When?

Chanukah is celebrated for eight days, beginning on the 25th of Kislev. This year - 2016 - we light the first candle on the evening of December 24th and end our eighth day on January 1st , Here is something else pretty cool calendar-wise: in 2013, the dates ran from November 27 to December 5. Why so early? Because we were due for a "leap month" that year to help even things out again (three months later, we had a doubled Adar). That earliness created a unique calendar situation for all American and ex-pat Jews celebrating Thanksgiving in 2013. This date overlap only occurred once before, back in 1888, and apparently such an identity shake-up for Americans would not reoccur for another 77,040 years (see a funny send-up by Stephen Colbert about this "Thanksgivukkah" situation here). An added if less well-known oddity in all this is that part of the origins of Chanukah have to do with it's having been a delayed, "second Sukkot" (more customarily thought of as the Jewish Thanksgiving) – put off due to repression and military factors at that time [see our "Overview" section].

Candle-Lighting, Prayers & Blessings

  • Menorah or Chanukiah?:

    The menorah [candelabrum] that stood in the Temple and is also nowadays an Israeli state symbol has seven branches. In Hebrew we use the word chanukiah to connote the special menorah used specifically for Chanukah, which has nine branches. The shamash is the candle/flame you use to light the eight other ones and it's either central or separate somehow from the rest (i.e. higher or set to a side, etc., depending on the artistic style these days). So - excluding the shamash in your count - on the first night you light one candle and keep adding one more each successive night, up to eight. This was not always an automatic "given" however…

    a menorahA menorah has seven branches;
    nowadays an Israeli state symbol
    a chanukiahA chanukiah has nine branches;
    used when celebrating Chanukah
  • Hillel or Shammai?:

    Here were two great rabbis, each with a major school of learning. There arose a debate as to how we should be lighting the candles. The Shammai school felt that it should go like a countdown - so one would start with eight lights and work down to one by the last night of the chag. The Hillel position was the opposite, based on the thought that just as joy and holiness increase each day the chag progresses, so should its light.

  • Right or Left?:

    You place the first candle in the chanukiah into the branch furthest to the right. Each night thereafter you again start with the oldest candle position and add to the left => Meaning you will put candles into the chanukiah from right to left, okay?

    Then we try to confuse you

    You light the newest candle first => Meaning that you light from left to right. You now may feel a bit directionally dizzy, sort of like a dreidel caught in a contest between right- and left-handers.

    So here's a handy (pun intended) mnemonic to help keep it all straight:
    "Ready the candles from Right to left.
    Light the candles from Left to right".

    Okay, while the branches are more traditionally placed in a straight row, nowadays we have some new-fangled artistic versions out there. That can make things slightly more confounding – like if you have one with stems that can swivel on a base, so that one can create a different three dimensional "sculpture" each night instead of the branches lined up straight and even. So in those cases simply use yourself as reference point instead of the chanukiah- with each task oriented from whichever candle seems furthest to the right or left from you. 

    We'd just add that if the lighting gets jumbled, don't worry. We've only been explaining standard custom, not an iron rule – so you still have fulfilled the mitzvah of lighting the candles just fine.

  • When and Where?
    You should use something flammable that fuels a flame- either candles or oil and wick. It needs to burn for at least 30 minutes. The time should ideally be used for singing, discussing ideas and stories from the chag, for admiring the light but not for using that light. For the Rabbis have instructed us about this in the prayer "Hanerot Halalu"- read after kindling the lights, which states in part: "These candles are sacred. We don’t have permission to use them as a light source, but are only to look upon them."
    "
    הנרות הללו קדש הם ואין לנו רשות להשתמש בהם אלא לראותם בלבד"

Hanerot halalu kodesh hem, ve-eyn lanu reshut lehishtamesh ba-hem

ela lir-ortam bilvad.

a family lighting a chanukiah by the windowMaking the miracle known - lighting a chanukiah by the window

In keeping with the goal of "pirsum hanes", or making the miracle known (literally "advertising" it), the chanukiah should be preferably located in such a way that the lights can be seen through a doorway or at least a window by any passers-by on the street - excepting in times when such advertisement poses a danger. Electric lights aren't considered acceptable except where safety is an issue. We would add that clearly you shouldn't do anything that could possibly end up being a fire hazard with regard to where your chanukiah is placed (like if that means putting it on a kitchen counter instead, please do so). 

Customs vary - lighting can occur soon after sunset or even any time after nightfall- meaning if you get home late, still do the mitzah (this particular obligation is incumbent on both men and women). Whichever your start time, do note that the lights are required to burn for at least 30 minutes after nightfall, and 30 minutes is the usual time limit of the standard candles most of us use. Nightfall is considered to start 20 to 30 minutes after the sun has set, or once you can discern three stars in the sky. 

The exception to this lighting time is on a Friday- Erev Shabbat. In this instance, you light the chanukiah before sunset and before lighting your Shabbat candles. Since the latter is done 18 minutes before the sun goes down, this means that if you are fully observant, you will need more oil or larger candles than the usual ones used for other days of the week- so that they can also burn long enough after nightfall.

