Chanukah, also transliterated as Hanukkah, means dedication, referring to the re-dedication of the Holy Temple after a successful Jewish revolt against their Greek Syrian conquerors. King Antiochus IV, seeking to maximize the spread of Hellenistic culture, had banned major Jewish rituals and introduced idol worship into the Temple. While many Jews had become enamored of Greek culture, a band of religious loyalists led by Judah Maccabee sparked an increasingly popular armed resistance. In a three-year campaign ending in 165 or 164 BCE, they succeeded in defeating several Syrian armies and regaining the Temple.
The revolt and the eight-day festival celebrating the recapture and re-dedication of the Temple are recorded in the Book of Maccabees and subsequently by the first-century historian Josephus. Curiously, the Book of Maccabees was never made part of the canon that forms the Hebrew Bible, but it is in the Apocrypha of several Christian denominations. The Gospel of Saint John, Chapter 10, records that Jesus celebrated the winter festival of dedication in Jerusalem one year. Although Judah Maccabee was killed in one of the continuing battles with the Syrians, his brothers carried on the fight, and their family and dynasty eventually ruled an independent Judea until Rome conquered the land in 63 BCE.
The distinctive custom of Chanukah is the lighting of a candelabrum, known as a menorah or chanukiah, for eight nights. The custom is to light one candle or oil receptacle on the first night and to add one each night until eight are lit on the last night. This custom derives from a report that when the victorious Maccabees entered the Temple, they found only a one-day supply of the ritually pure olive oil used in the lighting of the biblically mandated seven-branch menorah. The one-day supply is said to have lasted for eight days until a fresh supply of pure oil became available.
The special foods of Chanukah are potato pancakes, called latkes, and oil-abundant jelly doughnuts called sufganiot. These traditional foods involve frying in olive oil to commemorate the miracle of the oil that burned in the Temple of Jerusalem for eight days instead of just one.
Children receive Chanukah money or gifts, sometimes on all eight days. They are also encouraged to play a game with a dreidel, which is a spinning top with four Hebrew letters. The letters are Nun, Gimel, Hay and Peh. which stands for the Hebrew phrase “A great miracle happened there”.