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Rabbis' Hanukkah Teachings

Margot Englander

Centerspread Editor


Hanukkah. Chanukah. The Festival of Light. Many names, many spellings, and many traditions. In the spirit of the joy of the holiday, the Chronicle decided to reach out to Jack M. Barrack’s very own Rabbis!

Hanukkah, (meaning “dedication”), commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In 164 BCE, a group of fighters (The Maccabees), fought and defeated the Greek Army that had captured Jerusalem in 200 BCE. When they reclaimed the temple, they wanted to re-light the menorah. Even though they only found enough oil for one day, the menorah burned for eight. Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, which this year falls on Thursday, December 7th. Hanukkah ends at sundown on Friday, December 15th.

All over the world, through various Jewish communities there are many different customs and traditions regarding Hanukkah celebrations. In terms of lighting the Hanukkiah, among Ashkenazim, the custom is for every member of the household to light their own Hanukkiah. In Sephardic households, there is one Hanukiah for the entire family. Some people, especially Ashkenazim, use the shammash to light the rest of the candles. It is Sephardic custom to light the shammash last, using a different candle or match to light the others; some Hasidic Jews follow this custom as well.

There are a lot of tasty foods eaten on Hanukkah, including fried foods and sufganiyot (doughnuts). For Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, the real factor that defined Hanukkah eating was less delicious, since it was during the harsh winter season, which yielded nothing. Jews in prewar Europe ate what was available, and made pancakes from grated turnips, potatoes, or milled grains. They’d fry them in schmaltz, rendered poultry fat, an essential component of Ashkenazi cooking.

In the Old World, there was a tradition of eating a Hanukkah goose. When Hanukkah fell on Shabbat, Jewish families would host a feast with roast goose and latkes – the smell of smoking goose fat became the traditional scent of Hanukkah. The goose was a beneficial animal for the Jews of Poland because it supplied so much to a household: food, feathers for bedding, and fats for rendering.

Indian Jews typically eat gulab jamun, fried dough balls soaked in a sweet syrup, as part of their Hanukkah celebrations. Italian Jews eat fried chicken, cassola (a ricotta cheese latke similar to a cheesecake), and fritelle de riso par Hannukah (a fried sweet rice pancake). Romanian Jews have pasta latkes as their traditional Hanukkah dish, and Syrian Jews consume Kibbet Yakeen, a dish made with pumpkin and bulgar similar to latkes, as well as their own version of keftes de prasa spiced with allspice and cinnamon.

The custom of eating dairy foods on Hanukkah dates back to the Middle Ages, when the book of Judith played an important role in the Hanukkah narrative. Judith was a celebrated Jewish heroine who saved her village from an invading Assyrian army. Since she was very beautiful, she tricked the Assyrian army’s general with wine and salty cheese. When the general passed out drunk and full, she beheaded him with his own sword. The Israelites launched a surprise attack on the leader-less Assyrian army and emerged victorious. In Judith’s honor, some communities eat dairy on Hanukkah.

In the JBHA community, our numerous Rabbis have their own favorite teachings and traditions specific to Hanukkah. In Rabbi Lev’s house, they like to keep the spirit of Hanukkah going all year, so they usually sing the blessings over Shabbat candles to the Hanukkah melody all year! They also enjoy challah with honey all year and don’t limit themselves to only Rosh HaShanah and Sukkot. Why not enjoy the sweetness all year long? Rabbi Razin’s family’s favorite tradition is making homemade לביבות וסופגניות. His favorite teaching is that the מכבים (Maccabees) led the first battle for religious freedom in recorded history. Rabbi Lauren enjoys the newer tradition of giving tzedakah during Hanukkah rather than only giving kids gifts. This Jewish tradition reminds us of the serious issue of poverty, especially in Philadelphia. Jewish teachings ask each community to make sure that everyone in their proximity is cared for. The Fifth Night Project was created to dedicate the fifth night of Hanukkah for charity – skip the gifts that night and teach children the importance of giving to those in need. Rabbi Rosenberg likes the (mentioned above) special tradition of eating dairy on Hanukkah to commemorate Judith. Judith models someone who intelligently comes up with different strategies for opposing what feels like overwhelming existential threat. This is especially relevant to right now, with the war in Israel! Rabbi Zinkow’s favorite teaching is that, according to Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David), the blessing that is said when lighting the candles is modeled on the blessing that is said in the Temple when the Kohanim would light the menorah. When we light our candles, our hanukkiah is akin to the menorah, us to Kohanim, and our houses to the temple. Finally, Rabbi Yondorf loves Shabbat 21a - 22a. This section of the Talmud discusses lighting Shabbat candles, so we can draw comparisons to Hanukkah candles. Shabbat 21b discusses the obligation of lighting candles on Shabbat, just as we are obligated to light for eight nights on Hanukkah. Also, Shabbat 22a touches on the importance of parents teaching their children the Torah, and Hanukkah also emphasizes the role of education and passing down stories to the future generations.

Perhaps, for your Hanukkah celebrations this year, you could incorporate some of these unique traditions from around the world and our community here at Barrack!

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