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Hanukkah: A Beloved Minor Holiday

Philosophy professor Claire Katz explains the history of Hanukkah and how it continues to be celebrated today.

By Mia Mercer ‘23
Photo by Anna Burson ‘24

After reclaiming their holy temple from the hands of the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes in second century BCE, Jews set to lighting the ner tamid, the holy light that hangs in every synagogue, in the hopes of rededicating and purifying the temple. However, they only found one bottle of purified oil in the reclaimed temple, which was only sufficient for one day. Miraculously, that oil lasted eight days, allowing enough time for more purified oil to be made to keep the holy light lit. Today, the miracle of the oil is remembered through the celebration of Hanukkah. 

On Nov. 28, Jews around the world lit their menorahs to commence the start of Hanukkah, an eight-day celebration starting on the 25th day of Kislev in accordance with the Hebrew calendar. But despite being one of the most famous Jewish holidays, philosophy professor Claire Katz explained that Hanukkah is actually a minor holiday that does not hold the same significance as major Jewish holidays like Passover and Yom Kippur

“The interesting thing about Hanukkah is it is not mentioned in the Bible because it was post the biblical events, but people think it’s really important because it is celebrated around the same time as Christmas, a holiday that is really important to Christians,” Katz said. “It’s a beloved holiday but it’s not a holiday that requires you to miss work like the high holidays do. It’s a joyous holiday and festival, but it doesn’t have the significance to Judaism that Christmas would have to Christianity.”

Although a minor holiday, Hanukkah is filled with rich traditions and symbols like the menorah, a nine-branched candelabra which serves as the focal point of the celebration. 

“Hanukkah is also called the Festival of Lights because of the menorah,” Katz said. “The one real religious obligation is to light the menorah and there’s a special way to light it. There are eight candles that represent the eight nights and then there’s one extra candle that sits taller than the rest called a ‘Shamash’ which is a helper candle used to light the other candles. When you put the candles in, you put them in right to left, but when you light them, you light them left to right. You’re supposed to light the menorah each night before sundown and when Hanukkah falls on a Friday, you have to light the candles before the Shabbat candles, because once you light the Shabbat candles, you’re not supposed to start a fire.”

After lighting the menorah, Katz shared that it’s common for people to place their menorahs in windows to symbolize being “lights of the world” while also letting others know they are Jewish. 

“Unfortunately, in the age of anti-Semitism, that makes you vulnerable to hate crimes,” Katz shared. “And there have been incidents, where people had bricks thrown through their windows because of the menorah and I know there was one in Billings, Montana, and in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. However, there have also been instances where neighbors would put a menorah in their window even if they weren’t Jewish as a way of saying, ‘We’re not going to make it easier for you to figure out who the Jewish families are, and we stand in solidarity’.”

Along with the lighting of the menorah, those who celebrate Hanukkah also take the time to prepare foods associated with oil. According to Katz, the food prepared can be influenced by one’s cultural or regional background. 

“If your family background is from Eastern Europe, you will most likely eat potato latkes, which are like potato pancakes,” Katz said. “They’re delicious and you eat them with sour cream, apple sauce, or jelly. If you’re from Israel, you make Sufganiyot, which looks like a round jelly donut. And if you’re Sephardic (includes Spain and North Africa), the food is called buñuelos. So, the idea is to have something fried in oil, but where you’re from can make a difference in terms of what those different foods are. For example, my family started doing a big Hanukkah party and when you do a Hanukkah party Texas style, you make latke tacos. And there is nothing more sublime than a latke taco.”

Other customs associated with Hanukkah are the dreidel game, where a four-sided toy dreidel is spun to decide whether one puts money in the middle, takes nothing from the middle, takes half from the middle, or takes the whole pot. And although not a significant part of the celebration, small gifts are sometimes exchanged for each night of Hanukkah.

“I grew up in a substantially Jewish area and my closest friends from high school are all Christian. I never felt left out if we didn’t do a big gift exchange. It wasn’t that big of a deal for me since I didn’t celebrate Christmas,” Katz shared. “But growing up here where Christianity is very dominant, I noticed my own kids did feel a little left out. So, Hanukkah took on a bigger role where they would get gifts simply because the holiday wasn’t balanced by a larger Jewish population where they could see that gift giving wasn’t as big of a deal.”

As the Hanukkah celebration becomes more widespread, companies and media platforms have started to cater to the holiday, from selling different types of menorahs at Target to creating movies about Hanukkah. Katz said there are a few issues with typical media portrayals of the holiday.

“I know that Hallmark has been trying to be more inclusive, but they miss the mark,” Katz said. “Hanukkah doesn’t match Christmas it just doesn’t. I appreciate that they are trying to be inclusive and recognize it, but it doesn’t translate. I grew up with so many Christian friends, and when I watched the Christmas movies, that same feeling of Christmas is portrayed in those movies, which makes sense. But there isn’t that same kind of feeling with Hanukkah. They’re trying to make a representation of something that doesn’t naturally have that representation within Judaism.”

For Katz, Hanukkah is a joyous celebration that focuses on family and the miracle of Hanukkah within Judaism. As those who celebrate this holiday continue to light their menorahs and indulge in fried foods, Katz shared that the celebration is open to everyone.  

“When I think about Hanukkah, I think of the beauty of the menorah or having the party and the house smelling like oil, like the fried potato pancakes,” Katz explained. “It’s a holiday that anyone can participate in because there’s no particular religious overtone to it and every family has their own traditions with how they celebrate from the food they eat to whether or not they make potato pancakes. It is a holiday about religious freedom – and that is a message for everyone.”