How well do you know the religious story of Hanukkah?


By: Abi Luftig

7 Min Quiz

Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

Everyone knows the dreidel song and Adam Sandler helped us learn which celebs celebrate Hanukkah, but how well do you really know the story that inspired the Festival of Lights?

Let's start off simple. During what month does Hanukkah usually occur?

There have been some exceptions, but normally Hanukkah occurs during December, according to the standard Gregorian calendar. According to the Hebrew calendar, the holiday begins during the month of Kislev and ends in the month of Tevet.


On which day/night of the Hebrew month of Kislev does Hanukkah begin?

Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev. Since the 25th of a Hebrew month is always four days before the new moon, making it the darkest night of the month, and since Kislev tends to include the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, there is a nice symbolism of the Festival of Lights leading people out of darkness.


What does Hanukkah celebrate?

While most Hanukkah celebrations tend to focus on the miracle of the lamp oil, the holiday also recognizes the victory of the Maccabees. History shows a strategic and deliberate focus on the oil as a way of denouncing the Maccabees. More on that later.


What does "Hanukkah" mean?

Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukkah) is also known as the Feast of Dedication, and the word itself means dedication. The Maccabee army was fighting for religious freedom. Over time, their victory came to be viewed as the archetype of commitment to Jewish worship, and the holiday is seen as a way of dedicating oneself to Judaism.


Who is the villain in this story?

While the empire he was in charge of was started by Alexander the Great, the actual baddie of the story is Antiochus. Antiochus gave himself the surname Epiphanes, meaning "god manifest," and he outlawed all local religions in his realm. He often behaved in an erratic and bizarre manner, leading many to nickname him Epimanes, meaning "the mad one," as a play on Epiphanes. Presumably, this was said behind his back, as he didn't seem to have a great sense of humor.


What methods of "persuasion" did Antiochus use to convince the Jews to fall in line?

According to legend, Antiochus did all these things and more. It's difficult to verify, what with it being so long ago, but legend also has it that when Antiochus placed a statue of Zeus in the Temple, the statue had HIS face!


True or false: all Jews supported the Maccabee rebellion.

Strange as it may seem, not all Jews at the time were up in arms about Antiochus outlawing their religion and customs. Being part of the Greek empire at the time, they were drawn to the culture of the Greeks, most notably the art and philosophies, so they decided it wasn't worth the fight and put up with Antiochus's ruling.


Who began the rebellion against Antiochus?

While Judah is considered the hero of the story, Mattathias actually began the rebellion by killing a Jew who was forced to make a sacrifice to the Greek gods. After this misplaced show of political anger, Mattathias, his five sons, their families, and an army of followers began a three-year revolution, ending with his death. However, some legends say that Mattathias was the one being forced to make the sacrifice and he killed a guard. Either way, he's still seen as the hero!


True or false: Mattathias, Judah, Aaron, and Moses were all related.

This is true. Judah Maccabee is the son of Mattathias, who is credited with starting the anti-Antiochus rebellion. Mattathias was a descendant of Aaron. Aaron was the brother of Moses and often spoke for Moses, who wasn't big on public speaking.


What does "maccabee" mean?

After the death of his father, Mattathias, Judah took up the helm and led a brutal guerilla warfare campaign against Antiochus and the Jews who decided to assimilate. Judah and his forces were so strong that they earned the nickname Maccabee, which is Hebrew for "hammer." The other brothers in the rebellion were Eleazar, Simon, John, and (somewhat confusingly) Jonathan.


What turning point took place on 25th Kislev?

On 25 Kislev in 167 BCE, Antiochus's forces seized the Second Temple of Jerusalem. It was reclaimed a few years later, and, in a show of symbolism, Judah decided to rededicate the Temple on 25 Kislev 164 BCE. He pronounced that the rededication should be celebrated every year with an eight-day festival.


Why did Judah choose eight days as the length of the rededication celebration?

