Evolving Traditions: Chanukah

Sources in Antiquity | Older Traditions | Newer Traditions

Sources in Antiquity

And on the 25th day of Kislev...the sanctuary of God was dedicated anew with song and music ... Then Judah and his brothers with all the people of Israel ordained that the days of the Dedication of the altar should be celebrated from year to year for eight days in gladness and thanksgiving. (Maccabees 5)

There are seven dedications that have been achieved by light: "The creation of the world by moonlight, the Tabernacle and two Temples by the seven-branched menorah, the festival of the Maccabees by the eight-branched menorah, the walls of Jerusalem by torches, and the millennium by the sevenfold light of the sun." (Pesikta Rabbati 2)

Older Traditions

Chanukah Customs
Though festive meals are not prescribed for the days of Chanukah, many Jews abide by the custom of investing the Chanukah meals with special rejoicing, by discoursing on Torah themes and recounting the miracles performed for Israel. The meals hence become seudot mitzvah (meals having the status of a mitzvah).

It is likewise customary among the Sephardi communities in Yerushalayim for joint meals to be arranged during the days of Chanukah. Friends who quarreled during the year, are reconciled at these meals.

It was also customary in many Jewish communities to focus public concern, during Chanukah, on matters affecting the education of the children. Community officials used to gather to prescribe ways and means for enhancing the study of Torah among the youth, as well as the masses of the people. For ‘Chanukah’ means both inauguration and education.

For this reason it is also traditional among most Jewish families for the father to give ‘Chanukah-money’ to the children--as if saying thereby: ‘These gifts are given to you today so that you might accept the yoke of Torah constantly.’

Many Rabbis used to undertake trips during Chanukah to the small villages, in order to teach Torah and fear of God to the people. From this teaching Jews in the rural communities derived inspiration for the entire year.

The widespread practice among Jewish children of playing ‘dreidel’ games also reflects the theme of Chanukah. Since the children have ready money (gifts received from their parents), and since the lighting of Chanukah lights causes some bitul Torah (neglect of the study of Torah) during the winter nights, the little ones are told, as it were: ‘Relax tonight and spend your hours happily, so that you might take upon yourselves the yoke of Torah, and the exertion required for the performance of mitzvot after Chanukah. And even now, as you play, do not forget the miracle and wonders wrought by God for us.’

On the dreidels the letters nun, gimel, hay, shin, are therefore inscribed. These letters are an abbreviation of the words ‘Nes Gadol, Haya Sham’ (‘A great miracle happened there’). In the Land of Israel however the fourth letter is Peh rather than a Shin--the letters thus stand for the words, Nes Gadol Haya Po. (‘A great miracle happened here’). Thus even when the children are at play, the remembrance of the miracle is woven into their games.

The customs of Chanukah are hence seen to have an educational aim--for children as well as for adults--in recalling God’s loving kindness towards His people Israel, and evoking Israel’s thanksgiving and praise before Him as they accept His Torah and mitzvot anew.

Source: Kitov, Eliyahu. The Book of Our Heritage. New York. New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1978.

Newer Traditions

Virtual Dreidel

New Chanukah Traditions

Rededicating Your Home on Chanukah
After the Maccabees drove Antiochus’s army out of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews performed a ceremony to restore holiness to their sacred place. The ceremony was called chanukat habayit--literally, "rededicating the house." Our ancestors lit a menorah and, in its glow, they reclaimed their home. In our own time, at Chanukah, we think about our own homes as places where we encounter the sacred, deepening the way we experience home as a holy place.

My home is the place where I celebrate life, mark the seasons, welcome guests, light candles, remember the past, dream about the future, and open my heart to the present. At Chanukah, may I rededicate my home to the values and relationships I hold sacred.

(As you prepare to perform each night’s deed of rededication)
As this menorah fills with light, may our home be rededicated to the Source of Blessing that connects us all.

