“Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as… as…as a fiddler on the roof!”

– Tevye “Fiddler On The Roof”

This time of year is full of traditions. Family traditions, societal traditions, and religious traditions. Some traditions that start as religious or societal, eventually become family traditions. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a societal tradition. Now for most families, mine included, it’s not Thanksgiving with out the parade on in the background while the turkey dinner is getting prepared for the oven. Even to this day, I will wait to tear up my bread for the stuffing until Thanksgiving day, so I can sit in front of the t.v. and watch the parade at the same time. This is something I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember, thanks to my mom.

Today at sun down a very beautiful religious tradition began, the Jewish tradition of Chaunkah or Hanukkah. It is also called the Festival of Lights or the Festival of Dedication. Not many people know the meaning of Hanukkah or how it came about. I was enlightened by my good friend Marissa back in high school and was reminded this past weekend what a wonderful tradition it is.

Around 200 BCE Jews lived as an autonomous people in the Land of Israel, also referred to as Judea, which at that time was controlled by the Seleucid king of Syria. The Jewish people paid taxes to Syria and accepted its legal authority, and they were free to follow their own faith, maintain their own jobs, and engage in trade. By 175 BCE Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended to the Seleucid throne. At first little changed, but under his reign, the Temple in Jerusalem was looted, Jews were massacred, and Judaism was effectively outlawed. In 167 BCE Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple. Antiochus’ actions proved to be a major miscalculation as they provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”). By 166 BCE Mattathias had died, and Judah took his place as leader. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted by Judah Maccabee and his brothers to celebrate this event. After recovering Jerusalem and the Temple, Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, olive oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. But there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.

As you may have noticed, the Menorah has nine slots for candles. The ninth and center candle is the shamash (or slave) candle. It is the candle that you light all the other with. The candles are placed in the Menorah from right to left, with the newest one going in the farthest left. Then the candles are lit left to right, starting with the most recently added candle. This is to symbolize the acceptance and concentration on the things the family already has and not what they do not have yet. Prior to and during the lighting of the candles, typically three blessings are recited, depending on the traditions of the family.

Also during this time, there are special games and food enjoyed by all. My favorite is the latkes, or potato pancakes. However there is a custom of eating food fried or baked in oil, preferably olive oil, as a reminder to all the importance of the oil from the original miracle. The most well known Hanakkah game is dreidel. The dreidel is a four sided spinning top that children play with. Each side has a Hebrew letter. Each letter is an acronym for Nes Gadol Haya Sham – “A great miracle happened there”, referring to the miracle of the oil. The letters on the dreidel are the Hebrew letter for the first letter of each word:
* נ (Nun)
* ג (Gimel)
* ה (Hey)
* ש (Shin)

However, in the state of Israel the fourth letter Shin is replaced with פ (Pe). Then the acronym is Nes Gadol Haya Po or A great miracle happened here. After lighting the Hanukkah menorah, it is customary in many homes to play the dreidel game: Each player starts out with 10 or 15 coins (real or of chocolate), nuts, raisins, candies or other markers, and places one marker in the “pot.” The first player spins the dreidel, and depending on which side the dreidel falls on, either wins a marker from the pot or gives up part of his stash. The code (based on a Yiddish version of the game) is as follows:

* Nun – nisht – “not” – nothing happens and the next player spins
* Gimel – gants – “all” – the player takes the entire pot
* Hey – halb – “half” – the player takes half of the pot, rounding up if there is an odd number
* Shin – shtel ayn – “put in” – the player puts one marker in the pot

Some say the dreidel game is played to commemorate the Jews ingenuity for studying Torah, which was outlawed by Greeks. The Jews would gather to study and if soldier were spotted, they would hide their scrolls and spin tops. The Greeks thought they were gambling and not learning.

As you can see, there are many components being celebrated in this wonderful tradition. The giving thanks for the oil and what each family currently has, and the ingenuity and survival of a People and their traditions.

Unfortunately, in this country, a huge emphasis is placed on the Christian Tradition of the season. Over the next few weeks, I hope to be able to enlighten each of you of the other traditions celebrated during this time of year, like Kwanza, and Yule. Different traditions have always fascinated me, hopefully you will learn something new and maybe incorporate some of these fabulous traditions in to your own family traditions.