How To Understand Hanukkah

Hanukkah is coming and that means... what does that mean? If you're not of the Jewish faith, Hanukkah may mean only a few things: dreidels, menorahs, that Adam Sandler song (you know the one), and the ongoing question: "How the heck do you spell that?" Hannu-...Han-...wait, isn't there a "ch" in there? If you are of the Jewish faith yourself, maybe you didn't grow up knowing all the ins and outs of the holiday. Okay, if pushed, you might be able to go into the story of the Maccabees who fought someone, at some time, and...what was it again? There was only a day's worth of oil and then something-something... and we get eight presents. Whether or not you're Jewish, it's never too late to increase your understanding of Hanukkah beyond dreidels, menorahs, Adam Sandler, mysterious spellings and gifts. So how can a person in the dark about the 'festival of lights' learn more? Here's a list of some ways to begin the exploration of Hanukkah.

  1. Ask someone who celebrates it. The simplest way to understand Hanukkah is to ask someone who actually celebrates it. If you're Jewish yourself, this may simply entail talking to a more knowledgeable family member. If you're not Jewish, you might consult friend of the Jewish faith who knows about the holiday's history and tradition. If you haven't got any Jewish family or friends to turn to, well, you probably don't want to go up to the nearest guy in a yarmulke and ask "Hey, so what's this holiday all about?" Instead, why not check with people whose job it is to help others learn about Jewish religious tradition? Call up a local Jewish community group or synagogue and explain your situation: you'd like to learn about the basics, or maybe more than that, and could someone point you in the right direction? For the most part people working or volunteering in any religious institution are not going to have a problem with callers asking about their faith. In fact, they will probably be glad you asked. Some Jewish organizations may even have regular educational programs about the festival of lights.
  2. Consult the org. The Torah, as you may know, is the religious scripture of the Jewish faith. But if you don't really understand what Hanukkah is, you're probably not a big Torah scholar, either. And in fact, as Temple Israel Boston points out, Hanukkah isn't even mentioned in the Torah. So instead, I'm suggesting those of us looking for a deeper understanding of Hanukkah can look at a website actually called This site contains a lot of information about what Hanukkah is all about - the history, the contemporary celebrations, all different aspects of the holiday.
  3. Go interactive. If you want a little more than some reading on Hanukkah, check out the interactive Hanukkah elements of the website. Here (yes, in a section for kids) you can hear "Miracle of the Maccabees," an audio play about Hanukkah. Be forewarned, I didn't say it was a good audio play. You can also check out a radio ad, hear Hanukkah blessings recited, and check out some music- yes, this includes the dreidel song, but no, it doesn't include anything by Adam Sandler.
  4. Take part in Hanukkah events. Another way to understand Hanukkah is to attend some public Hanukkah events or even parties thrown by family and friends and ask how you can actually take part. Sure, you can read about Hanukkah, watch from the fringes as people you know celebrate it, or hear about it, but being a part of things as the traditions unfold may be the most enjoyable way to learn about the eight day celebration. This could involve learning prayers, lighting the candles, or making a special Hanukkah dish. You won't know until you ask how you can get involved. Many Jewish organizations have events that are open to the public. Sometimes, cities offer events in conjunction to Christmas celebrations. College Hillel chapters (Jewish student groups) may also offer public events. Check the A&E or neighborhood calendar section of your city paper to see what might be going on in your community.

Hanukkah is a celebration that brings light into homes and communities during the dead of winter. It involves tradition, generosity, and fun. If you don't know the full meaning of Hanukkah because you don't celebrate it yourself, or even if you do celebrate it, but never really learned much about it, why not take some time to do so now. That way, whatever your religious beliefs may be, you will better be able to experience and share in the happiness of Hanukkah.


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