Hanukkah is a winter holiday that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks and the rededication of the Temple, as well as the miracle that a little cruse of oil, designed to burn for only one day, kept the Temple menorah alight for eight whole days until more sanctified oil could be produced. The holiday is celebrated with feasting, special Hanukkah songs and lighting the Hanukkah menorah (called a hanukkiah). These are the primary symbols of the holiday:
The Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, is designed to evoke the menorah that stood in the Temple 2,000 years ago. The Temple menorah had seven branches, a central branch flanked by three on each side. Most hanukkiahs mimic this design with a central branch flanked by four branches on each side, the eight side branches symbolizing the eight days that the oil miraculously burned as well as the eight days of celebration. The central flame is called the shamash candle.
A Hanukkah menorah is typically lit with candles these days, though the more traditional way to light it is with oil — especially olive oil.
Read: Is it OK to use an electric menorah on Hanukkah?
The dreidel is a four-sided top with a different Hebrew letter on each side. The usual story told about the dreidel is that when Jewish learning was forbidden, the Jews would study Torah in secret. When soldiers were approaching, they would quickly hide their books (or, back then, scrolls) and take out the tops and pretend to be involved in a game.
Read: How to play dreidel.
The letters on the dreidel are also symbolic. Around the world, most dreidels have the following four Hebrew letters: nun, gimmel, hey, shin. This stands for the Hebrew phrase nes gadol haya sham, which means “a great miracle happened there” — alluding, of course, to the miracle of Hanukkah. In Israel, where the Hanukkah miracle took place, the final letter on the dreidel is pey instead of shin for nes gadol haya po (“a great miracle happened here.”)
Latkes and Jelly Donuts (Sufganiyot)
Because of the miracle of the oil, it is traditional for Jews to eat fried foods on Hanukkah. The two most popular in the Ashkenazi community are latkes — a fried potato pancake — and jelly donuts (in Hebrew: sufganiyot). Sephardic Jews enjoy a plethora of other fried treats like bimuelos and sfenj.
Read: Eight Jewish fried foods from around the world.
Star of David (Jewish Star)
This is not really a Hanukkah symbol but a Jewish symbol that gets a lot of play during the Hanukkah season, perhaps to differentiate Hanukkah from Christmas in countries where that holiday is widely celebrated. It turns out, the Jewish star is actually a newer Jewish symbol than you might think. A more ancient Jewish symbol? The menorah.
Read: The 21 best Hanukkah episodes on TV, according to Hey Alma
Explore Hanukkah’s history, global traditions, food and more with My Jewish Learning’s “All About Hanukkah” email series. Sign up to take a journey through Hanukkah and go deeper into the Festival of Lights.