  • Here are the brachot, or blessings, that we say for lighting the Chanukah candles:

    Habracha harishona, the first blessing -

    ברוך אתה ה', אלהינו מלך בעולם, אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וצונו להדליק נר של חנכה.

    Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheynu melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav,
    ve-tzivanu lehadlik ner shel Chanuka.


    Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Chanukah.


    Habracha hashniya, the second blessing -

    ברוך אתה ה', אלהינו מלך העולם, אשר עשה נסים לאבותינו בימים ההם בזמן הזה.

    Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheynu melech ha-olam, asher asa nisim la-avoteynu, bayamim hahem bazman ha-ze.

    Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, Ruler of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those [ancient] days, at this season.

    On the first night of Chanukah we also say a bracha shlishit, a third blessing, the Shehecheyanu. (We say the Shehecheyanu at the start of any festival) -

ברוך אתה ה', אלהינו מלך העולם, שהחינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה.
Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheynu melech ha-olam, shehecheyanu, ve-kiyemanu vehigianu lazman ha-ze.
Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, Ruler of the universe, who has given us life,
and sustained us and enabled us to reach this time.

  • Besides the "Hanerot Halalu" prayer, another prayer difference during Chanukah is adding "Al Hanisim" to the Amidah, and also to Birkat Hamazon [Grace After Meals]. By the way, a similar but slightly different "Al Hanisim" is recited on Purim. The Chanukah version, in English, goes like this:
    "We give thanks for the redeeming wonders and the mighty deeds by which, at this time, our people were saved in days of old. In the days of the Hasmoneans, a tyrant arose against our ancestors, determined to make them forget Your Torah, and to turn them away from obedience to Your will. But You were at their side in time of trouble. You gave them strength to struggle and to triumph, that they might serve You in freedom. Through the power of Your spirit, the weak defeated the strong, the few prevailed over the many, and the righteous were triumphant. Then Your children returned to Your house, to purify the sanctuary and kindle its lights. And they dedicated these days to give thanks and praise to Your great name."

  • We recite the Hallel on special occasions, including Sukkot and Chanukah. It literally means "praise" and consists of Psalms 113-118 and occasionally also Psalm 136

  • One only has to light one chanukiah to fulfill the mitzvah each night. However, where's the fun in that compared to lighting a bunch of them? It is common, especially among many Ashkenazim, for each person in the family to even light their own designated chanukiah . Some families start a collection of bought and home-made ones through the years. Afterall, this ritual item really lends itself to artistic and creative (and also some quite humorous) expressions.

  • It's customary to sing Chanukah songs after the candle-lighting, most often starting off with Maoz Tsur, meaning "Rock of Ages" or "Fortress Rock". This is an Ashkenazic hymn written in Germany in the 13th century. We've done some hunting to save you time- you can find links for some Chanukah songs in our "Cool Links" section.

Food! :)

latkes Whether potato latkes or sufganiyot - oil is the key word...

Of course, the key word here is oil – based on that miracle, and what can you make in it? Sefardim contributed the custom of doughnuts, or "sufganiyot", and Ashkenazim bestowed us with the tradition of potato latkes [pancakes, Yiddish], or "levivot", usually topped with sugar, jam, sour cream or apple sauce. Unfortunately there is no miracle available to save us much in the health aspects of these delightful traditions, so we can only advise some reasonable moderation. Oh yes, we know it's hard. Even more so in Israel, where one is bombarded in street, school, work and every store with the beguiling sight and smell of fresh sufganiyot starting at least a month before Chanukah even begins!

Here in Israel, (with the exception of specialty shops and gourmet inventions) you mostly see two or three main types running around: the ubiquitous jelly or chocolate cream-filled sort with powdered sugar, a standard doughnut-with-hole version with chocolate or other glaze on top and – perhaps the most dangerous kind of all - a lighter, poofy, heavenly creation called a "sfinj" (for Americans, it's sort of like a "French cruller" but better- thinly crisp on the outside, with a light coat of honey and without the hole in the middle). For the author, this is a particular debacle with a makolet [small grocery] located right up the block. The owner constantly makes fresh sfinj in a portable deep fryer out front each day… it's hard to avoid one's local grocery store for over a month, and no one ever has the strength to eat only one sfinj.

sufganiyot Israel is already raining sufganiyot starting a month ahead of time

You would think the country would be sick to tears from this stuff after stuffing themselves for over a month, but we must confess, not really. We are pretty nationally, uh, "dedicated" to the fullest measure of sufganiyot and levivot possible to get us through that pinnacle period of winter (our rainy season). We may ridiculously cancel all sorts of things at the drop of a hat here if it happens to be raining, but not when it comes to needing to get yet another box of sufganiyot. For that, you will brave the elements.

