Symbols tell stories of Hanukkah

Thursday, December 10, 2009 | 5:59 p.m. CST; updated 10:45 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 10, 2009
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Hanukkah, the Celebration of Lights in Judaism, begins today at sundown and continues for eight days and nights. The dreidel is a game typically played after lighting the menorah, a candelabrum used in the holiday ceremony.

COLUMBIA — Hanukkah begins this year at sundown Friday and continues until sundown eight days later. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews, known as the “Maccabees,” drove the Syrians out of Judea. When the Temple was rededicated, there was only a day’s supply of oil in the menorah, but it miraculously burned for eight days until more olive oil could be obtained.



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The candelabrum holds eight candles and a “shamash” candle. On each night of Hanukkah one candle is lit after sunset and allowed to burn for one hour. The “shamash” candle is also lit each night and used to light the remaining eight candles representing the eight days of Hanukkah. Candles may not be lit after sunset on the Sabbath, however, so they are lit before sunset. Sometimes longer candles are used and allowed to burn at least 30 minutes after sundown. Each day a new candle is added to the menorah from right to left, the same direction Hebrew text is read. Each night the newest candle added to the menorah is lit first.

Fried Foods:

Foods fried in olive oil are commonly eaten during Hanukkah. The oil represents the oil used in the temple to light the menorah. Potato pancakes, or “latkeas,” are a fried food that is often consumed.


The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top that children often play with during Hanukkah. Each side has a different Hebrew letter on it – “noon,” “gimel,” “hey” and “shin.” The letters are an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “Nes gadol haya sham,” which translates as “a great miracle happened there,” according to words are a reference to the oil burning for eight days in the Temple.

It is common for families to play the dreidel game after lighting the menorah during Hanukkah.


“Gelt” is the Yiddish word for money. Small gifts of money are often given to children during Hanukkah. This tradition has since spread to the candy industry where chocolate gelt coins are now manufactured.


The eating of cheese and other dairy products during Hanukkah is based on the story of Judith and Holofernes. According to Rabbi Yossi Feintuch from Congregation Beth Shalom, this story is not commonly told. It is from the Apocrypha, the books that did not make it into the Torah. However, it could be the basis of why latkes are often topped with sour cream.

The Syrian general, Holofernes, surrounded a Jewish city during his campaign to conquer Judea. The city was cut off from food and water supplies. Judith, a widow, left the city with the intention of saving it and met Holofernes. He was taken by her beauty and took her back to his tent where she fed him wine and cheese. Holofrenes fell asleep after becoming drunk and Judith beheaded him. She took his head back with her to her city and the Jewish army was encouraged. The Jewish army took advantage of the fear among the Syrian army and won the battle.  

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