Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication, is also known as the Festival of Lights. It lasts eight days, beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.
The story of Hanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.
More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV, was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharises (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.
According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.
The only religious observance related to the holiday of Hanukkah is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a menorah, sometimes called a chanukkiah that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three blessings are recited.
1. L’hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles).
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam, asher kidishanu,
b'mitz'votav v'tzivanu, l'had'lik neir shel Hanukkah
Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, sovereign of the universe who has sanctified us
with His commandments and commanded us to light the lights of Hanukkah.
2. She-asah nisim (a prayer thanking God for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time).
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam, she'asah nisim la'avoteinu bayamim haheim bazman hazeh
Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, sovereign of the universe who performed miracles
for our ancestors in those days at this time
3. She-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking God for allowing us to reach this time of year).
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam, shehecheyanu v'kiyimanu v'higi'anu laz'man hazeh
Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, sovereign of the universe who has kept us alive,
sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.
After reciting the blessings, use the shammus to light the Hanukkah candles from left to right (newest to oldest). Each night, another candle is added from right to left, however, they are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first). On the eighth night, all nine candles (the eight Hanukkah candles and the shammus) are lit.
Gelt: The only traditional gift of the holiday is "gelt," small amounts of money.
The Dreidel Game: A tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus' oppression, those who wanted to study Torah, which at that time was illegal, would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top whenever an official or inspector was within sight.
A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters, Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham," a great miracle happened there, referring to the miracle of the oil. The letters also stand for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), which are the rules of the game. To begin play everyone puts in one coin. A person spins the dreidel. If it lands on Nun, nothing happens; on Gimel, you get the whole pot; on Hei, you get half of the pot; and on Shin, you put one in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts one in. Keep playing, until one person has everything.