Nov 212014


According to Jewish tradition on this date in 164 BCE Judah Maccabee rededicated the temple in Jerusalem after he had defeated the Seleucid Antiochus IV and cleaned out all the Greek statuary and other profanations. The Jewish feast of Hanukkah (“Dedication”), thus, commemorates the restoration of Jewish worship at the temple. For centuries Hanukkah was a relatively minor celebration in the Jewish ritual calendar because, unlike major holy days such as Passover and Yom Kippur, it has no basis in the Tanakh (Hebrew biblical canon).

Judea was part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt until 200 BCE when Antiochus III of Syria defeated Ptolemy V Epiphanes of Egypt at the Battle of Panium. Judea became at that moment part of the Seleucid Empire of Syria. Antiochus III wanting to conciliate his new Jewish subjects guaranteed their right to “live according to their ancestral customs” and to continue to practice their religion in the temple in Jerusalem. However in 175 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the son of Antiochus III, invaded Judea, ostensibly at the request of the sons of Tobias. The Tobiads, who led the Hellenizing Jewish faction in Jerusalem, were expelled to Syria around 170 BCE when the high priest Onias and his pro-Egyptian faction wrested control from them. The exiled Tobiads lobbied Antiochus IV to recapture Jerusalem. As ancient Jewish historian Josephus tells us:

The king being thereto disposed beforehand, complied with them, and came upon the Jews with a great army, and took their city by force, and slew a great multitude of those that favored Ptolemy, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy. He also spoiled the temple, and put a stop to the constant practice of offering a daily sacrifice of expiation for three years and six months.

When the temple in Jerusalem was looted and services stopped, Judaism was outlawed. In 167 BC Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple. He banned brit milah (circumcision) and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the temple (the sacrifice of pigs to the Greek gods was standard ritual practice in ancient Greek religion).

Antiochus’ actions provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattathias (Mattityahu), a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”). By 166 BC Mattathias had died, and Judah took his place as leader.


By 165 BC the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted to celebrate this event. Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, unadulterated and undefiled pure olive oil with the seal of the kohen gadol (high priest) was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. The story goes that one flask was found with only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of kosher oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.

The version of the story in 1 Maccabees states that an eight-day celebration of songs and sacrifices was proclaimed upon re-dedication of the altar, and makes no mention of the miracle of the oil. In fact, the miracle of the oil, which is central to Hanukkah, has been repeatedly questioned for its historicity since the Middle Ages. Because of its lack of Biblical authority Hanukkah was, for centuries, considered of minor importance. Now, because of its proximity to Christmas, it has taken on much greater importance in countries where Christmas is a mega-fest of display and consumption – acting as a rival festivity. As such it has adopted many Christmas customs such as the Christmas tree, redefined as a Hanukkah bush, with classic Jewish symbols, such as the star of David, replacing santa and wise men.

Hanukkah is not a Sabbath-like holiday, and there is no obligation to refrain from activities that are forbidden on the Sabbath, as specified in the Shulkhan Arukh. Adherents go to work as usual, but may leave early in order to be home to kindle the lights at nightfall. There is no religious reason for schools to be closed, although, in Israel, schools close from the second day for the whole week of Hanukkah. Many families exchange gifts each night, such as books or games.


Each night, throughout the 8 day holiday, a candle or oil-based light, is lit. As a universally practiced “beautification” (hiddur mitzvah) of the mitzvah, the number of lights lit is increased by one each night. An extra light called a shamash, meaning “attendant” or “sexton,” is also lit each night, and is given a distinct location, usually higher, lower, or to the side of the others. The purpose of the extra light is to adhere to the prohibition, specified in the Talmud (Tracate Shabbat 21b–23a), against using the Hanukkah lights for anything other than publicizing and meditating on the Hanukkah miracle. This differs from Sabbath candles which are meant to be used for illumination and lighting. Hence, if one were to need extra illumination on Hanukkah, the shamash candle would be available, and one would avoid using the prohibited lights. Some, especially Ashkenazim, light the shamash candle first and then use it to light the others. So all together, including the shamash, two lights are lit on the first night, three on the second and so on, ending with nine on the last night, for a total of 44 (36, excluding the shamash). It is Sephardic custom not to light the shamash first and use it to light the rest. Instead, the shamash candle is the last to be lit, and a different candle or a match is used to light all the candles.

