Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights

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Hanukkah is an 8-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. This year, the festival will begin on Tuesday 12th December.

The origins of Hanukkah date back to over 2,500 years ago, when the Jews battled the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) to be able to practice their religion freely in the country we know today as Israel. The Greeks forced the Jewish people to accept their culture, worship their gods and take on their beliefs. This oppression led to an uprising against the Syrian-Greeks by a small band of Jewish rebel fighters, lasting 3 years.

The rebellion was spearheaded by Judah the Maccabee, his four brothers and their father. The Maccabees made the Syrian-Greeks leave Israel so the Jews were once again free to worship as they pleased.

As a result of this victory, the Jewish people were able to repair the defiled Holy Temple of Jerusalem and reclaim it as their own. Hanukkah commemorates this temple’s rededication to God, which was carried out by lighting a seven-branched candelabrum called a menorah.

However, when Judah and his small band of rebels came to light the menorah, they were only able to find only a very small amount of olive oil – the equivalent of 1 day’s burning time. To everyone’s surprise, the oil lasted for 8 days which gave them enough time to prepare new oil which would be ritually pure.

To commemorate defeating the Syrian-Greek army and the lighting of the menorah which burned for 8 days, the festival of Hanukkah was born.

How is Hanukkah celebrated?

One of the most widely-recognised symbols of Hanukkah is the nine-branched menorah, also known as a Hanukiyah. The typical menorah consists of eight branches with an additional branch in a distinct location in the centre. This extra light is called the shamash (‘attendant’) candle and is used to light the others.  

Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting one candle on the Hanukiyah each night, right to left, using the shamash candle.

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 – a prayer – is chanted or recited only on the first night.

A common food eaten during Hanukkah is latkes (a kind of potato pancake), served with sour cream and applesauce. They are fried in oil and, by eating this food, Jewish people are reminded of the miracle of the oil which burnt for 8 days in the Temple.

Games played at Hanukkah

Traditionally, there is a special game that children and adults play together during Hannukkah. It involves a spinning top called a dreidel. To begin the game, each player has 10-20 objects which could be nuts, coins, chocolate or other small objects. Each person puts one object in the middle of a central pot and takes a turn at spinning the dreidel.

The four sides of the top of the dreidel show four Hebrew letters: nun, gimmel, hey, and shin. Depending on where the dreidel lands, a player will take one of the following actions:

nun – take nothing;

gimmel – take everything;

hey – take half;

shin – put one in.

The game may last until one person has won everything!

Ideas for your setting

  • Recreate the spinning top game with marbles, caps or buttons
  • Invite parents or members of the Jewish faith to come in and talk to the children about how they celebrate Hanukkah
  • Make and taste latkes (potato pancakes) with the children
  • Decorate your setting in the traditional colours of Hanukkah: blue, white and silver
  • Provide a picture of a menorah and 7 cylinder shaped blocks or containers wrapped to symbolise candles.  Encourage the children to build a menorah using a variety of wooden blocks and the ‘candles’ provided.

More ideas to explore Hanukkah with your pre-school children can be found here

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