Hanukkah Traditions: A Primer

Hanukkah Traditions: A Primer

Embarking on the journey of sharing cultural festivities with a new partner is a beautiful experience, and delving into the traditions of Hanukkah is an illuminating introduction to Jewish heritage. Our Hanukkah Primer aims to give you some background and context to help anyone entering their first Hanukkah celebration with a Jewish partner. But remember a great way to bond, grow, and become more intimate with a new partner is to ask them questions. Share experiences as you navigate the customs, ceremonies, and nuances associated with this Festival of Lights together.

Understanding the significance of Hanukkah

Long, long ago, in Jerusalem, there was a special place called the Second Temple. It was a sacred spot for the Jewish people. One day, (we’re talking 164 BCE here), there was a big fight for freedom, and a group of Jewish rebels called the Maccabees managed to reclaim the Temple from the oppressor who had taken it away.

Now, when the Maccabees got the Temple back, they wanted to light a menorah—a special lamp with eight branches. They needed oil to keep the menorah burning, but there was a problem: they only had a tiny bit of oil, just enough for one night.

Here's where the magic happened. Miraculously, that small amount of oil lasted not just one night, but eight whole nights. It was like having a phone battery that was supposed to die after an hour lasting for a whole week. That's why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights—to remember and honor this incredible miracle.

The rededication of the Second Temple was a huge deal for the Jewish people. It was a symbol of freedom and resilience. To celebrate, they decided to have a festival, and that festival became Hanukkah.

The menorah lighting ceremony

At the heart of Hanukkah traditions is the menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum. Each night, one additional candle is lit, progressing from right to left, using the central candle, the shamash, to light the others. This ceremony is a symbolic representation of the miraculous eight days the oil lasted. When attending a Hanukkah celebration, observing and perhaps participating in the lighting ceremony is a central and meaningful experience. You might be asked to light a candle as a symbol of being welcomed into this tradition by your partner. 

Gelt, dreidels, and sufganiyot: Unraveling Hanukkah's culinary delights

Hanukkah comes with its array of delectable treats, each carrying its unique symbolism. Gelt (the Yiddish word for money) has become a delightful and symbolic treat during Hanukkah celebrations. Traditionally, gelt consisted of actual coins given to children as a token of appreciation for their Torah study. Over time, this tradition transformed into the sweet and shiny chocolate coins we know today.

During Hanukkah, these chocolate gelt coins often serve as a playful element, adding a sweet touch to the festivities. Some families use them for the game of dreidel (explained below), while others include them in gift exchanges. The tradition of giving gelt symbolizes both the joy of the season and the value placed on education and learning.

You might be invited to spin the dreidel as part of your first foray into celebrating Hanukkah. On each side of this four-sided spinning top is a Hebrew letter—nun, gimel, hey, and shin. These letters collectively form an acronym for the phrase "Nes Gadol Haya Sham," meaning "A great miracle happened there." The "there" refers to the miracle that took place in Jerusalem during the rededication of the Second Temple.

The dreidel game is a time-honored Hanukkah tradition that combines elements of luck and strategy. It's a playful way to incorporate a bit of chance into the Hanukkah celebrations, and the spinning top itself is a reminder of the secret gatherings during times of religious oppression when Jewish scholars would use tops to conceal their study materials.

Back to the Hanukkah food traditions, which is one of the many things to get excited about at Hanukkah. Be sure to try latkes, which are crisp potato pancakes.

The act of frying latkes in oil serves as a metaphor for the theme of light prevailing over darkness. The oil's role in the Hanukkah miracle becomes a tangible reminder of the enduring light that symbolizes hope and triumph. As the latkes sizzle in the oil, they embody the idea of dispelling darkness with the warm glow of celebration.

You’re also not going to want to miss nibbling on some sufganiyot, which are jelly-filled doughnuts.

Sufganiyot, with their round shape and generous fillings, symbolize unity and abundance. The circular form represents the cyclical nature of life, and the act of sharing these sweet treats reflects the sense of togetherness and communal joy that defines Hanukkah celebrations.

Getting involved in the preparation or enjoying these dishes together can be a really nice way to share in the festive spirit.

Acts of Tzedakah: Embracing the spirit of generosity

Beyond the tangible aspects of Hanukkah, the festival emphasizes acts of tzedakah, or charity. Participating in charitable acts, whether contributing to a communal effort or volunteering, aligns with the ethos of Hanukkah and is a meaningful way to connect with the deeper values of the celebration.

Navigating Hanukkah as a couple: Setting expectations

Entering Hanukkah as a couple requires an open dialogue about expectations and preferences. Discussing the level of involvement, whether attending family gatherings or participating in specific rituals, can help ensure a shared and respectful experience. 

In today’s digital world, Hanukkah has adapted to modern conveniences. Virtual menorahs, online celebrations, and even tech-savvy renditions of the dreidel game are now commonplace. Embracing these adaptations while respecting the authenticity of the celebration is a delicate balance that reflects an awareness of tradition and the present moment.

As you navigate your first Hanukkah celebration with a Jewish partner, approach the experience with curiosity, respect, and an open heart. Engaging in the rituals, savoring the culinary delights, and participating in acts of tzedakah can deepen your connection to both the celebration and your partner's cultural heritage. The journey of discovering and sharing in these traditions is a profound and enriching experience that contributes to the tapestry of your relationship. 

Hanukkah is a chance to learn about your partner's traditions and to talk about the differences in your cultures, faiths and upbringings. Most importantly it’s great fun and celebrates an ethos of kindness, resilience and generosity which we can all get behind. Mazel Tov!