Hanukkah begins at sundown on Dec. 16 and ends the evening of Dec. 24. Flickr
On Tuesday evening, Jews will light their menorahs for the first night of Hanukkah. Also known as the Festival of Lights, the Jewish holiday begins at sundown on Dec. 16 and ends the evening of Dec. 24. The eight-day holiday celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C., when Jews led by the Maccabees revolted against their Greek-Syrian oppressors.
Each night of the eight-day holiday is marked by giving gifts, eating latkes and lighting a candelabra, or menorah. While Hanukkah may be one of the best-known Jewish holidays, it’s not the most important, nor does it bear much religious significance. In fact, the Hanukkah story isn’t mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It’s described in the Book of Maccabees, which is omitted from the Old Testament.
In the United States and other Western nations, however, Hanukkah becomes a “Jewish Christmas” of sorts. According to a 2010 study, “The importance of Hanukkah among American Jews is driven by its proximity (in the time dimension) to Christmas,” Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav and Oren Rigbi wrote in the study published in the Economic Journal. “Many American Jews use Hanukkah as a way to provide their children with an exciting alternative.”
But in Israel, “it’s a holiday, but it’s not so special,” Einav told the Washington Post in a 2011 interview. Schools are let out during the holiday and there are tons of festivals and concerts, but holiday shopping isn’t the main focus.
For those not familiar with the Festival of Lights, below are five answers to common questions surrounding the popular Jewish holiday:
What’s the Hanukkah story?
The Hanukkah story celebrates two events. The first describes how a small army of Jews, led by the Maccabee brothers, defeated the Seleucid Greco-Syrian Empire in Jerusalem. At the time, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the Jewish religion, desecrated the Second Temple and made Jews sacrifice pigs — a non-kosher animal — on its altar.
After the Maccabees defeated the Greeks, they rededicated the Second Temple. To do so, they needed to light the menorah — a candelabra inside the temple that was part of daily Temple service — each night. The Maccabees were able to do so with a small drop of oil that lasted for eight nights. The event is considered a miracle since it gave the Maccabees enough time to find a fresh batch of oil.