Here are eight ways to rededicate your home:

  1. Rededicate the rooms of your home so they can better accomplish their sacred tasks--the dining room for guests, the kitchen for sustaining life, the living room for family interaction, the bedroom for rest and intimacy.
  2. Invite guests, cook a special meal together, plan a family event or make time for those you love, creating and expanding shalom bayit, relationships of peace.
  3. Make your home a place where learning, talmud Torah, leads to change. Create or enlarge your shelf for Jewish books.
  4. Read a Jewish book from a challenging perspective.
  5. Choose a place in your home where you can devote yourself to contemplation and prayer. Make a mizrach--a marker pointing eastward--and put it up on your own eastern wall to focus your prayers toward Jerusalem.
  6. Stand facing your mizrach, and experiment with different ways to direct your heart in tefilah, meditation.
  7. As the Chanukah lights burn, gather coats and blankets in your home to deliver to a local shelter, or collect canned food for a food drive.
  8. Place boxes for tzedakah in each room of your home so they will be available for collecting loose change.

Chanukah: Illuminating Our Dearest Values
One example of how we might use the nights of Chanukah to rededicate ourselves to acts of justice and social responsibility.

The Jewish people view Chanukah in many ways. For some, the "miracle of the oil" is central; for some, the military and political achievement of the Maccabees is at its core; for still others, it is a holiday of religious freedom. We, in The WORKMEN'S CIRCLE/ARBETER RING see it as an occasion to remember and celebrate our dearest values.

As we light each of the eight candles on the Chanukah menorah, we dedicate them to each of those cherished values.

We dedicate the first candle to FREEDOM. The struggle against forced Hellenization was a struggle for freedom of expression, for the rights of the minority to be expressed without fear of repression. Let this candle's light inspire us to protect freedom for all.

We dedicate the second candle to TOLERANCE. Let us strive for a world in which the voice of hatred is no longer heard. Let this candle light the way for us to create a world of mutual respect and tolerance among all the peoples of the world.

We dedicate the third candle to PEACE. Let us use our freedom to create a world that uses words to build bridges among people and does not use weapons to destroy each other, a world in which "they shall beat their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and they shall not learn war anymore."

We dedicate the fourth candle to COURAGE. More important than physical courage is the courage of our moral convictions, the struggle for the ideas and ideals we hold . Let this light remind us that without courage, those ideas and ideals remain unfulfilled.

We dedicate the fifth candle to KNOWLEDGE. The quest for Jewish knowledge for ourselves and our children enriches our lives as Jews and enables us to transmit the beauty and depth of our heritage to future generations. Let this light symbolize our commitment to expanding our Jewish knowledge.

We dedicate the sixth candle to TSDOKE, to JUSTICE. We achieve great personal fulfillment by giving of ourselves and easing the burdens of others. Let this light remind us of the other's needs and inspire us to share what we have with generosity and love.

We dedicate the seventh candle to RESPONSIBILITY. Our actions must be guided by a sense of obligation towards others, by the responsibility of every Jew for every other Jew. Let the light of this candle remind us that we must bear our mutual responsibility gladly and proudly.

We dedicate the eighth candle to the CONTINUITY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE. Each of us must be an active participant in Jewish life so that our children and grandchildren will learn the joy and beauty of their Jewish heritage from our actions as well as our words. May the light of this candle encourage us to make this a priority in our lives, intrinsic to our very being.

In lighting these Chanukah candles, we join Jews the world over, today, in the past, and in the future. May the candles illuminate our minds, warm our hearts and re-kindle our commitment to each other and to the Jewish people everywhere.

The Peaceful Maccabee: A Ceremony for the Eight Nights of Chanukah
by Rabbi Leah Novick

On Chanukah we usually honor the Maccabees, brave men who fought with the sword against injustice. This year, we choose also to honor those courageous women who, throughout our history, have challenged injustice--not with the sword, but with word and deed. Each night, choose one of the women described below--a woman from our past--or choose a woman you know, a friend or relative, who has made a difference in the life of the community; read or tell her story. After each reading, everyone listening should repeat the woman's name and say, "Zichronah Livrachah, May her memory be a blessing." Then say the blessings over the Chanukiah and light the first candle of that night in her memory. You may also perform the entire ritual on the eighth night, which falls this year on Rosh Chodesh Tevet, "the New Moon of the Daughters." May the light of these women's lives continue to illuminate us.


Shlom Zion ha Malkah (Salome Alexandra)
Queen of Israel, first century BCE

This ritual is devoted to one of the last Hasmonean rulers, "Shlom Zion ha Malkah," who brought peace and prosperity to Israel after the turbulent years associated with the later Maccabean dynasty. Shlom Zion (as the Talmud refers to her) or Salome Alexandra was married to Judah Aristobolus, the first Hasmonean to take the title of king and high priest in 104 BCE.