There is also a tradition among some of eating cheeses. The source for this is the Book of Judith from the Apocrypha. Without going into detail, let's leave it at this: an opposing general (a particularly nasty and brutal guy by the name of Holofernes) was plied with much salty cheese so that he might drink too much alcohol, and then he was done away with. (Since we are much more into peaceful, life-affirming sides and taking a bit of healthy opportunity as well, see our recipe section about this.)

In Israel, one also sees little gift boxes sold all over – most commonly in the shape of a dreidel/sevivon, with chocolate and other goodies inside. Every child is bringing these home from school. And the "chocolate coins" abound too, of course. Because this is serious Chocolate Country and apparently you can never have too much chocolate.

Play

It is customary to play games of chance during Chanukah. The most popular of course involves a sevivon, or "dreidel" in Yiddish, from the German word "drehen". This likely came out of spinning tops called trendels in medieval Germany. Even though games of chance were frowned upon by the rabbis, it was allowed during this chag. Some say that the custom of the sevivon goes back to ancient times when studying Torah was banned. Children would furtively study in the woods, and if the enemy would show up, they'd quickly hide their study materials and pull out spinning tops to play with as a cover.

A Chanukah sevivon has four sides, with one Hebrew letter per side. In Israel our sevivonim have the letters nun – gimel - hey - pey. This stands for:

sevivons "A great miracle happened here". Sevivonim in Israel

נס גדול היה פה.
Nes gadol haya po.
A great miracle happened here.

Outside of Israel, the letters on the sevivon are nun – gimel – hey - shin, which stands for:

נס גדול היה שם.
Nes gadol haya sham.
A great miracle happened there.

See our "Let's Get Busy" section to learn how to play the traditional game, plus more ideas involving sevivonim.

Again, many weeks before the chag, in Israel you start seeing every kind of sevivon imaginable being hawked everywhere - and not only the four-sided kind. The sort that you spin which then lights up and plays a Chanukah tune is especially popular. In general we just go a little spin-crazy between eating all those sfinj and chocolates and…

Gift-Giving

The older tradition is to give children a bit of money, known as demei chanuka in Hebrew or "Chanukah gelt" [Yiddish]. When gelt is given, it is customary among many to encourage that a portion be passed on to tzedaka [charity], and increasing one's charitable giving at this time is also typical. With more Westernization and the exposure to Christmas, giving gifts has become more widespread. In Israel though, modest, smaller gift-giving remains the norm.

Interesting Miscellany…

  • Two customs from Kurdistan: One was when too poor to have a chanukiah, eggshells were used instead to hold the wicks and oil for the lights. The other was that about a week before the chag, children would lock themselves in their room and parents would have to pay them with coins to come out, (somewhat akin to the Ashkenazic custom of giving gelt).

  • Avignon Jews would open new casks of wine after the Shabbat that falls on Chanukah. They'd then go around visiting each other with wine-tastings from the new vintage and toasts to the chag.

  • In Mexico, "Januca" celebrations would also include a treat-filled piñata in the shape of a sevivon. [See our "Let's Get Busy" section.]

  • In Chassidic and Kabalistic literature, the last day of Chanukah- called Zot Chanuka ["this is Chanukah", taken from the altar dedication in Numbers 7:84]- is considered to be a final sealing day to the earlier High Holiday season. Think of this like an extra last-last-chance to do any needed repenting to G-d. In some Chassidic circles you might actually hear an occasional "gmar chatima tova" [may you be sealed well], just like we all more customarily say around Yom Kippur. So if your ear caught that somewhere and you were wondering, now you know why. It's also considered to be a positive day for having one's prayers answered.

  • Work is permitted during Chanukah. However, one is discouraged from doing work during the initial half hour that the candles are burning (or at least away from those lights). Traditionally, this work stoppage pertains particularly to women (as a sign of respect for their contributions in the uprising).

  • Banks and stores are open in Israel. However, after parties and presentations in school, the kids go on vacation starting from the second day of the chag.

  • Holding communal meals is customary particularly among Sefardim. There is also a nice tradition of using such occasions to bring together people who have fought or had some dispute during the year, so as to encourage resolution. More generally, Chanukah parties abound in Israel.

A Final Note: Ok, How Do You Spell It?!

different spellings of the name of chanukah

Maybe we just like to add some mystery to the chag :) ?

Just for the record, for the life of us (from our Hebrew perspective over here) we can't understand the doubling of letters in some versions. Note that we use "Chanuka" when it's appearing within a text of transliterated Hebrew. We add an "h" in English just to "go with the flow" since it would appear that the most common spellings are Hanukkah and Chanukah. But apparently there's something like sixteen or so spellings floating around just in English alone. This guy even checked the number of Google hits for each, and mentioned the appearance of different spellings posted even within one classroom: http://joemaller.com/601/sixteen-ways-to-spell-hanukkah

We think there are more critical questions, however: Like the "scholarly" debate held in increasing numbers of universities (no, we are not kidding- that one is for real) about the relative merits of latkes versus hamantashen. You can read much more about this pressing issue in our "Let's Get Busy" section…