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What Is the Meaning of Hanukkah?

By Billy Hallowell on December 20, 2019

Topics: Holidays

Hanukkah is one of the most popular religious holidays in America. But some people might not know the Hanukkah story, Hanukkah traditions or what the holiday means for Jewish adherents. So, this article dives deep into these subjects.

The Meaning of Hanukkah

What is Hanukkah? Understanding the meaning of the holiday relies on looking back to the Hanukkah story. Let’s take a look through history, traveling back about 2,300 years to explore the happenings that help us better understand the Hanukkah meaning. 

The events that inspired Hanukkah traditions date back to around 200 B.C., when Judea (Israel) was experiencing profound turbulence. At first, Antiochus III, king of Syria, allowed the Jewish people to continue their worship, but his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, took a totally different approach, according to History.

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When seeking to understand Hanukkah meaning, it starts by learning that the Jewish faith was banned during this time and Jews were told to worship Greek gods, with the chaos resulting in a massive anti-Jewish massacre and the desecration of the Second Temple

Eventually, though, a Jewish priest named Mattathias and his sons rebelled and the Jews eventually drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem. This group of Jewish rebels became known as the Maccabees (you won’t find the story, which unfolded in part between 175 BC to 134 BC, in the Protestant or Jewish Bible, but it is in the Catholic canon, among other denominations).

As GotQuestions.org notes: “This small band of pious Jews led guerrilla warfare against the Syrian army. Antiochus sent thousands of well-armed troops to crush the rebellion, but the Maccabees succeeded in driving the foreigners from their land.”

That’s only part of the Hanukkah story, though. After the temple was cleansed and rededicated (Antiochus IV Epiphanes had defiled it by having pigs sacrificed inside) there was a new problem: there was only one small jar of oil. Chabad.org has more:

Now the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem to liberate it. They entered the Temple and cleared it of the idols placed there by the Syrian vandals. Judah and his followers built a new altar, which he dedicated on the 25th of the month of Kislev, in the year 3622 (139 B.C.E.).

Since the golden Menorah had been stolen by the Syrians, the Maccabees now made one of cheaper metal. When they wanted to light it, they found only a small cruse of pure olive oil bearing the seal of the High Priest Yochanan. It was sufficient to light only for one day. 

But as the Hanukkah story goes, there was a miracle: The menorah remained lit for eight days off of that small amount of oil! Jews have celebrated the victory as well as the miracle ever sense, which is what Hanukkah is really all about. As Chabad.org notes, “That miracle proved that G‑d had again taken His people under His protection.”

The Symbols of Hanukkah

As most people know, one of the most well-known Hanukkah symbols is the menorah, a lamp that holds nine candles. It is one of the Hanukkah traditions that is still followed today when the eight-day holiday is celebrated in November or December each year.

If you’re wondering “How long is Hanukkah?” you can look at the menorah and the nine candles to better understand the length of the commemoration. In exploring modern Hanukkah traditions, we must look back to the aforementioned miracle.

There is one candle to represent each of the eight days that the miracle unfolded. Then, the ninth candle is an “attendant” candle used to light the others.

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If you’re wondering how to celebrate Hanukkah, consider how the menorah is used. Men, women and children are encouraged to light menorahs in their homes each year. 

Chaban.org explains how these important Hanukkah traditions take form, noting that the candles are lit from the right side, with a new candle being added each night.

This process goes on for a total of eight days. The candles, which are lit after sunset or at nightfall, must have enough fuel to burn until about 30 minutes after nightfall, the site explains.

Another Hanukkah symbol is the dreidel, a game that children and adults traditionally play during the holiday. You can find out how to play that game here.

Meaning of Hanukkah

Hanukkah Traditions

Now that we’ve answered the “What is Hanukkah?” question by diving into the Hanukkah story and exploring Hanukkah meaning, let’s look a bit more at the traditions. We know celebrants light the menorah during the eight-day holiday, but there’s more.

Jewish people recite blessings on each night of Hanukkah before each candle is lit, which you can read about here. The first Hanukkah prayer reads as follows (you can read the other Hanukkah prayers here):

“Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.”

One of the other Hanukkah traditions — a favorite tradition that is familiar to most holidays — is food. There are a variety of recipes available on the Internet for those celebrating and looking for ideas.

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Chanukah or Hanukkah

You’ve probably noticed different spellings for Hanukkah. There’s a Chanukah or Hanukkah dynamic going on — one you’ll surely notice both in the sources included in this article and any research you’ll do on the Hanukkah story. 

So, when it comes to the Hanukkah vs. Chanukah discussion, which spelling is correct? Both, actually. Britannica notes that both are proper, but that Hanukkah is the most regularly used, with Chanukah serving as a more traditional spelling. 

That begs the question: “What does Hanukkah mean?” The answer: it means “dedication” in Hebrew — an appropriate term considering the holiday’s commemoration of the rededication of the temple after the desecration.

When Is Hanukkah?

You might still be wondering “When is Hanukkah?” especially due to the fact that the eight-day commemoration changes in our calendar each year. 

But it’s consistent in the Hebrew calendar, falling on the 25th day of Kislev; the holiday celebration falls in November or December on our calendar. 


That wraps our explainer on Hanukkah traditions and the Hanukkah story. Read more explainers and daily inspiring content over on the Pure Flix Insider.

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