The story of the lamp oil was the one that took root, but it wasn't originally why the festival was declared to last eight days. The original reasoning was to mirror the holiday of Sukkot (the Feast of the Tabernacles), which is one of the three festivals that require Jews to make a pilgrimage to the Temple of Jerusalem. Sukkot also commemorates The Exodus.


If that's the reason for the eight days, why did the story of the oil get told?

They say you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. After the victory at the Temple, the Maccabees essentially instated themselves as kings and became as bad, if not worse, than the people they had ousted. In the roughly 600 years between the Maccabee victory and the chronicling of the story in the Talmud, the rabbis who wrote the Talmud were disenchanted by the Maccabees and wanted to downplay their glory.


Did the rabbis make up the story of the oil?

Legend has it that the story of the oil did actually happen and the Maccabees' first act upon reclaiming the Temple was to reignite the Eternal Light. When Judah Maccabee declared the creation of the eight-day festival, this didn't come into play. Too bad for him, the people writing down history were not fans of him and went with a different version.


Why did the oil need to last for eight days?

As is often the case with oral traditions, the details tend to get lost over the centuries. Some tellings of the Hanukkah story say the Maccabees needed to make more oil and the process would take eight days. Other versions of the story say they sent a messenger to get more oil, but the trip would take eight days. It's not clear which version is true.


Why did the story of the Maccabees gain more attention in recent decades?

Most of the time, Judaism is a peaceful religion that tends to disavow violence, which along with the political reasons, led to focusing on the miracle of the oil rather than the military victory. However, since the modern creation of Israel and the military conflicts that have ensued since, the Zionist movement within the Jewish community has begun to rethink their pacifist roots. They have begun to praise the effective but brutal tactics of the Maccabees, and work to bring this part of the story back to the forefront.


How many candles does a menorah hold?

This is somewhat of a trick question. Despite most people accepting the term "menorah" to mean the nine-candle candelabra used at Hannukah, an actual menorah only holds seven candles. It is used for Sabbath rituals and is the official emblem of the State of Israel. The nine-candle version we associate with Hanukkah is actually called a chanukkiah. For simplicity's sake, many refer to a chanukkiah as a menorah.


The ninth candle is called the shamash. What does shamash mean?

While many children are taught to called the shamash "the helper candle," the word actually translates to "servant." It's there to fulfill its job of lighting the other candles and must be positioned either higher or lower than the other candles.


True or false: there is only one correct way to light the channukiah.

Jews are known for having a wide variety of traditions, and the Hanukkah lights are no exception. Many families light one candle on the first night, two candles on the second night, etc., to symbolize the growing light in the face of darkness. Another tradition is to light all eight candles on the first night, seven on the second night, etc., to symbolize the gradual depletion of the oil.


In what direction are the candles filled in?

In English, we read left to right and are trained to think of things in terms of left to right. However, in Hebrew, words are read right to left, and so the candles are added to the channukiah right to left.


In what order are the candles lit?

Traditions are nothing if not confusing. While the candles are added right to left, they are lit left to right. So on the second night, you light the second candle (the left-most candle) before the first one (the right-most) candle. Sound confusing? Just remember that you're honoring that specific night and that night's candle wants to go first.


True or false: there are only two blessings that are said over the candles.

This was a bit misleading. For seven of the eight nights, there ARE only two blessings, but let's not forget the first night. On the first night, a third blessing is added on, which translates to "Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Universal Presence, Who keeps us in Life always, Who supports the unfolding of our uniqueness, and Who brings us to this very moment for blessing."


Who lights the candles?

This is another example of the plethora of Jewish traditions. In some families, the head of the household lights the candles. In others, it's the youngest female. Other families let all the children take turns (it helps to stop the bickering). Other families give everyone their own menorah so everyone lights the candles all at once. In Alsace, France, a popular tradition is to have a two-tiered menorah so fathers and sons can light the candles together, symbolizing the passing of the torch between generations.


How long must the candles stay lit?