The lights can be candles or oil lamps. Electric lights are sometimes used and are acceptable in places where open flame is not permitted, such as a hospital room, or for the very elderly and infirm. Most Jewish homes have a special candelabrum referred to as either a Chanukiah (the Sephardi and Israeli term), or a menorah (the traditional Ashkenazi name); Many families use an oil lamp (traditionally filled with olive oil) for Hanukkah. Like the candle Chanukiah, it has eight wicks to light plus the additional shamash light. Since the 1970’s the worldwide Chabad Hasidic movement has initiated public menorah lightings in open public places in many countries.

The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not for the “lighting of the house within,” but rather for the “illumination of the house without,” so that passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday’s miracle (i.e. the triumph of the few over the many and of the pure over the impure). Accordingly, lamps are set up at a prominent window or near the door leading to the street. It is customary amongst some Ashkenazi Jews to have a separate menorah for each family member (customs vary), whereas most Sephardic Jews light one for the whole household. Only when there was danger of antisemitic persecution were lamps supposed to be hidden from public view, as was the case in Persia under the rule of the Zoroastrians, or in parts of Europe before and during World War II. However, most Hasidic groups light lamps near an inside doorway, not necessarily in public view. According to this tradition, the lamps are placed on the opposite side from the mezuzah, so that when people pass through the door they are surrounded by the holiness of mitzvot (the commandments).

han1  han3

There are two main traditional foods for Hanukkah, latkes and sufganiyot (more or less a jelly doughnut). They are both traditional because they are fried in oil – symbolic of temple oil. There is a long North African Jewish tradition of associating sfenj (small, round, deep-fried donuts) with Hanukkah. In Israel, where Central and East European Jews mingled with North African Jews, the Yiddish ponchkes (similar to the German Berliner, the Polish pączki, or the Russian ponchik) became part of this tradition. The ponchke-style sufganiyah was originally made from two circles of dough surrounding a jelly filling, stuck together and fried in one piece. Although this method is still practiced, an easier technique commonly used today is to deep-fry whole balls of dough, similar to the preparation of sfenj, and then inject them with a filling through a baker’s syringe (or a special industrial machine). This method has resulted in the modern sufganiyah being identical to the German Berliner. As such I do not find them as interesting as latkes.


The “modern” latke is a potato pancake which is known across Europe and the Middle East (and Africa due to colonial influence). As such, it is not especially Jewish. In fact much of what has come to be known as “Jewish cuisine” is a collection of the different cooking traditions of the Jewish diaspora worldwide. It is a diverse cuisine that has evolved over many centuries, shaped by Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), Jewish festival, and Shabbat (Sabbath) traditions. Jewish cuisine is influenced by the economics, agriculture, and culinary traditions of the many countries where Jewish communities have settled and varies widely throughout the world.

Until the potato was introduced to the Old World there could not have existed potato pancakes there, Jewish or otherwise. Latkes must have been made from other vegetables. So a challenge I throw out is to make this kind of pancake with a vegetable indigenous to the Old World. The first possibility that springs to mind is to use mashed legumes such as lentils or fava beans (as in Indian cuisine). Another choice would be roots such as celeriac, parsnips, turnips, or carrots, or a mix. If you want, use the potato recipe I am going to give here but use 2 cups of cooked and mashed legumes or grated vegetable in place of the potatoes. I’ve done this many times. Yum.

Potato latkes can be tricky if you do not follow certain simple rules (ask me how I know !!). The key issue is to avoid them becoming soggy. So . . . peel and grate 2 cups   of potatoes. Soak in cold water then strain, repeating as many times necessary until the water runs clear. This helps leach out much of the starch – which you don’t want. Drain them, then squeeze out as much liquid as you can by placing the potatoes in a colander and pressing hard with wadded paper towels until they are as dry as you can get them.

Beat two eggs with salt to taste in a mixing bowl and add the potatoes. Mix well. At his point you may add other ingredients such as finely chopped onions (very common), parsley, tomatoes, whatever you want. Purists add nothing else. In many recipes you will find people adding flour or other starches. Under no circumstances do this. You just got rid of all the starch; why add it back?

Heat good quality olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. The quantity of olive oil is cook’s choice. I use about ¼ inch because the whole idea is to remember the temple oil. Besides, I think it works well. Meanwhile, take about ¼ cup of the mixture, shape it into a ball, then flatten it to form a disk. How flat is also cook’s choice. They should not be too thin, in my opinion, but traditions vary.

Fry 2 or 3 latkes at a time, turning once when the bottom browns. Drain on wire racks and serve warm.

I like mine plain as a side dish, but there are no rules here. As an appetizer you can serve them with a dollop of sour cream or what you will. At Hanukkah many Jews eat them with a sprinkling of sugar or something sweet, especially at tea time

Yield: about 8