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Festival of Lights

The Traditions of Hanukkah

The eight-day celebration of Hanukkah remembers the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem during the second century B.C.

Under Syrian oppression, Jews had been banned from practicing their religion and ordered to worship Greek gods. Then, in 168 B.C., Greco-Syrian King Antiochus IV marched his soldiers into Jerusalem, massacring thousands of Jews and desecrating the temple by erecting a statue of Zeus and sacrificing pigs on the altar of the house of worship. Led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his sons in 167 B.C., a rebellion broke out against the captors, and eventually the Syrians were driven from the city.


The tradition of “the festival of lights” came as a result of a miracle that occurred during the Second Temple’s rededication. Even though the people had only enough olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued to burn for eight nights -- thus the eight days of Hanukkah.

While not as important a religious holiday as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, Hanukkah is a beloved celebration that occurs on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, usually in late November or December. The festivities center on the lighting of the nine-branch menorah. On each of the holiday’s eight nights, another candle is added to the menorah after sundown, with the ninth – the Shamash – used to light all the others.

Some popular traditions of the holiday include playing dreidel; giving gelt (a small gift of money); and enjoying delicious fried foods, which recalls the significance of oil to the holiday. One of the favorite recipes of the season is potato latkes:

Potato Latkes

Makes approximately 12 palm-sized latkes

  • 4 medium potatoes
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup matzo meal
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. each salt and black pepper (more or less to taste)
  • vegetable oil

Shred the potatoes and onion into a large bowl. Press out all excess liquid. Add eggs and mix well. Add matzo meal gradually while mixing until the batter is doughy and not too dry. Add the baking powder, salt and pepper and mix well.

Heat about 1/2 inch of oil to medium-high heat. Form the batter into thin patties about the size of your palm. Fry batter in oil. Flip when the bottom is golden brown.

Place the finished latkes on paper towels to drain. Enjoy them hot with sour cream or applesauce.

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Topics: Israel