Chanukah, the eight-day festival of light that begins on the eve of the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materialism. It is the only Winter Festival. It is also sometimes called the Festival of Dedication, remembering the purifying of the Holy Temple and the reconstruction of The Holy Altar.
About 2200 years ago, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who sought to force the people of Israel to adopt Greek culture and religion. They outlawed Jewish practices such as circumcision and kosher slaughter, Torah study was banned, and they made the worship of Greek gods mandatory. The Greeks also erected idols in the Holy Temple, and sacrificed unclean animals on the Altar.
Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of G-d.
When the priests sought to light the Temple’s menorah, the seven branched lamp, they found only one cruse of olive oil that had escaped desecration by the Greeks. Miraculously, the one-day supply burned for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.
To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah. At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah lighting: a single flame on the first night, two on the second evening, and so on till the eighth night of Chanukah, when all eight lights are kindled.
On Chanukah the custom is to also add the Hallel and Al HaNissim in daily prayers to offer praise and thanksgiving to G-d for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few… the wicked into the hands of the righteous.”
Chanukah customs include eating foods fried in oil — latkes (potato pancakes, often with an apple spread for sweetness) and sufganiot (doughnuts, especially jelly-filled); playing with the dreidel (a spinning top on which are inscribed the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, “a great miracle happened there”); and the giving of Hanukah gelt, gifts of money, to children.