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Four Seasons

The Jewish festival of light, Hanukkah, begins on the 25th of Kislev, three days before the new moon closest to the Winter Solstice. This means it spans the darkest time of the year both in the lunar cycle and the solar cycle.

Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic overseers of the Land of Israel who outlawed Jewish religious practices (and punished them with death) while reinstating pagan rituals. In 166 BCE, the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem. They chose the 26th of Kislev as the day to purify and rededicate the temple which had been desecrated three years earlier. The explanation for the emphasis on lighting candles is explained by recounting the miracle of the oil, how one jar of oil kept the lamps lit for the eight days of the festival. But as Arthur Waskow points out, the Greeks were probably celebrating a Winter Solstice ritual on that day and by claiming the same day for their festival the Maccabees

“were rededicating not only the Temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellnized Jews, in order to make it a day of God's victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.” [p. 92]


The main practice of Hanukkah is the lighting of the candles in the menorah, one each night until on the eighth night all eight candles are lit. The traditional menorah has eight lights in a row with none higher than the other. Since the lights are not to be used for any practical purpose, it became customary to add a ninth candle, a shammas or shammash, which is often set above the others and used to light them. The candles are lit as soon as possible after the stars come out each evening and are left to burn for a half an hour.

On the first night, one candle is put into the menorah, on the far right, and the shammas is lit. Then three blessings are said before the shammas is used to light the candle. The blessings acknowledge the Lord God, who commands us to light candles for Hanukkah, who worked miracles for our ancestors in this season, who has given us life, lifted us up and brought us to this season. Unlike other Jewish traditions, women are also obligated to light Hanukkah candles. In some households, there is a separate menorah for each family member. The menorah should be placed in an outside window so it can be seen from outside, although if this is dangerous, it can be placed on a table in the room.

After the candles are lit, several songs are sung, including this one:

We kindle these lights on account of the miracles, the wonders, the liberations, and the battles that You carried out for our forbears in these days at this time of year, through the hands of Your holy priests. For all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are holy. We are not allowed to use them; they are only to look at, in order to thank and praise your great Name on account of Your miracles, Your wonders, and Your liberations. [p. 95]

Both men and women are forbidden to work during the time it takes the candles to burn each night. In some Sephardic communities, women do not work at all on the first and eighth days of Hanukkah, and in some places, they don't work on any of the eight days. Just as the Sabbath is the day for rest provided during the week, so are the eight days of Hanukkah a mandatory resting time at this pivotal point in the year. See Time out of Time.

Hanukkah foods tend to be foods that are cooked in oil, like potato latkes and doughnuts, thus connecting the holiday feast with the historical legend.

Waskow, Arthur, Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays, Beacon 1982

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