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What Is Channukka?

Perhaps the most consistently misunderstood and misrepresented holiday in the Jewish calendar is Channukka. The misunderstanding has a variety of causes. Channukka is actually a relatively minor observance, but in Jewish communities located in Christian countries it often takes on an unwarranted significance because of its close proximity to another holiday in December; indeed, in 2016, the first night of Channukka was December 25, so that the two “C” words coincide.

In the west, one frequently encounters attempts to universalize Channukka as being about “religious freedom”; in Israel, where the pressures of the surrounding culture don’t exist, the words “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few” are often extracted from the ‘al Hanissim and used to launch inapt, if understandable, comparisons with the 1948 War of Independence or even the Six-Day War of 1967, focusing on the amazing military victories while ignoring the issues over which the war was fought or the reason why the holiday was established in the first place.

So what, actually, is Channukka?

The basic observance is simple enough. Today, the common practice is to light one light (preferably olive oil) for each of the eight nights, such that on the first night a single light is burning, and on the eighth eight lights are burning (plus the candle used to light the actual Channukka lights). The kindling of the lights is generally accompanied by the song Ma'oz Tzur. Three times a day over the eight days, the ‘al Hanissim prayer is recited, added to the rest of the daily services. It is customary also to give small gifts to children, and during the course of the holiday to eat things fried in oil: In homes of people with European backgrounds, this is the humble potato pancake, called a latke in Yiddish; in the Middle East, it is the delicious jelly donuts available on every street corner in Israel during the season, called sufganiyot.

And that’s basically it.

This is a translation of the language of the ‘al Hanissim:

For the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the deliverances,  and for the wars which You fought for our fathers in those days at this time.

In the days of Mattithyahu ben Yochanan, high priest, Chashmona’i, and his sons, when the evil kingdom of Greece rose against Your people, Israel, to make them forget Your Torah, and to divert them from the laws of Your will, and You in Your great mercy stood up for them in the time of their woe; You took up their grievance, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong.

You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the evil into the hands of the righteous, and scoffers into the hands of those engaged in Your Torah. And You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and for Your people Israel You made great deliverance and salvation as this very day, and afterwards your sons came to the precinct of Your house, and cleared Your Temple, purified Your holy site, and kindled lights in the courtyards of Your Sanctuary, and established these eight days of Dedication [Channukka] to express thanks and praise to Your great Name.