Year’s Hanukkah Candles

Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, you are conversing with yourself. You realize Hanukkah is coming, you don’t sufficiently understand the story, and you can’t identify appropriate gifts for family and friends. You may not even be in a celebratory mood as you feel the darkness of the times — political acrimony, warfare and more.

What should you do? You’d like to make this Hanukkah meaningful, but how?

Starting with knowledge is always a good idea. You might know that Hanukkah lasts eight days and that candles are lit each night, adding a candle each night until eight are lit. But what else? Here’s your cheat sheet, along with an idea about how to add more meaning in 2023.

The Hanukkah Story Cheat Sheet

Back in 190 BCE, the Greeks occupied Israel and imposed their will. They required that Jews help finance their military through taxes and house their soldiers in their homes. They placed a Zeus statue in the Temple courtyard and banished Jewish observances.

When the Greeks demanded Jews sacrifice a pig to Greek idols, a group of Hasmoneans, led by Mattathias, had enough, and a war ensued between the Jews and the Greek army.

Mattathias led the Maccabees in guerrilla warfare against a much better-equipped Greek army and was killed. Mattathias’ son, Judah, took over and led the troops. Against all odds, but through guile and hit-and-run tactics, the Maccabees and their 12,000 men eventually defeated the larger 50,000-men Greek army. It took five years.

According to the Talmud, after their victory, the Jews went inside the temple. They found one small flask of oil to light a flame, which miraculously lasted eight days. The lasting oil and the Maccabees’ victory became the miracles we celebrate on Hanukkah. We use a ninth candle, called the “shamash,” to light the other candles.

Some Hanukkah Traditions 

We celebrate Hanukkah with food, games and songs. Specifically:

Food: Latkes (fried potato pancakes made of shredded potatoes with onions), often accompanied by apple sauce and sour cream. Another Hanukkah delectable is jelly-filled fried donuts called “sufganiyot” — a kid’s treat.

Dreidel: A betting game is played by spinning a four-sided “dreidel.” Each side has a Hebrew letter to remind us that “A big miracle happened there,” where the first letter of each significant word is displayed. Players settle their bets based on how their dreidel lands. Pennies and nickels, or better yet, chocolate coins called “gelt,” are used for betting.

Singing: Blessings are said, and songs are sung during the candle lighting. Songs can be as simple as “I Have a Little Dreidel” or as complicated as Hebrew songs sung in rounds.

Timing: Unlike Christmas, which always falls on December 25, Hanukkah falls on the 25th of Kislev, a month in the Jewish calendar. This explains why Hanukkah falls on different dates in the Gregorian calendar.

Imbuing Hanukkah with Meaning in 2023

It is hard not to view Hanukkah this year a little differently, given the steep rise in antisemitism. Reuters reports that U.S. antisemitic incidents are up 400 percent since the Hamas-Israel war began. Are Jews to feel like Maccabees living in a hostile land? How are we to view the candles? A symbol of hope? Shining a light on some hidden truths about antisemitism? Appreciating non-Jews who take a stand against antisemitism?

The current situation has reframed my view of gift-giving this Hanukkah. The best gifts are the ones imbued with thought and meaning. How about making gifts to charitable causes selected by loved ones, and we can share their meaning? In our family, I will buy only for our toddler granddaughter.

Hanukkah has always marked a time to look inward and find a larger purpose, but it resonates more in 2023. Whether one views the holiday through a Jewish lens of history and heritage or through the modern-day song, Light One Candle, about peace, justice and hope, we should not squander the opportunity to add new layers of meaning to our lives.

In previous writings, I’ve shared the teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great sage and rabbi who lit our world with love, meaning and goodness. He believed that to do God’s work, we need to recognize the spark of the divine within us and treat fellow humans accordingly.

That would be an excellent Hanukkah takeaway to explore and share with our loved ones in 2023.