Her husband died of a fatal illness before she had any children, leading to a levirate marriage with the successor, his 22-year-old brother, Alexander Jannai, with whom she had two sons. Alexander Jannai was associated with the upper-class Sadducees and persecuted the Pharisees, whom Shlom Zion supported. During Alexander Jannai's reign (considered tyrannical by historians), the head of the religious parliament, Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach, was forced into exile.

However, on his deathbed, Alexander Jannai bequeathed the kingdom to Shlom Zion. She assumed the monarchy at age 64 and reinstated Rabbi Shimon and the Sanhedrin, an act which led to many educational and religious reforms, including the development of the marital contract, the ketubah.

The Talmud praises her wisdom and piety, indicating an almost messianic quality to the nine years she was in power: a time of abundance, justice, and peace. Historians cite her role in foreign policy; some credit her with successfully maintaining the kingdom against the surrounding empires through clever diplomacy.

Candle One:

Namnah "Bat ha Levi" of Baghdad
Eleventh-century Persian scholar

A beautiful and wise teacher, Namnah lectured to rabbinical students in the Yeshivah of her father, Rabbi Shmuel Ben Eli, the enlightened eleventh-century Gaon of Baghdad.

Rabbi Petachiah of Regensburg described Namnah (also called Bat ha Levi) as follows:

"She is an expert in Scripture and Talmud. She gives instruction in scripture to young men through a window. She herself is within the building; whilst the disciples are below outside and do not see her."

Stories about Bat ha Levi say that her fiancé, a scholar named Azariah, died before their wedding--considered a bad omen in those days. Soon after, she and her father are said to have passed away on the same day! Their graves were regarded as sacred by Persian Jews, who made pilgrimages to the site.

Candle Two:

Dulcie of Worms
Twelfth-century communal leader (martyred 22nd Kislev 1196)

Dulcie of Worms was part of a distinguished family of scholarly Franco-German Jews associated with the academies of higher learning in the cities of Worms, Mayence, and Speier. She was the great-granddaughter of the renowned French commentator "Rashi"(Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105).

In a poem, Dulcie's husband, the renowned Rabbi Eliezer Ben Yehudah of Worms, describes her religious devotion as well as her work in leading women's prayers in the synagogue and teaching women in various cities. He tells us that she supported his scholarly work with her business activities, provided room and board for his students, and also escorted brides, sewed Torah scrolls, made candles for the synagogue, etc.

Rebbetzin Dulcie also instructed her two daughters, named Belet and Chana. Both of the girls and Rebbetzin Dulcie were brutally murdered in 1196, between the second and third crusades, when two Soldiers of the Cross broke into their house. Despite her heroic efforts to save them, both girls were killed. Her son was wounded in the same incident and later died.

Candle Three:

Rebbetzin Mizrachi
Sixteenth-century Kurdistani scholar and administrator

In Amadiyah, Kurdistan, where women were held in high esteem and Jews traced their origins to the Assyrian exile, a sixteenth-century scholar offered his learned daughter, an only child, in marriage to Rabbi Jacob Mizrachi. The contract contained the stipulation that she never be troubled with housework.

The new "Rebetzin" Mizrachi (who is referred to by some authors as Osnath Barazani, the daughter of poet Samuel Barazani) worked as a teacher in her husband¹s yeshivah and assumed its administration, freeing her husband to pursue his studies. Unfortunately, his death left her with two young children and a school with limited funds.

She maintained the school, with her son, for many years despite financial difficulties. In fact, her poverty has made us richer: her fundraising appeals, drafted in poetic Hebrew, have survived to document her learning, humility, and courage in the face of adversity.

Candle Four:

Sarah Bat Tovim
Early-eighteenth-century eastern European liturgist

Sarah Bat Tovim is usually identified as a firzogerin (foresayer) who led and interpreted the prayers in the women's section of the synagogue. She wrote special prayers for women, known as techinot, which were usually drafted in Yiddish.

Sarah compiled religious pamphlets for women which included language to accompany the female mitzvot (challah, candles, and mikvah) and prayers for Rosh Chodesh (new moon) and High Holidays. The two booklets attributed to her are Sheker ha Chen (Beauty is Deceptive) and Shlosha Shearim (Three Gates).

