Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights

Hanukkah is a joyful family celebration, awaited every year by children and adults in many Jewish homes. Traditions related to this festival are inseparable from the history of Hanukkah, which is celebrated in the Kislev month (November-December).

Wide chanukija new

Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean Revolt. When the revolt broke out and the statue of Zeus, which had profaned the Temple for three years, was toppled, Jews won back their sacred place. In order to restore its religious function, it required ritual cleansing. According to the Talmud, only one necessary jug of oil, sealed by the high priests, was found. Legend says that miraculously, there was enough oil in the jug to keep the lights burning for eight days. As a commemoration, Hanukkah lights are being lit for the same period of time.

But if there were eight days, why does then the hanukkiah (a type of menorah made for Hanukkah) have nine branches? The ninth branch is hoding a special candle (shamash), with which other ones are lit, because none of the „proper” candles in the hanukkiah can’t be lit from another one. There are also other traditions, which have developed over centuries of Jewish culture, such as traditional dishes – latkes (pancakes) and sufganiyot (donuts) – both fried with oil. There are also traditional games, like spinning the dreidel, a spinning top with Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin, which begin each words in a sentence „Nes Gadol Haya Sham”, „A great miracle happened there”. This game still remains a favourite among Jewish kids.

Many Hanukkah-related texts – stories for children, press articles – were dedicated to one object, the hanukkiah. A story about a Jew who becomes rich and forgets his old hanukkiah, which later would turn out to be the most precious object in his house. Children waiting for candles to be lit. Many pre-war stories and short novels, similar to moralizing stories written for Christmas, have survived until present day. Such literary production, typical for literature for children at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, is a proof of mutual influences between Polish and Jewish culture. These stories shared similar elements and goals – to teach attachment to traditions, to encourage help for the disadvantaged and to show how fleeting material goods can be.

What about hanukkiahs themselves? There are simple and richly decorated ones. Preserved in perfect conditions, still in use today – and those broken ones, whose beauty can’t be restored even through the biggest conservation efforts, but whose reconstruction would destroy their status as witnesses of history. In the past, they were taken out only for those few special days of the year. In today’s Poland, they are taken out from museum archives more often than from a cupboard at home.

The Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto contains texts about Hanukkah as well. In Eliezer Gerszon’s writings, we can find a hopeful quote: „Hanukkah shows […] a miracle of the divine providence’s unexpected rescue”.

Press articles, children’s stories, old photographs, artworks – all of these you can find in our special Hanukkah collection in our digital repository, the Central Jewish Library. The objects we have selected are only a part of our collection at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute. We’d like to encourage you to make your own discoveries!

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