By Myra Meskin, West Coast Regional Jewish Educator
Hanukkah celebrates one of those classic Jewish tropes: “They tried to kill us, we survived—let’s eat!” In this version, the Syrian emperor Antiochus, in the year 167 BCE, made celebrating Judaism and it’s traditions against the law. A small but mighty Jewish rebel group, known as the Maccabees (not to be confused with the YouTube sensation The Maccabeats), revolted against the Syrian monarch and won (miracle #1), proving that strength is not in numbers, but in having something worth fighting for. The Maccabees began a new era of Jewish sovereignty, the Hasmonean Dynasty, and most importantly restored the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been decimated by the Syrians. With a single cruz of oil they lit the grand Menorah and rededicated the Temple (fun fact: “Hanukkah” means dedication), and the miracle (#2) is that the oil kept the Menorah lit for 8 whole days! So we celebrate eight days of lighting candles starting on the 25th of Kislev each year.
It’s fry time! Whatever you can think of to fry in oil is a fun way to celebrate the holiday. Traditional options are latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts)!
- Dreidel Tournament: Get a bunch of dreidles and a party size bag of M&M’s for betting with (e.g. $5 gets you ½ cup of M&Ms to gamble with). Make it a tikkun olam program by donating all proceeds to a local organization that fights for religious freedoms, does interfaith work, or creates “miracles” (however you define it). If you want you can add the option of “voting” for which organization the money should go to by adding the M&Ms they win into a labeled jar – the jar with the most M&Ms is the organization that gets the money.
- “Publicizing the Miracle”/Pirsumei Nisa (see text below): Invite people to write a “headline” for a miracle that happened in their life. Then have people wear them as a name tag or put them up around the room to publicize the miracle! Take a moment during the gathering to have people share their miracle.
- Cookie decorating: Get yourself some Hanukkah-themed cookie cutters and multi-colored frosting and you’re ready for this classic holiday-season activity. Add some extra holiday flavor by making it an ugly sweater party!
- DIY Menorah: (instructions under Method 2, or if you want to get a little fancier)
- Materials: wooden paint stirrers for the base, a hot glue gun, 10 hex nuts/person, decorations like paint, markers, or stickers
- Instructions: use a hot glue gun to adhere a row of 9 hex nuts to the candle-holder base (nine single hex nuts in a row, with a tenth that’s added to one to double the height). Decorate with paint or glitter glue and you’ve got your own menorah!
- For those who already have menorahs, try candle making with these easy-to-use beeswax sheets!
Simple text resources that can be incorporated into any of the above programs:
Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b
The Sages taught: The basic mitzvah of Hanukkah is each day to have a light kindled by a person. Beit Shammai says: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. And Beit Hillel says: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he kindles eight lights. Rabbi Yosei bar Zevida said: that the reason for Beit Shammai’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the bulls of the festival of Sukkot: Thirteen were sacrificed on the first day and each succeeding day one fewer was sacrificed (Numbers 29:12–31). The reason for Beit Hillel’s opinion is that the number of lights is based on the principle: [we] go up in holiness and not down.
- In what ways does the Hanukkah story inspire you to raise your game and bring more light into the world?
- Make a list of 8 ways you can bring more light/hope into the world. Challenge: how can they build on each other?
Maimonides/Rambam Mishneh Torah, Scroll of Esther and Chanukah 4:12-13
The mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candle is considered extremely sacred. And one must be careful with it, to publicize the miracle and to increase the praise of the Holy One and gratitude for the miracles that have been done for us. Even if one does not have anything to eat except from charity, he borrows, or he sells his clothes and gets oil and candles and lights.
- Why is even a poor person who needs charity required to spend money on lighting Hanukkah candles? What does this say about the power of hope in our lives that the light represents?
Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 8a
The Sages taught: When Adam the first man saw that the day was progressively diminishing, as the days become shorter from the autumnal equinox until the winter solstice, he did not yet know that this is a normal phenomenon, and therefore he said: Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will ultimately return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven, as it is written: “And to dust shall you return” (Genesis 3:19). He arose and spent eight days in fasting and in prayer. Once he saw that the season of Tevet, i.e., the winter solstice, had arrived, and saw that the day was progressively lengthening after the solstice, he said: Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world. He went and observed a festival for eight days. Upon the next year, he observed both these eight days on which he had fasted on the previous year, and these eight days of his celebration, as days of festivities.
- What has it been like for you as the days have gotten shorter? Can you identify with Adam’s experience of the pervasive darkness that comes in the winter months?
- Why is it important to you, particularly at this dark time of year, to light candles and display them in the window? What message does that send?
If none of these connect, check out these ready-made text study sessions from the MHWOW Team on themes: Lighting up Our World’s Darkness, Miracles, Heroes, Assimilation, War, Rabbinic Innovation.