Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah) meaning “dedication” in Hebrew, is the eight-day festival during which Jews commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent liberation and “rededication” of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Hanukkah begins each year on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev.
The modern home celebration of Hanukkah centers around the lighting of the hanukkiyah a special candelabra for Hanukkah; foods prepared in oil including latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), together with special songs and games.
Ritual for lighting the Hanukkah candles
The candles are placed in the Hanukkiyah from right to left.
They are kindled from left to right, lighting the “new” candle first each night.
Two blessings are chanted or recited every night of Hanukkah.
The first is a blessing over the candles themselves.
The second blessing expresses thanks for the miracle of deliverance.
A third blessing – the She-he-he-yanu prayer, marking all joyous occasions in Jewish life – is chanted or recited only on the first night.
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam Asher kid-shanu b’mitz-vo-tav v’tzivanu l’had-lik ner shel Hanukkah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, by whose mitzvot we are hallowed, who commands us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.
Listen to Cantor Davidson sing this blessing:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam She-asah nissim la-avo-teinu ba-ya-mim ha-hem baz-man ha-zeh.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in days of old, at this season.
Listen to Cantor Davidson sing this blessing:
On the first night only, recite this blessing:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam She-he-he-yanu v’kiy-y’ma-nu v’hi-gi-anu laz-man ha-zeh.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling to reach this season.
Listen to Cantor Davidson sing this blessing:
Hanerot Halalu – These Candles (a reading to share after the candles are lit)
We kindle these lights because of the wondrous deliverance You performed for our ancestors. During these eight days of Hanukkah, these lights are sacred; we are not to use them but only to behold them, so that their glow may rouse us to give thanks for Your wondrous acts of deliverance.
For each night of Hanukkah, keva is the words of our texts, prayers, and music, which is balanced by kavanah, the spontaneity of our heart, an opportunity for us to add personal meaning to the text:
First Night: She-he-he-yanu, the First Step
Keva: On the second through the eighth nights of Hanukkah, we recite two blessings, l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah and she’asah nisim. Only on the first night of Hanukkah do we recite a third blessing, She-he-he-yanu, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for helping us to reach this day.”
Why is it only on the first night that we recite the blessing for having reached this moment? Shouldn’t we feel grateful for having arrived at the second through eighth nights of Hanukkah? Aren’t those nights every bit as special? Making the decision to begin a journey is uniquely challenging. Taking the first steps on a new path is often the time we need the most support. Our tradition teaches Mitzvah goreret mitzvah. With each mitzvah we perform, with each inspired choice to transform our lives, the next one becomes easier.
Kavanah: Hanukkah offers us the opportunity to become in touch with our gratitude to God, the Ultimate Source of support, love, and inspiration. From that inspired place, we can direct our gratitude to those people we turn to for support when we seek to begin a new way in life. As we light the first candle tonight, let us think about and express our gratitude to people who enable us to take the plunge, the crucial first step.
Second Night: The Way of the Shamash
Keva: The shamash is the candle specifically designated to light the eight Hanukkah candles. We are prohibited from using (reducing) the light from any of the eight candles to light any of the eight candles. Only the light from the shamash may be used to spark the flame of a candle. The candle is like the soul of a human being. Our tradition teaches, “The human spirit is the lamp of Adonai.” (Proverbs 20:27) Like God, each of us has the ability to ignite and to illuminate the soul of another.
Kavanah: The shamash can serve as a reminder to enhance the flame and to raise ever higher the light of others. As we use the shamash to light tonight’s candles, let us consider the ways we can support and inspire the people we love.
Third Night: Pour Love Over Power
Keva: On the first night of Hanukkah we light the candle on the far right of the hanukkiyah. Each successive night, we light a candle to the left of the candle lit the night before. The mystics taught that the right side of God is the side of hesed—lovingkindness and illumination. The left is the side of gevurah—discipline and power. The left is associated with the source of evil, the realm of darkness.
Kavanah: With each Hanukkah candle we are called to inform our instincts for power and discipline with more and more lovingkindness, understanding, and compassion. May the light of each Hanukkah candle point us toward a kiss or an apology, in the place of a sharp word or scornful expression. As we light the hanukkiyah, let us ask ourselves: When do we find it most challenging to act with kindness? What steps can we take to ensure that we do so?
