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The Customs of Chanukah

and Their Meanings

Q. What Are Latkes And Why Do We Eat Them?

A. A latke is a sort of potato pancake.

One of the miracles of Chanukah occurred with olive oil. For this reason, the custom is to eat things made with oil. In America many people eat potato latkes, because that's what most Europeans were able to make. In Israel, they eat sufganiot, donuts. I guess flour was easier for Israelis to get in the old days than potatoes.

Here's a recipe for latkes. It's pretty universal.

5 large potatoes, peeled
1 large onion
3 eggs
1/3 cup flour (some people advise this; I have never done it.)
1 tsp salt (optional, obviously)
1/4 tsp pepper (or to taste)
1/2 cup oil for frying (assuming you use a 10 inch pan or skillet; I doubt this would work without oil in a teflon pan. This is a frying thing.)

Grate potatoes and onion on the fine side of the grater. You can use a food processor or grinder, but I find that the hand-grated are best. If you use a blender, many people advise adding a little water before blending.

Strain grated potatoes and onion through a colander, pressing out the excess liquid. Add eggs, flour, and seasoning. Mix batter well.

Heat oil in frying pan. Lower flame, and place a large tablespoon of batter into the hot oil. Fry on one side for approximately 5 minutes; turn over, and fry on the other side for about 2 or 3 minutes. (Bachelors' note: A higher flame does not result in a latke finished sooner. It results in a latke burned on the outside, and raw on the inside. Or, if the latke is very thin, it will be just burned all the way through.)

Remove from pan and place them on paper towels to drain the excess oil.

Serve with applesauce, if you prefer. Some people serve latkes with sour cream. Personally, I put on salt, and I'm happy. My doctor isn't.

Q. What is a Dreidel?

Picture of dreidelA. A dreidel is a little four-sided, spinning top. The word dreidel is Yiddish. Hebrew-speaking people often call it a svivon, which means the same thing.

Every dreidel has four Hebrew letters on it: Nunn, Gimel, Heh, and Shin. In Jerusalem, the four letters are Nunn, Gimel, Heh, and Peh, but everywhere else the fourth letter is Heh.

What do these letters mean? They stand for four words in Hebrew: "Nais Gadol Hayah Shom," A Great Miracle Happened There.

The Jerusalem dreidels (actually, the Yiddish plural form is dreidlach) say a "Great Miracle Happened Here," since the miracle happened in Jerusalem.

The dreidel came about because of the Greek persecutions. At one point, the Greeks declared that it was forbidden to study Torah. The Rabbis would take their students and hide in the woods and in caves, and study Torah with them there. They took along dreidels. If a Greek soldier found them, they would pretend they were gambling with the dreidels.

To remember how G-d saved us from those terrible times, the people took on the custom of playing with dreidels.

Q. How Do I Play the Game of Dreidel?

A. Most people play with pennies, and some people play with nuts; it doesn't really matter. At the beginning of the game, everyone donates two pennies to the pot in the middle.

We take turns spinning the dreidel.

If the dreidel lands on that is the nunn. You lose a turn. (Nunn = nothing.)

If the dreidel lands on that is the gimel. You get the entire pot. (Gimel = get.) Everyone donates another two cents to the pot, including you.

If the dreidel lands on that is the heh. You get half the pot. (Heh = half.)

If the dreidel lands on that is the shin. You give two cents to the pot. (Shin = share.)

You keep playing until everyone is out of money except one person, if that ever happens. In my experience, the game just goes on until everyone wants to do something else. The best way to play the game is to play it until the latkes are ready to be eaten.

Q. What is Chanukah Gelt?

Gelt is the Yiddish word for "money." It is the custom to give children a little money on Chanukah and to teach them how to give charity. Since children like money, many people also give children some money for their very own.

There are other reasons for Chanukah Gelt too. One of the reasons people gave money to their children was as rewards for Torah study. One should wonder, however, why that is specific to Chanukah, and not throughout the year. The reason for that may be that if you do it too often, it becomes bribery. Bribery is not the best method of inducing the average child to study, and should be used only rarely. Done once a year, or a few times a year, it takes the nature of a prize, and not bribery. But this is just my own educated guess.

