The first night of Chanukah, also transliterated as Hanukkah, begins on Sunday evening, November 28, with the lighting of an eight-branched candelabra called the menorah, or chanukiah, shortly after sunset. It continues for eight nights and days.
The holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, celebrates the military victory of the Maccabees, a group of Jewish religious zealots from the Hasmonean family, over the Seleucid Greek forces and Hellenized Jewish establishment that had persecuted the Jewish faith in Israel.
In his earlier conquest of the Mediterranean, Alexander the Great had allowed Jews religious liberty. But one of his successors, Antiochus IV, had suppressed Judaism and introduced pagan worship to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Under the leadership of Mattathias, the leader of a family of Kohanim, or priests, a small group of Jewish rebels, including Mattathias’s son, Judah, led a campaign against the much larger Greek military and succeeded in ousting it from the area.
Tradition holds that when the Maccabees returned to the Temple and attempted to rekindle the menorah there, they only found enough sacred oil to burn for one night. However, it burned, miraculously, for eight nights instead of just one.
Chanukah is therefore observed by lighting a menorah for eight nights. According to the Talmud, one candle or lamp is lit on the first night, two on the second, and so on up to eight, with one non-sacred light, the shamash, serving to kindle the others.
The tradition is to light the menorah in a public place. Except in times of religious persecution, when lighting a menorah might be dangerous, the menorah is to be placed in a window or a doorway so as to publicize knowledge of the miracle in the Temple.
Other holiday traditions include frying potato pancakes, or latkes, in olive oil; baking jelly donuts called sufganiyot; playing a game with a spinning top called a dreidel; and exchanging gifts, including money (gelt) or chocolate coins.
In the U.S., menorahs are often displayed on public property. The tradition of lighting a menorah at the White House dates back to President Jimmy Carter. President George W. Bush was the first to host a Chanukah party in the White House itself.
This year will mark a return to public Chanukah celebrations in much of the world, as the coronavirus pandemic begins to subside. However, on a more ominous note, Israel announced that it was closing its borders to tourists on the eve of the holidayas a precaution against the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which was first identified in Southern Africa. One person who had traveled to Malawi had arrived in Israel and tested positive for the new variant last week.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). He is the author of the recent e-book, Neither Free nor Fair: The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. His recent book, RED NOVEMBER, tells the story of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.