The style of the early drafters of women's techinot was often emulated by male writers, eager to enter the techinah market. For that reason scholars debate Sarah Bat Tovim¹s historical authenticity. Whether she is archetypal or biologically real, she represents an early genre of female religious writer and teacher.

Candle Five:

Soreh Bezalel
Late-eighteenth-century woman of valor

The story of Soreh Bezalel reflects the kind of faith and courage we associate with the tales of Ruth and Queen Esther. As a beautiful young woman in Germany, she proposed to an elderly teacher, Reb Yoseph, for whom she had great respect. The "Melamed" was amazed and agreed only after being convinced that Soreh was endangered by the advances of the local nobleman, who had threatened to kidnap her when she rejected his proposals.

After their secret marriage and escape to southern Poland, Soreh gave birth to Yehudah Leib Ben Bazalel, who would become an important member of the Baal Shem's circle. Not long after the boy's birth, her husband died.

Soreh raised the boy by herself, guiding him toward involvement with Chasiduth. He was assigned by the Baal Shem Tov and later the Maggid of Mezerich to the ransoming of Jewish captives. The early Hasidim honored his mother by calling him Rabbi Leib Soreh's, after his mother.

Candle Six:

Penina Moise
Early-nineteenth-century Sephardic-American writer

Penina Moise, a religious poet, was the first Jew to publish a book of poetry in the United States. An acknowledged contributor to the majority culture, she did so without diminishing her commitment to Jewish life and values. Her hymns, which she wrote for the congregation in her community of Charleston, South Carolina, were later compiled in Reform and Conservative hymnals.

Her Sephardic family emigrated from Alsace to the West Indies and from there to the American South. Once wealthy, they lost all their resources, and Penina's life became one of hardship after the death of her father when she was twelve years old. This was also the year she began publishing her poems.

Clearly precocious in understanding and responsibility, she resented the fact that girls could not have a bar mitzvah and were denied more advanced Jewish education. She is also known to have scoffed at the traditional daily prayer "Thank God, I was not created a woman," indicating that contemporary feminism has deep roots.

A lifetime of financial hardship and prolific writing culminated in the loss of her eyesight during her later years. Though she lived a long, productive, and saintly life her epitaph reflects a sadness that is not uncommon among accomplished Jewish women whose energies were directed to caring for others: Lay no flowers on my grave They are for those who live in the sun And I have always lived in the shadow

Candle Seven:

Rachel Luzzato-Morpurgo
Nineteenth-century Italian mystical poet

Most acknowledge that Kabbalah as a mystic philosophy brought the Shechinah (female presence of God) into prominence in Jewish thinking. Yet despite its emphasis on the female sacred energy, the movement is associated by all as being an exclusively male domain. One of the few identified female kabbalistic scholars was Rachel Luzzato, a descendant of the Italian kabbalist Moses Chaim Luzzato.

Her family, who were quite prominent, settled in Trieste where she was schooled in Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and secular subjects. She became conversant with the Talmud as a teenager and later studied the Zohar. She began writing poetry at the age of eighteen and continued to do so during her marriage to Jacob Morpurgo, in which she bore four children.

Living under strained financial conditions she nevertheless continued her writing and correspondence with other scholars. Despite a demanding domestic life in which she carried out all the housework and child care for her family, she produced the numerous poems that comprise the book Rachel¹s Harp.

Candle Eight:

Malkele Die Triskerin
Nineteenth-century eastern European Hasidic rebbe

The practice of receiving contributions from the affluent to care for less fortunate members of the community was common Hasidic practice. The women who shaped the development of this form of philanthropy included "Malkele die Triskerin"--Malka the Rebbe of Trisk--who is known for her sponsorship of public meals for the needy. She reputedly held court and received petitions twice a day, indicating a rigorous schedule of responding to her Hasidim.

Malka was the daughter of Reb Avrohom of Trisk, a descendant of the Chernobyler Rebbe. After her husband Efraim's death, Malka assumed the direction of the court and was known for her love of music. She organized a choir of great singers and enjoyed Hasidic singing and dancing after every festive meal.

Source: Reprinted from Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture & Society, www.tikkun.org.