Hanukkah Traditions

JNS.org covers the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah with features on Hanukkah traditions, such as Hanukkah songs, and related news from around the Jewish world and Israel. JNS.org also offers yearly tips on Hanukkah gifts. To select another topic, choose from the other content “categories” in our navigation bar.

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In the United States, there are those who believe Christmas has swallowed Hanukkah whole, reducing it to a sort of Christmas for Jews. But in places like Ukraine, where historic anti-Semitism is not so remote, the holiday still retains some of its original meaning: a parable of Jewish resilience in the face of war and oppression. “It was forbidden here to be religious….When we celebrate Hanukkah so openly, it means we’ve really returned to our tradition,” said Ira Sborovskaya, the point person for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in southern Ukraine and neighboring Moldova.

The painful memories of the January 2015 attack at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, followed by the murderous strike on the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, persist when we are forced to contend with all that has happened since. Rarely does a day go by where another innocent person doesn’t lose his or her life to the madness that is modern-day terrorism. So as the Jewish community gathered during Hanukkah in Paris for the “Let There Be Light: A Concert of Jewish Unity” event, popular radio host Nachum Segal argues that never before has the concept of Jewish unity been more important.

Jan. 7 and Jan. 9 may not ring bells in our heads, but they should. They are the days that saw deadly Islamist terror attacks on Paris's Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, respectively. Those attacks came well before the coordinated spate of terror in Paris that killed 130 people on Nov. 13. What is required now from us who live in relative safety is a demonstration of solidarity with those who do not, meaning the Jewish communities of France specifically and throughout Europe generally. That is why Nachum Segal, host of the Nachum Segal Network's popular “JM in the AM” radio show, should be applauded for what he is about to do, writes columnist Juda Engelmayer. In the heart of Paris, on the evening of Dec. 9, Segal will host an international concert, “Let There Be Light: The Concert of Jewish Unity.”

The Mensch on a Bench is so much happier now than he was a year ago. Whereas the previous Mensch had a decidedly worried look, this latest version of the popular Hanukkah toy is flashing an exuberant grin. Is the erstwhile Mensch smiling because he expects to be in some 100,000 homes by year’s end? In truth, the change in visage was suggested last year by the “sharks” on ABC’s “Shark Tank” program, where Mensch on a Bench founder Neal Hoffman secured investors in his company. “We were going so fast—in less than a year we went from concept to product on the shelf—that I didn’t match the Mensch’s face to the one in the book,” Hoffman told JNS.org, referring to how the plush doll is sold with a book that tells the story of Hanukkah while featuring “Moshe the Mensch.” Having sold out last year’s crop of 60,000 units—the previous year, his initial run of 1,000 Mensches was snapped up within 10 days—Hoffman has already sold 50,000 this fall, well ahead of last year’s pace. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged thatwe can never get tired of Hanukkah latkes and sufganiyot (the holiday’s deep-fried jelly doughnuts). But there’s no harm in adding some culinary variety to this year’s Festival of Lights. Pastry chef Paula Shoyer offers a doughnut recipe with a twist as well as two alternative recipes that are great for Hanukkah and will satisfy any sweet tooth. 

William (Baruch Nissan) Snyder is a vibrant 12-year-old boy. He loves baseball, football, swimming, riding his bike, and playing video games. He laughs heartily, his gigantic sense of humor shining through—with one hand on his special dog, Asha. But like his Hebrew name, William is a blessed miracle. Each day of this cancer survivor's last 10-and-a-half years has been a miracle. JNS.org tells his story.

Hanukkah gifts are all the rage when it comes to the kids, but how can parents infuse more meaning into the Festival of Lights? JNS.org offers eight ways to celebrate the holiday that don't involve presents, ranging from crafts projects to dreidel tournaments to re-enacting the Hanukkah story.

Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights. On each night we light one more candle to remember the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the rededication of the Second Temple. But there are more ways to create light than using Hanukkah menorah candles. JNS.org offers a list of eight gifts, one for each night of the holiday, that are guaranteed to light up your friend or loved-one’s Hanukkah.

Leading up to Hanukkah 2014, former Hasbro toy and game company employee Neal Hoffman conducted a successful Kickstarter online crowdfunding campaign that helped him get out his new product, “Mensch on a Bench,” in time for the holiday. At the same time, the Cincinnati, Ohio, resident was readying for an even bigger stage: national television. On the popular ABC program “Shark Tank,” Hoffman accepted an offer of $150,000 for a 30-percent stake in his company from investors Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec. “I remember smiling ear to ear walking down the hallway and thinking to myself, ‘I did it,’” Hoffman tells JNS.org regarding his entrance into the “Shark Tank” set. “I was starstruck when I walked in the room, but got over it quickly when I started my presentation.”

