Hanukkah: Selected Customs

Posted on: Tuesday December 6, 2011

By Alan Lucas
Excerpted from The Observant Life

Although both Hanukkah and Purim are considered minor festivals to which the laws regarding the prohibition of labor on festivals do not apply, both are significant in their own right and both have won a special place in the hearts of the Jewish people.

It has become customary to celebrate Hanukkah by eating potato pancakes, commonly called by their Yiddish name, latkes, by Ashkenazic Jews. In Israel, jelly doughnuts, called sufganiyyot in Hebrew, are the more common holiday delicacy. What they have in common is that both are cooked in oil and so are able to evoke the miracle of the oil. Other Jewish communities also have special fried foods associated with Hanukkah for the same reason. Another custom associated with Hanukkah is the four-sided spinning top called s’vivon in Hebrew, but more commonly referred to by its Yiddish name, dreidel. Each side displays a Hebrew letter that corresponds to the first letter of the words: neis gadol hayah sham (a great miracle happened there). In Israel, the final letter is the first letter of the word poh (here) instead. The sentence is just a made-up phrase, however; the real meaning of the letters has to do with the rules of the popular gambling game played with the dreidel, in which, depending on the letter one spins, one may win all or half the pot, or have to give some coins into it. (Although some rabbis have suggested the dreidel dates back to Hanukkah’s origins and was used as a ploy to distract the Greeks while the Jews studied Torah, Rabbi David Golinkin argues that the dreidel is based on a sixteenth-century game popular in England around Christmastime called totum. Our dreidel games are very similar to a German version of this game.)

The giving of gifts in the days and weeks around the winter solstice, when daylight is minimal and the weather is cold and unpleasant, is part of many cultures, especially those indigenous to temperate climates where the distinction between the seasons is the most pronounced. The point is clear. Giving gifts is a sign of confidence in the future and in the eventual arrival of spring: one can afford to be generous with one’s stores since one clearly believes that they will soon be replenished. Thus, gift-giving is connected in different cultures with winter festivals—with Hanukkah among Jews, but also with Saturnalia among the ancient Romans, Christmas among Christians, and Diwali among Hindus. Traditionally, Jews gave children coins. (Among Ashkenazic Jews, these coins were called by the Yiddish name of Hanukkah gelt.) In North America and Western Europe, this has mostly developed into more elaborate gift-giving, especially to children. While there is nothing wrong with making Hanukkah into a holiday that children associate with presents and thus anticipate all the more keenly, care should be taken not to allow that specific aspect of the holiday to overwhelm its spiritual character or to make its historical background seem to be of lesser importance.

In some circles, and especially in North America, the Christian festival of Christmas exercises a distinctly counterproductive influence on Hanukkah. Indeed, when Jewish parents make the holiday into a parallel orgy of materialistic acquisitiveness, imagining just a bit pathetically that they are merely helping Hanukkah to “compete” successfully with Christmas for their children’s attention, they are merely bowdlerizing the meaning of the holiday, subverting its significance, and ruining its spiritual potential. Sensitive Jewish parents will always try to resist unfair comparisons to the festivals of other religions, for no good can ever come from fostering the impression that Judaism is merely the Jewish version of Christianity (or any other faith, for that matter). Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas any more than Passover is the Jewish Easter, and suggesting even obliquely to children that this is the case will at best confuse them. Moreover, doing so will set up a kind of competitive evaluative process that will inevitably denigrate the worth of both festivals and both faiths.