I was once told that some people have the custom to give Chanukah Gelt "in increments of 36 to represent the total of all the candles lit throughout Chanukah (except the 8 shammoshim)." (The shammosh is the extra light that burns higher than all the others. See The Lighting of the Menorah, where I explain the reason for the shammosh.)

See below for more references to the number 36.

Q. What is the Custom Regarding Chanukah Gifts?

A. Well, this is a toughie. It is very hard -- and perhaps unfair -- for Jewish children in public schools or in integrated societies to see their Gentile friends showing off their Xmas presents, when they get nothing. So, some time within the last 100 years, probably in America and not in Europe, parents began giving their children Chanukah gifts.

Remember, even in Ultra-Orthodox circles, up until around the 1940's most children went to public school in the morning, and what they called "Talmud Torah" in the afternoon. It was unavoidable. Children are very prone to jealousy, and it is important to make a Jewish child happy with Judaism. While Judaism forbids copying Gentile customs, this is a case where children are in danger of leaving the fold.

So, while it is correct to say that there is no such custom, there is good reason for it to be done in many circles. In places like Brooklyn, New York, where it is easy to raise children in a completely Torah environment with only minimal harmful influences from the outside world, giving Chanukah gifts is out of place. Outside of such insular areas, however, the necessities are very different, and Torah wisdom must dictate where and how to apply such measures.

Q. What are some of the meanings attached to the number 36?

A. The Talmud teaches that there is nothing that is not alluded to in the Torah. We do indeed find many Biblical allusions to Chanukah in the Torah. Some are merely oblique allusions, and some are more elaborate.

We find, for example, that the 25th word in the Torah is the word "light," and that is the first occurrence of that word. Chanukah occurred, of course, on the 25th day of Kislev.

In addition, the 25th place in which the Israelites encamped in the desert was "Chashmonah," related to "Chashmonai," the Hebrew word for "Hasmonean" (Numbers 33:29). "Hasmonean" was the name of the Priestly family that led the Maccabees in the fights against the Greeks during the Chanukah period.

Another allusion: in Genesis 32:32 we find the words "Vayizrach lo hashemesh," "and the sun shined for him." Since it has no vowels, we can revocalize it to say "and the shammosh shines for 36 [lights]" (lo has the numerical value of 36). I.e., the shammosh shines for the 36 lights of Chanukah, since we may not use them or derive benefit from them. Instead, we use the shammosh, which is higher, and thus shines "for them."

There are other allusions as well.

Q. What Other Meanings does the Word "Chanukah" have?

The literal meaning of Chanukah is "dedication." When the Hasmoneans and their small army regained the Holy Temple, they found it desolate and overgrown with vegetation, its gates burned, and the Holy Altar desecrated. They tore their garments in mourning, spread ashes on their heads, and raised their voices in crying and mourning. They routed the garrison of soldiers quartered in the citadel, so as to enable the kohanim (priests) to cleanse and prepare the Temple. They cleansed it, and removed the idols.

However, the invaders had defiled the Holy Altar with offerings to their abominations. The Torah forbids using an altar that has been thus contaminated. They therefore dismantled the Altar and stored its stones in the Bais HaMoked, a structure situated in the northern wall of the Temple Court. (Even though the stones had become irrevocably contaminated, they were formerly holy stones, and had to be treated respectfully. They could not be used for anything else, so they were put away in the Holy Temple.)

The Hasmoneans quickly constructed a new Altar to be used for the next day's services. The Torah states that an Altar may not be used before being dedicated, which is a special service in itself. Thus, they also had to perform a "Chanukas haMizbei-ach," a Dedication of the Altar (Chanukah = dedication).

That is the main reason the Holiday is called Chanukah, and that is one of the things we celebrate on Chanukah. For that reason, many people recite Psalms 120-134, The Songs of Ascents, which the Levites would sing each morning in the Holy Temple before the Kohanim (Priests) lit of the Menorah. There were fifteen steps that led up to the Main Court of the Holy Temple, and the Levites would sing one for each step, every morning.

During Chanukah, we recite two each night, until the last night, when we recite three, finishing all fifteen Psalms.

Another interesting allusion is that the word can also be a contraction of: Chanu "chof" "heh."

Chanu = they rested/encamped. Chof and heh are the two final letters of the word Chanukah, and have the numerical value of 25.

In other words: "on the 25th day they rested (from battle)." So, the name Chanukah actually means two of the reasons we celebrate Chanukah.

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