Teaching with Stamps: Primary resources for teaching America’s history and heritage.
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Hanukkah is the eight-night festival celebrated by Jews every year on the 25th of Kislev, which falls in November or December in our calendar. A sacred tradition, Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew, and the holiday commemorates a miraculous victory of the Jews over their Seleucid rulers. In roughly 200 BC, these Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), ruled over Judea (present-day Israel). They sought to Hellenize the Jews, or force them to abandon their religion and worship Greek gods. The mighty Greek army seized the Jews’ Second Temple, where they created an alter to Zeus and sacrificed pigs – sacrilege acts to the Jews. But through an astounding turn of events called the Maccabean Revolt, a small band of devoted Jews drove the world’s most powerful army from the city and reclaimed their temple.
Legend has it that when the Jews went to light the Temple’s menorah, or seven-armed candelabrum, they only had enough oil to burn one day. But miraculously, the oil burned for eight whole nights. To memorialize this turn of events, Jewish sages instituted the festival of Hanukkah.
Today, Hanukkah comes with its own set of beloved traditions. For starters, the menorah we light now has eight branches, as we light one more candle each consecutive night of the festival. Hanukkah also calls for gift-giving, and the consumption of lots of yummy treats like latke (potato pancakes), sufganiot (donuts), and kugel (pudding casserole). Children are also given gelt (money, or the chocolate equivalent!) and spin the dreidel. The dreidel is a top upon which the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei, and shin are inscribed – an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (“a great miracle happened there”).