The Talmud describes Hanukkah as a holiday of “praise and thanksgiving” in commemoration of the miraculous overthrow of the Syrian Greeks, the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the single cruse of oil that lasted eight days. Hanukkah’s festive atmosphere derives almost entirely from home ritual and customs and is dominated by light as a metaphor for spiritual freedom. This is emphasized by special holiday songs, games, and foods.
The defining act of Hanukkah is to kindle the lights of the hanukkiyah, the eight-branched candelabrum. These lights, which can either be candles or tiny oil cups with floating wicks, grow in strength during the eight days of Hanukkah, with the addition of one candle or lighted wick each night. One light is added each night to fulfill the concept of lo moridim ba-kodesh (one does not decrease in holiness). Because the purpose of these Hanukkah lights is the public proclamation of the Hanukkah miracle, the hanukkiyah is traditionally lit in a place where the candles can be seen from out of doors, near a window or a doorway. If, however, this public placement of the hanukkiyah constitutes a danger, either from fire or anti-Semitism, the lights may be kindled elsewhere in the house.
Since the Hanukkah lights fulfill a religious obligation, the rabbis forbade using them for any other purpose, even Torah study. Hence every hanukkiyah has a ninth light, the shamash, or “helper,” whose purpose is to provide light and to kindle the other candles. The candles, lit after sunset, are traditionally supposed to burn at least one-half hour after nightfall. On Friday nights, the Hanukkah lights are kindled before the Shabbat candles. In some homes, the head of the household lights a single hanukkiyah for the entire family, while in others, each member of the family lights his or her own hanukkiyah.
Both Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent) and Sephardim (Jews of Spanish or Mediterranean descent) recite two blessings each night, which affirm the commandment to kindle the Hanukkah lights and recall the Hanukkah miracle. An additional blessing said on the first night of most Jewish festivals, the Shehecheyanu, thanks God for enabling one to be alive for the celebration.
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