The holiday season is finally here, and families are gathering to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights. While most of us recognize the menorahs we see lighting up our neighbors’ windows, we may not know why there are eight branches on them, or why Hanukkah lasts eight days and nights.
Around 200 BC, Judea was ruled by the Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus III. While Antiochus III allowed the Jews who lived there to practice their religion, his son did not; he outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered that they pray to Greek gods.
Then, in 168 BC, the Seleucid soldiers massacred thousands of people in Jerusalem, and destroyed the Second Temple.
Determined not to let them win, Jewish priest Mattathias led a rebellion against Antiochus and the monarchy. When he passed away, his son, Judah Maccabee, led the revolution, and drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem. Eventually, Judah and those who followed him were able to reclaim the Second Temple.
The Talmud believes that when Judah Maccabee and his followers were rededicating the Second Temple, there was only enough oil to keep the menorah candles burning for one single night. However, the candles stayed alive and lit for eight nights, which the Jewish tradition considers a miracle.
Many Hanukkah traditions accompany the holiday each year. When it comes to candle lighting, the tradition is for one candle to be lit on each of the holiday’s eight nights after sundown. Menorahs have nine branches– one for each night of Hanukkah, along with a shamash, or the “helper” candle.
Blessings are typically recited during the candle lighting ceremony each night of Hanukkah. The candle-adding process proceeds from right to left. According to Chabad.org, the reason why we first light the candle which had been added that evening is to “show that the greatness of the miracle increased on each successive night.”
A common game played during Hanukkah celebrations is dreidel. The four-sided spinning top game was used as a decoy after Antiochus III’s son enacted laws that outlawed the practice of Jewish religious practices, according to History.com.