What Is Hanukkah and When Does It Start?

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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man lights a candle on the first night of the holiday of Hanukkah. Reuters

Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, begins at sundown on December 12 and lasts until December 20.

The holiday typically falls in December, but the exact date depends on the Hebrew calendar. Jewish holidays always begin at sundown.

Hanukkah began in Israel over 2,000 years ago. According to Jewish tradition, Israel was ruled during the second century B.C. by a Syrian-Greek people called the Seleucids. The Seleucids practiced a form of Zoroastrianism, and they wanted the Jews to adopt their religion and culture.

Around 168 B.C., a Seleucid army descended on Jerusalem and began slaughtering Jews. They also erected a statue in the Second Jewish Temple to the Greek God Zeus and began performing animal sacrifices there.

RTX3Q78J People attend the lighting ceremony of Europe’s largest Hanukkah menorah at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany. Reuters

But a small group of Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, eventually defeated the Seleucid army and drove the Greeks from the land. Historians say Judah and his army used guerilla warfare to defeat the enemy over several years.

RTR1KIQL A young boy dressed as a Maccabee celebrates the start of Hanukkah at the National Menorah lighting ceremony. Reuters

Ultimately, the Jews regained control of the Second Temple and, to commemorate, lit a candelabrum with seven branches called a menorah. Initially, they believe they had only a day’s supply of ritually purified oil, but according to legend, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days.

The story of Hanukkah does not appear in the Torah because the events occurred after it was written. It does, however, appear in the Talmud, one of the central texts of Rabbinic Judaism. 

The events are also detailed in The First Book of Maccabees, which was written about 100 B.C. The book, which details the feats of the Maccabean dynasty, also tells tales about giant mythical elephants that rode into battle.

But most of the important religious details are found in the Talmud. According to the Talmud, Judah Maccabee and the other Jews taking part in the rededication of the Second Temple believed that they witnessed a miracle when the menorah continued to burn for eight days. In response, religious leaders decided to celebrate an eight-day festival of lights each year.

The festival is meant to celebrate the re-dedication of the Second Temple, which was ultimately destroyed by Roman invaders in 70 A.D., hundreds of years after the battle with the Seleucids.

In modern times, Jews light one branch of the menorah each day for eight days to mark the holiday. Blessings are also recited before or after the candles are lit. Traditionally, people eat food fried in plenty of oil, a symbol of the miraculous fuel that kept the menorah blazing.

Hanukkah is one of the best known Jewish holidays, but it is far from the most important holiday on the Jewish religious calendar. The most sacred day on the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.