Good overcoming bad, light overcoming darkness, the triumph of the individual, these are some of the symbolic themes embodied by Hanukkah or Chanukah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights being celebrated this year from Dec. 4-12.
On each night of Hanukkah, the menorah is lit to commemorate a miracle which occurred more than twenty-one centuries ago in the Holy Land when the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) sought to forcefully Hellenize the Israelites. Against all odds, a small band of Jews drove the Greeks from the land and reclaimed their Holy Temple.
When the Jews sought to light the Temple's menorah, though, they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, that one-day supply burned for eight days. To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the sages instituted the nightly menorah lighting: a single flame on the first night, two on the second and so on until all eight lights are kindled.
Rabbi Glenn Ettman of Congregation Beth Israel at 9001 Towne Centre Drive, noted several themes are embraced by Hanukkah. "The holiday essentially is looking at moving from darkness to light," said Ettman. "It has the theme of freedom, what the Maccabees ultimately won; the theme of dedication, what the holiday means in Hebrew; the idea of faith and the concept of the willingness to take a step toward a belief in light, which relates to the fact that Hanukkah always falls in the wintertime. A major element of Hanukkah is the idea of giving and bringing light to other people through acts of goodness, justice and giving."
Ettman said Congregation Beth El is celebrating the holiday with a candle lighting every evening of the holiday at 5:15 p.m. in the congregation's Price Family Courtyard.
On Friday, Dec. 7, Congregation Beth Israel is hosting a family Hanukkah service celebration, with musical participation from the high school congregational band and youth, teen and adult choirs. For more information about the observance, visit www.cbisd.org.
Rabbi Baruch Ezagui of Chabad La Jolla pointed out that hanukka is one Jewish calendar event that is not taken directly from the Bible. "It's a Jewish holiday," he said, "more cultural, historical. It was the time when the Jewish people were being persecuted and didn't have the hand of God to guide them, but they prevailed with this miracle."
Though Hanukkah is a Jewish cultural observance, Ezagui noted the lessons contained in the ritual have universal application for all peoples and all cultures. "The idea behind the festival is light and brightness can bring joy to people," he said, "and that people can be victorious in their own personal challenges. When you walk by the menorah, it warms your heart to see the light in the darkness, see the contrast of how much the darkness fades. It's a universal message that one little candle can illuminate a tremendous amount of darkness."
On Wednesday, Dec. 5, at 6:15 p.m. at Charriol boutique, 1227 Prospect St. in La Jolla, Chabad is performing a public menorah lighting in celebration of the Jewish Hannukah holiday. Following the kindling, the program will feature Chanukah gifts and treats, live music, balloons and more.
In its Chanukah outreach campaign, Chabad of La Jolla joins thousands of Chabad centers across the globe that are staging similar public displays of the Menorah and its symbolic lights.
Another La Jolla synagogue, Congregation Beth El at 8660 Gilman Drive near UCSD, also is celebrating Hanukkah in style.
Though it is not one of the most important festivals observed in the Jewish faith, Beth El's Rabbi, Philip Graubart, noted it's one of the events on the Hebrew calendar where food takes on ritual meaning. "We tell stories with food," said Graubart. "The tradition on Hanukkah is to eat oily foods, potato pancake latkes or jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot). The key component is that it celebrates the miracle of oil."
Congregation Beth El has a whole weekend of activities planned in observance of Hanukkah from Friday, Dec. 7 through Sunday, Dec. 9.
Graubart added Hanukkah is also observed by many with the traditional giving of gifts, Chanukah gelt, particularly coins given to children. Children have always played a prominent role in the ritualistic observance of Hanukkah via the playing of a game employing a dreidel, a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter inscribed on each side.
The dreidel game was popular during the ancient rule of Antiochus before the Maccabees' revolt leading to the overthrow of the Syrians and the Hanukkah celebratory observance. It was a time when soldiers executed any Jews who were caught practicing their religion. So, when pious Jews gathered to study the Torah, children had the top ready in case they heard soldiers approaching so they could play the game to divert soldiers' attention from scholars studying the Torah.
Ever since the days of the Maccabees, Jews around the world have been attempting incredible feats in honor of Hanukkah. Several organizations claim to have lit "the World's Largest Menorah." In 1997 a menorah was built in Latrun in Israel which was more than 60-feet tall. A rabbi was lifted in a crane each night of the holiday to light the candles.
Also, on the first night of Hanukkah in 1997, a 12-foot-high pyramid made of 6,400 sufganiyot (fried jelly doughnuts) was erected near the Israeli town of Afula. The donuts were later donated to members of the Jewish army.
The greatest number of simultaneously spinning dreidels (tops) was performed on Dec. 15, 1998, at the Mayer Kaplan Jewish Community Center in Skokie, Ill. At least 200 people were needed to set the inaugural world's record for largest number of dreidels to be spun at one time.
The spirit of the Hannukah observance was summed up by Rabbi Ezagui of Chabad of La Jolla who said: "Hanukkah is not about any one person, one nation or one religion. Hopefully, everyone can learn from the holiday how to handle the challenges in their own lives, that you can make a difference. With the power of light over darkness, you can change the world. Miracles can happen."