Fourth Night: Making Ordinary Spaces into Holy Places
Keva: “They celebrated for eight days with rejoicing in the manner of Sukkot, mindful of how but a little while before at the festival of Tabernacles they had been wandering about… [Hanukkah was a festival during which] they offered up hymns to God who had given them success in purifying God’s own place of worship.” (2 Maccabees 10:6) The book of Maccabees connects the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah to the eight-day observance of Sukkot. The wandering, faithful Israelites who had no permanent home in the Sukkot story, rededicate their Temple in the Hanukkah story. In the desert, the Israelites carried the Tabernacle with them; their holy ark was portable. The Temple was a fixed place in which Jewish religious practices could occur.
Kavanah: Where do we go to pray? Where can we find God? How do we carry with us the experiences of prayer that we have in our synagogue? How do we bring experiences of prayer that we have outside the synagogue into the synagogue? As we light tonight’s candles, let us think about and discuss our role in turning ordinary spaces into Holy places.
Fifth Night: Connecting to Generations
Keva: “Beit Shammai maintains that on the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced [by one each day]; but Beit Hillel says that on the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased… The reason of Beit Shammai is that it shall correspond to the days still to come, and that of Beit Hillel is that it shall correspond to the days that are gone.” (Shabbat 21b) This is one of the many famous examples from the Talmud when the two groups of scholars, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree. Who won this debate? What additional reasons can you think of for following the practice of the ‘winner’?
Kavanah: Judaism teaches us to cherish both the past and the future. How do our actions honor the past and anticipate the future? As we light the hanukkiyah tonight, let us remember and share thoughts about our parents and grandparents and the lessons they’ve shared with us. And let the glow of the candles remind us of the possibilities for the future.
Sixth Night: Sharing Our Judaism
Keva: The Mishneh Torah teaches us, “If a courtyard has two doors on different sides, two hanukkiyot are required, lest the passersby on the side where there is no lamp should think that [there was no] hanukkiyah at all. If the two doors are on the same side of the courtyard, a lamp burning at one of them is sufficient.” The Mishneh Torah calls upon us to be proud of our heritage and to make our traditions known to the outside world.
Kavanah: As we light the hanukkiyah tonight, let us think and talk about the choices we make regarding sharing our Judaism with the outside world. When do we choose to share our heritage? When do we choose to keep it private? What Jewish teachings do you think could enhance the broader society in which we live?
Seventh Night: Finding Hope
It is a custom of many Sephardic Jewish communities to recite Psalm 30 after lighting the hanukkiyah. Psalm 30 includes the following verses:
I extol you Adonai, You raised me up.
You did not permit my foes to rejoice over me…
Tears may linger for a night
But joy comes with the dawn…
You turned my mourning into dancing.
You changed my sackcloth into robes of joy,
that I might sing Your praises
that I might thank You, Adonai my God, forever.
Keva: Psalm 30 rejoices in the triumph of joy over sadness, dancing over mourning. We can hear its words resounding from the mouths of the Maccabees after the defeat of their enemies. However, there are times in our tradition when we read of people singing prayers of gratitude before they are out of danger. For example while still in the belly of the whale Jonah says, “The deep engulfed me… Yet You brought me up from the pit.”
Kavanah: Hanukkah comes at the darkest time of the year, when we may be more susceptible to despair. Perhaps Psalm 30 can be for us a voice of hope and consolation in the face of our fears. As we light the hanukkiyah tonight, let us contemplate the sources of comfort, hope, and joy in our lives.
Eighth Night: Letting in the Miraculous, Defying the Ordinary
Keva: The Talmud asks, “What is Hanukkah? Our rabbis taught, ‘on the twenty-fifth of Kislev [begin] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight, and on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are prohibited. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil which had the seal of the High Priest, but which contained oil sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought and they lit [the lamp] with that [oil] for eight days. The following year, these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.” (Shabbat 21b) Today we might ask, “What is a miracle?” A miracle is the defiance of the ordinary, of what we think will happen, should happen or can happen. A miracle is when the unexpected overwhelms the expected. The Sefat Emet teaches that the miracle of Hanukkah still shines for us today.
Kavanah: For a miracle to be available to us, we need to let go of what is and open ourselves to what can be. As we light the eighth candle let us imagine ourselves breaking out of fixed patterns we have tired of, and opening ourselves to new possibilities. As we anticipate the end of Hanukkah, let us allow it to impact our lives beyond its observance by committing ourselves to inviting the miraculous into our lives. In the coming weeks, let us aid the unexpected in overtaking the expected by trying something we have never done before, tasting a food we thought we didn’t like, listening to new music, or taking on a new religious practice.
Shabbat and Hanukkah:
On Friday, light the Hanukkah candles first; then light Shabbat candles. On Saturday, make Havdalah to end Shabbat, and then light the Hanukkah lights.