Hanukkah traditions instil hope

Hanukkah is the celebration of a series of miracles and Jewish identity. It serves as inspiration for the Jews to embrace their religion — and the story is interesting.

The holiday commences on the 25th day in the month of Kislev in the Jewish calendar. This means it falls somewhere between the last week of November and the last week of December.

Many non-Jews associate the images of a menorah or dreidel with the celebration, but few know the real meaning behind what is also known as “The Festival of Lights.”

“Hanukkah is rather less important than Passover, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana in a religious sense… but culturally it has tremendous importance. It’s a holiday of history that celebrates the overcoming of persecution of a people,” said Laurier associate professor Faydra Shapiro of the cultural significance of Hanukkah.

Rabbi Moshe Goldman, the Jewish chaplain here at Laurier, believes that Hanukkah is one of the most relevant holidays for the modern Jew.

“There is so much that [Hanukkah] speaks to about living as a Jew in another culture, another nation. There are all kinds of social pressures that Hanukkah teaches us about. It teaches us about hope, not giving up, not settling.”

The miracles

The story of Hanukkah goes back approximately 2,100 years when modern day Israel was ruled by the Greek Empire, whose aim was to assimilate or, more accurately, Hellenize the Jews, through the banning of circumcision and the Sabbath.

According to Goldman, an uprising by the Jews began in the town of Modi’in, Israel.

Tired of being oppressed, the Jews staged a rebellion against the Greeks, naming themselves the Macabees.

Highly outnumbered and under-skilled in the ways of combat, they fought the Greek Empire until victory was theirs.

“This,” Goldman says, “was the first miracle of Hanukkah.”

Like the dreidel, the nine-branched candleholder known as a menorah is another symbol of Hanukkah familiar to most people.

The second miracle of Hanukkah occurred in the second century B.C.E. in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem where, upon returning to the temple after the Maccabean revolt, the high priests found that all but one container of oil to light the menorah had been opened by the Greeks, rendering them impure.

Although there was only enough oil for one day of burning, the supply lasted eight days until a new shipment arrived. This was the second miracle of Hanukkah.

Modern day celebration

According to Goldman, the customs of a Hanukkah celebration don’t really vary around the world.

“Hanukkah is probably one of the most universally observed holidays; there isn’t that much room for variation. There’s only so many ways you can light a menorah, it doesn’t have a lot of observances and ritual about it,” he said.

However, concerning the lighting of the menorah, there a few ways one can go about it.

At one level, a different candle can be lit for each day of Hanukkah. Another method is to light an additional candle for each night, culminating in a beautiful blaze by the eighth day.

In regards to who does the lighting, in some families, the head of the household is in charge. But more recently, a widespread tradition is to have each member of the family light their own menorah.

Goldman explains that, again, this speaks to the most important message of Hanukkah: celebrating uniqueness and individuality.


Like all religious holidays, Hanukkah has been subject to a certain level of commercialization. You can buy wrapping paper with dreidels and the Star of David printed on it to go along with a menorah attached to a pair of glasses that you can wear on your face (it looks as dangerous as it sounds).

Shapiro maintains this is because of Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas.
“People don’t want their kids to feel like they’ve missed out on something by being Jewish, particularly when most of their friends are celebrating Christmas.

But it’s also a way for general culture to show their inclusivity: ‘Look, we also play dreidel songs and show a menorah’…This is one of the places where they think they can make sense of Jewish-ness, as a kind of ‘different Christmas’,” said Shapiro.

On the topic of commercialization, Rabbi Goldman says he doesn’t know if Hanukkah is “any worse off than Tuesday”, but it’s about an individual’s faith and preference of observance.

“Hanukkah I think has a message which really transcends your belief system…no matter what you believe or don’t believe it has something to say to you.”

Hanukkah in Waterloo

Chabad of Waterloo Region is holding their lighting of Waterloo’s “tallest menorah” at Waterloo Town Square on Sunday December 5 from 4:30-5:30 p.m.

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