This time of year, festive holiday displays are sometimes accompanied by not-so-festive controversies over the appearance of religious symbols in public places. But for Jews, the increasing inclusion of the Hanukkah menorah as well as other Jewish symbols in the pantheon of American civic and religious discourse highlights their mainstream acceptance in society. “I can walk down the street knowing that I am proud to be a Jew,” said Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, a Pittsburgh-based Chabad-Lubavitch emissary. “And in fact the government does whatever they can to help us and encourages us to practice our faith.”

Hanukkah is the Jewish festival of lights, commemorating the miracle of oil burning for eight days when it should have only burned for one. But today the real miracle of lights is that a country like Israel—which is roughly the size of New Jersey and is constantly under attack both from its neighbors and from terrorists within its own borders—has the foresight and initiative to champion the environmental movement, writes Eliana Rudee, a contributor to the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.

Rather than celebrating Hanukkah, American Jews could have adopted a secularized Christmas, as many German Jews did in the 19th century and early 20th century. But instead, Reform and Conservative Jews led the way in the Americanization of Hanukkah, not only by inventing the custom of giving eight gifts (one per night) and using colored candles, but also by reshaping the message of the menorah’s light to fit the American Jewish predicament, writes Noam Zion, a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of "A Different Light: The Hanukkah Book Celebration."

This time of year, when a massive amount of Americans flock to department stores to purchase presents in time for Christmas, Hanukkah means Jews don’t hesitate to also get in on the action. For holiday shopping enthusiasts of all faiths, JNS.org presents product recommendations on higher and lower price ends from major retail brands, so that you can treat your loved one or friend with a great present.

From the Western Wall to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum to the homes of Knesset members and other communal leaders, the Hanukkah menorahs of Israel shed light of the Jewish people's past, present, and future. “Each night when we add a candle and the light grows steadily stronger, we realize once again the importance of being here in Israel, the only place in the world that is truly ours,” says Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, co-founder and executive director of the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah agency. “Like the miracle of Hanukkah, this mini miracle of our ability to return home to Israel is something that we want to publicize to the entire Jewish world.”

The miracle of Hanukkah is an epic story of conservation, as one day’s worth of oil lasts for eight days in the Jewish Temple. Now, in some circles, energy conservation and energy independence are increasing hallmarks of modern-day Hanukkah.

The average Hanukkah sufganiya (jelly donut) has between 300 and 400 calories of nearly pure oil and fat. In honor of the miracle God bestowed on the Maccabees, making oil meant for just a day last eight days, the delicious donut and other traditionally oily Hanukkah foods become annual killers for your diet. For those who are health conscious but do not want to be deprived of sufganiyot, chef Jamie Geller presents three recipes.

When his son asked for The Elf on the Shelf—the famed Christmas toy that is said to keep an eye on children and report back to Santa Claus regarding their behavior—entrepreneur Neal Hoffman says he felt an admitted pang of “elf envy” and saw the need to offer something more appropriate. The elf has now met its Jewish match through Hoffman’s The Mensch on a Bench, a toy and book set based on the story of the character “Moshe the Mensch.” 


While at the U.N. General Assembly and other public forums, Iran continues to tout what it calls the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program to a skeptical audience. But the peaceful intentions of another “nuclear program”—one that will come in handy for Jewish shoppers this Hanukkah—are unquestioned. Using the words of the prophets as inspiration, a company called From War to Peace is turning swords into ploughshares—actually, recycled material from nukes into Jewish jewelry—in California.

Nov. 28 marks both Thanksgiving Day and the first day of Hanukkah 2013. It would be a natural reaction for an American Jew, when noticing that overlap during a casual reading of the calendar, to smile or even laugh. But Dana Gitell took things much further. A marketing professional, Gitell coined and trademarked the word “Thanksgivukkah,” launched Facebook and Twitter pages for the joint holiday, and partnered with Judaica retailer ModernTribe.com on a line of t-shirts and greeting cards to mark the occasion—one that, according to one analysis of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, won’t occur again for more than 75,000 years. “I felt like [Thanksgivukkah is] almost like a Woodstock-like event, we can tell our kids, ‘I was there, I lived through Thanksgivukkah. I remember that day, it will never happen again,’” Gitell told JNS.org.

Modi’in is a town mentioned in the Mishnah that was home to the Maccabees of Hanukkah fame, and where the oldest synagogue in Israel was discovered, but it is also the Jewish state’s largest planned community and bills itself as “The City of the Future.” Reconciling those two images of Modi’in is at the heart of a struggle that is playing itself out on the local, national, and international level, as archeologists and preservationists try to raise awareness of Modi’in’s rich Hanukkah-related history and preserve ancient sites, while most city and government officials prefer to focus resources on development of services for today’s residents.