Eight Things You Didn’t Know About Chanukah

Jewish ritual By Rhiannon Humphreys 07th Dec 2023

Each night of Chanukah we light the chanukiah, we have the chance to spend some time with our loved ones and bring a little bit of light into our dark winter evenings. The word ‘Chanukah’ shares its root not only with the Hebrew for ‘to dedicate’ (“חנך‎”), reminding us of the rededication of the Temple, but it also shares its root with ‘chinuch’ (“חינוך”), Jewish education.  

This Chanukah, we can take some time to engage in a bit of Jewish education with our family and friends as we sit by the increasing light of our chanukiah, from night to night, (unless you hail from the Shammai-school of lighting!). Here are our eight top picks for a bit of Chanukah chinuch this year: 

  1. Although Chanukah is not a typical chag and work is permitted, it is a longstanding tradition to abstain from the kind of work that is not permitted on Shabbat or chag while the chanukiah is lit, and to make sure the lights of the candles are used only for enjoying Chanukah, and not for doing any work. Where will you light your chanukiah so that everyone in the household can take a brief break from work, from mundane every-day activities, and lean in to enjoying the beauty and magic of the chanukiah? 
  1. During Chanukah, we don’t just light our chanukiot for ourselves but are also told to place our chanukiah in our windows, to share the light and joy of the festival with our neighbours. A French tradition also suggests opening a new bottle of wine for Chanukah, with neighbours visiting each other to taste the wine that they have chosen. This helps us think of Chanukah as a truly communal festival, one to be shared not just with those we live with but also those we share our lives with more widely. What would your metaphorical ‘new bottle of wine’ be, that you would like to share with those around you? 
  1. We know the story of the Macabees very well, and generally great men in Jewish history are household names. We often don’t know as much about the woman whose shoulders our tradition stands on, much like recognising the role of Judith in keeping Jerusalem safe (see more about her below!) as well as the Macabees’ revolt. RitualWell has compiled a list of eight of these women from Jewish history who had great influence over their communities, as well as the development of Jewish practice. From the Dulcie of Worms to Rebbetzin Mizrachi, follow this link to make their names as familiar as the Macabees’. 
  1. The Jews from Aleppo were largely descendants of Sephardi Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492 and found a new home in Syria. Once there, they established a new tradition of lighting an extra shamash (helper candle) to show appreciation for the community around them for assisting them and welcoming them in as refugees. For this night of Chanukah, light an additional candle in solidarity with refugees who have left their homes to seek safety somewhere new and consider what you could do to support refugees within our own community. 
  1. The power and influence of dominant cultures is something that the Jewish people have often grappled with. Just as the Macabees were resisting the influence of Hellenism, Jews in the UK are balancing our own practices against the secular culture all around us. This is never more apparent than during Chanukah with the culture of commercialism that surrounds us this time of year. On this night of Chanukah, consider how commercialism might be impacting your life and what steps you might be able to take to move against this dominant culture. Instead of giving gifts this night, you could make a donation to a cause that you care about or give something meaningful – your time, a story, something you have created, or something you can create together. 
  1. Chanukah is a unique festival as it straddles two months! Rosh Chodesh Tevet falls on the sixth night of Chanukah and, in North Africa, this is celebrated as Chag HaBanot, the festival of daughters. In the past, women and girls gathered together and may have had a feast to honour Judith and her crucial role in preventing the impending siege on Jerusalem. As Judith encouraged the Assyrian army general to keep drinking wine by feeding him cheese, women ate cheese alongside their doughnuts and other sweet foods at this feast. Women and girls would celebrate at the synagogue too, singing and dancing with the Torah and praying for the health of their daughters. Those coming up to the age of bat mitzvah, as well as those due to be married soon, were publicly celebrated. Chag HaBanot was also a time to pass down inheritance – for this night of Chanukah, is there something of significance you might want to pass down to your children? Do you have a strong woman ancestor whose story you can tell to mark Chag HaBanot? 

Below are the Chanukah candle blessings using feminine language for God to recognise the various ways we can conceive of God, as well as to recognise the importance of our Jewish women heroes throughout history 

בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ מְקוֹר הַחַיִּים אֲשֶׁר קִדַשְׁתַנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתֵיהָ וְצִוְתָנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר שֶׁל חֲנֻכָּה  

Berukha Aht Yah Mekor Hahayim asher kidshatnu bemitzvoteyha vetzivatnu lehadlik ner shel Hanukah. 

Praised are You God, Source of Life, who makes us holy through your commandments and commands us to light the Hanukah candles. 

בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ מְקוֹר הַחַיִּים שֶׁעָשְׂתָה נִסִּים לְאִמוֹתֵינוּ וְלַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמָן הַזֶּה 

Berukha Aht Yah Mekor Hahayim she’astah nisim le’imoteynu vela’avoteynu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh. 

Praised are You God, Source of Life, who performed miracles for our ancestors in their day at this season. 

  1. We turn to Kabbalah for our sixth night of Chanukah chinuch. According to Kabbalah, spiritual actions reveal spiritual Light and the amount of Light revealed depends on our understanding of the power of the action. Lighting Chanukah candles reveals this spiritual Light alongside their visual light. This is why we do not just light the candles but also spend time absorbing their visual light and, with it, their spiritual Light. The more we understand and appreciate the power of this Light, the more Light we create and absorb. For this night of Chanukah, take some time to enjoy and marvel at the power of the flames. 
  1. The eight nights of Chanukah give us the gift of ritual, but this can feel like routine after more than a week! The nights following Chanukah can sometimes feel less full and bright once our fully-lit chanukiah is no longer on display. We can sometime take the light for granted when it is there only to miss it when it’s gone. How can you keep the lights shining after you put you Chanukiah away?  
  1. … and a ninth! Our ninth moment of Chanukah chinuch is for a Moroccan tradition, where Chanukah stretches to a ninth night known as “the day of the shamash”. For this night, all of the leftover Chanukah candles and wicks are gathered up and lit to create one large bonfire that the whole community gathers around to sing, dance, and celebrate. People would even leap over the fire as they believed it would bring good luck. When times are feeling darker than usual, it can be important to find extra moments for light and chances for joy. What would be your extra night of Chanukah? 

Learn how to light the Chanukah Candles with Shema Koleinu:

Click here to download printable instructions

Rhiannon Humphreys is the Training Manager for Shema Koleinu, Masorti Judaism’s Tefila (prayer) Skills Project

Related articles

  • Jewish ritual
  • 01st Jun 2023

What is Conversion? – The Conversion Diaries – Part Four

  • Jewish ritual
  • 03rd Apr 2023

Pesach 5783 – On Freedom by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

  • Jewish ritual
  • 27th Mar 2023

I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is Mine – The Conversion Diaries – Part Three

  • Jewish ritual
  • 05th Jan 2023

The Conversion Diaries – Part One