Unless it takes you at least a half an hour to open your presents, let the candles burn a while after you're done. Candles are meant to be lit for at least half an hour after the blessing is said. On the final light, many families let the candles burn until they extinguish themselves (just make sure someone is awake to watch for fire hazards if you do this).


How did the dreidel come into being?

When Antiochus banned the Jewish religion and traditions, that included open studying of the Torah. Legend has it that the dreidel was created as a cover story. When officials wandered by a study group, they would only see a group of men playing a completely legal and innocent game of top-based gambling.


What language is written on the dreidel?

The letters on a dreidel are in fact both Hebrew and Yiddish, and both serve different purposes. In Hebrew, the letters (nun, gimel, hei, and shin) stand for the phrase, "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham" (a great miracle happened there), and helps to remind us of the miracle of the oil. In Yiddish, the letters represent the words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), which helps to remind us of the rules of the game. If you spin nit, nothing happens. If you spin gantz, you get the whole pot (m&ms, gelt, marbles, etc.). If you spin halb, you get half the pot, and if you spin shtell, you have to put one of yours in. A lot of people combine the Yiddish rules and the Hebrew letters to think nun=none, gimel = gimme, hei = half, and shin = share.


Why do we eat oily fried foods at Hanukkah?

While a case could be made for all of these, the "real" answer is to remind us of the miracle of the oil. Most families will fry up latkes (potato pancakes), which are topped with applesauce or sour cream. However, Thanksgivukkah (2013) led to a wonderful discovery: latkes are also yummy with cranberry sauce!


True or false: latkes are the traditional Hanukkah food around the world.

This is false. While latkes are the most popular Hanukkah food, their popularity is mostly among North Americans and Europeans. In Israel, the special dish is a fried jelly (sometimes cream) donut called a sufganiyah.


Latkes and sufganiyah aren't the only foods enjoyed on Hanukkah. Which other foods are eaten around the world?

It's best to work with the ingredients you have. In Santa Marta, Colombia, plantains are more plentiful than potatoes, so patacones (fried plantains) became more traditional than latkes. In Morocco, oranges are abundant, so the Moroccan Jewish community began making Sfenj donuts, flavored with orange juice and zest, rather than the jelly or cream version of their Israeli counterparts.


Who was the first president to have a menorah in the White House?

The first menorah came into the White House in 1951 as a gift to President Harry Truman. It was a gift from the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and, according to official White House photos, Abba Eban, the Israeli Ambassador to the US, was also in attendance when the gift was presented.


Who was the first president to light the National Menorah at the White House?

Jimmy Carter was the first President to light the National Menorah (located in the northeast quadrant of The Ellipse, a portion of The Presidents Park). Carter had been in 100 days of self-imposed exile following the Iran Hostage Crisis but ended the exile to walk to the park and help light the Menorah in its first year of existence. Reagan was the first to official dub it the National Menorah and Papa Bush was the first to display a menorah in the White House.


How is Hanukkah celebrated in India?

Believe it or not, Hanukkah is celebrated more than you might think in India. Indians make their menorahs out of wicks dipped in coconut oil, similar to how lights are made for Diwali. Latkes are also often replaced by samosas.


Who is the hero of the story in Yemen?

Let us not forget that women often play a major yet uncelebrated role in history. Yemen strives to fix that mistake by dedicating the seventh night to Hannah (who along with her seven sons was martyred for standing up to Antiochus) and Judith (who cut off the head of an enemy general).


What are Hanukkah calendars?

As a fire-free alternative, a lot of companies have started to manufacture Hanukkah calendars. Similar in design to an Advent calendar, the Hanukkah calendar invites a child to open a door on the calendar to get a treat. However, for a Hanukkah calendar, a door is opened on each night of the holiday (leaving the candle-lighting to the adults). Most calendars also include a fun activity for the whole family for each night.


What oil did the Maccabees use, according to legend?

Legend has it that the oil used in the miracle was olive oil - an abundance of olive oil would be an upside to being ruled by the Greeks. Olive oil is made by pressing whole olives. While it originated in Greece, Italy is now the world's leading producer of olive oil.


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