Hanukkah Fun Facts

by Amy Lansky (CJC Ritual Chair)


1. The Hanukkah lights are added, one each day, from right to left in the menorah.  However, they are lighted  left to right using the shamash (the taller candle in the middle, used to light the others).  For example, on the third night of Hannukah, you first light the shamash, then use it to light the 3rd candle from the right, then 2nd candle from the right, and then the rightmost candle. The reason we use a shamash is that the other candles are considered holy and should not be touched once lit. The word “shamash”  means “something you use”, but interestingly, has the same root letters as “shemesh”, which means sun.

2. The two themes for Hanukkah are the military victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks to retake the Temple in Jerusalem (a story preserved in the Apocryhpa) and the miracle that the oil used to relight the Temple menorah lasted for eight days (preserved in the Talmud).  There were several reasons why the military theme became downplayed: the Maccabees went out of favor, were considered to have inappropriately taken political rule (since they were in the priestly class) and were ultimately wiped out by the Romans.  The repudiation of the military theme is encoded in a motto associated with Hanukkah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6).

3. Why dreidels? These tops were traditionally used for gambling, like dice. When Jews were prohibited by the Greeks to study torah, they would study in secret. When the soldiers came around, the Jews would bring out  dreidels and pretend to be gambling.

4. While Hanukkah is a minor holiday without much religious significance, it has become more popular in recent times — in Israel, because of its association with a military victory, and in the West, because of its proximity to Christmas.