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What Is the Meaning of Hanukkah?

SOMERS, N.Y. - The eight days of Hanukkah started at sundown on December 20 this year. “All Jewish holidays start at sundown,” explained Rabbi Fred Schwalb of the Hebrew Congregation of Somers (HCS), “because holidays represent light and rebirth. The event starts in the dark and goes into the light.

“Hanukkah is a wonderful story and a beautiful tradition,” he continued. “It’s all about preserving Jewish identity. The Book of Maccabees describes the war of the ancient Jews against the Greeks.” This occurred about 165 B.C.E. “The Greek culture was very attractive. But the Jews were trying to preserve their own culture. There was a civil war, similar to the Vietnam War, between those who wanted to assimilate with the Greeks and those who wanted to preserve Judaism.”

Because the Greeks had taken over the Temple to use for their own pagan ceremonies, the Jews were unable to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, which occurs about two months before Hanukkah. Once the Jews regained possession of the temple, they decided to have a grand Hanukkah celebration. But first it was necessary to purify the temple. This is where the oft-told story of the purifying oil originates. It is said that there was only enough oil to burn for one day, but miraculously it lasted a full eight days.

Rabbi Schwalb believes this was a tale invented by the rabbis. Actually, Hanukkah lasts eight days because Sukkot lasts eight days, he said. The lighting of the Hanukkah menorah relates to the shortness of the winter days. The candles are celebratory, just like Christmas lights.

Menorahs should be placed where they can be seen, the rabbi explained. In Jerusalem, most houses have an outdoor glass-enclosure for the menorah. By the end of the holiday, the street is glowing with light.

The practice of giving children eight presents “is a modern thing,” he said. “To compete with Christmas. We try to encourage the kids to give one of their presents to charity.”

In many countries, especially in Eastern Europe, latkes (potato pancakes) are a traditional Hanukkah treat. In Rabbi Schwalb’s opinion, the best latkes are made with “sweet potatoes, a sweet onion and a little salt and pepper. Fried in canola oil.”

Latkes at Hanukkah are not particularly popular in Israel however. “They eat jelly doughnuts.”

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