What is Chanukah
Chanukah celebrates the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greek superpower in the second century BCE, during the time of the Second Holy Temple. The Greeks emphasized external beauty, and attempted to secularize the Jews by abolishing key the Jewish practices of circumcision, Shabbat, and Torah study – under penalty of death. Many Jews (called Hellenists) began to assimilate into Greek culture, decaying the foundation of Jewish life and practice.
The story of Chanukah is about this clash of cultures.
When the Greeks challenged the Jews to sacrifice a pig to a Greek god, a band courageous Jews took to the hills (near modern-day Modi’in) in open revolt against this threat to Jewish life. The Jewish priest Matitiyahu, and later his son Judah the Maccabee, led a guerrilla warfare against the Syrian-Greek army. After three years, against incredible odds, the Maccabees miraculously defeated the superpower of that time.
The Jewish warrior heroes recaptured the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, cleansed it of idols, and re-dedicated it on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Wanting to re-light the Menorah, they searched the entire Temple, but found only one jar of pure oil bearing the seal of the High Priest. That small jar of oil miraculously burned for eight days straight, until a new supply of oil could be brought.
To publicize this historic victory and the miracle of the oil, Jews today observe a “Festival of Lights” for eight days – lighting a menorah for eight nights.
A menorah is lit in every household, and also in the synagogue. In Ashkenazi tradition, each person lights his own menorah. Sefardi tradition has just one menorah per family.
To publicize which night of Chanukah it is, all eight candles on the menorah should be at the same height – and preferably in a straight line. Otherwise, the candles may not be easily distinguishable and may appear like a big torch.
In addition to the eight main lights, the menorah has an extra helper candle called the “Shamash.” Since the Shamash does not count as one of the eight regular lights, your menorah should have the Shamash set apart in some way – either placed higher than the other candles, or off to the side.
See some tips on menorah safety.
The candles must burn for at least 30 minutes after nightfall. (Those famous colored candles barely qualify.) Many Jewish bookstores sell longer colored candles.
Actually, it is preferable to light with olive oil, since the miracle of the Maccabees occurred with olive oil. Small glass cups containing oil can be placed in the candle holders of any standard menorah. You can also purchase a box of pre-measured oil in disposable cups.
See more detailed instructions for what type of menorah, oil and wicks.
To best publicize the miracle, the menorah is ideally lit outside the doorway of your house, on the left side when entering. (The mezuzah is on the right side; in this way we are “surrounded by mitzvot.”) If this is not practical, the menorah should be lit in a window facing the public thoroughfare.
One who lives on an upper floor should light in a window. If for some reason the menorah cannot be lit by a window, it may be lit inside the house on a table; this at least “publicizes the miracle” for the members of the household.
Since the mitzvah occurs at the actual moment of lighting, moving the menorah to a proper place after lighting does not fulfill the mitzvah.
See more detailed instructions for where to light the menorah.
The preferable time to light the menorah is at nightfall. It is best to light in the presence of many people, to “publicize the miracle” and add to the family atmosphere. The menorah can still be lit (with the blessings) late into the night, as long as people are still awake.
The menorah should remain lit for at least 30 minutes after nightfall. As we are forbidden to use the Chanukah lights for any purpose other than “viewing,” during those 30 minutes no use should be made of its light.
On Friday afternoon, the menorah should be lit 18 minutes before sundown. And since the menorah needs to burn for 30 minutes into the night, the candles used on Friday need to be bigger than the regular “colored candles” (which typically don’t burn longer than a half-hour).
See more detailed instructions for lighting on Friday afternoon, and special guidelines for travelers and guests.
See this simple, animated guide on how to light Hanukkah candles.
On the first night, place one candle at the far right, as you face the menorah. Another candle is placed for the Shamash (taller helper candle) which is used to light the others. It is not counted as one of the candles.
Step-1: Light the Shamash
Step-2: Recite the blessings
Step-3: Use the Shamash to light the Chanukah candle.
On the second night, place two candles in the two far-right positions –and use the Shamash to light them in order, from left to right. Follow this same procedure each night of Chanukah… until all the lights are kindled and glowing brightly!
Blessings on the Chanukah Candles
The first two blessings are said with the Shamash already lit, but immediately prior to lighting the Chanukah candles.
Baruch ata Ado-noi Elo-heinu melech ha-olam, Asher kid-shanu bi-mitzvo-sav, Vi-tzee-vanu li-had-leek ner shel Chanukah.
Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.
Baruch ata Ado-noi Elo-heinu melech ha-olam, Shi-asa nee-seem la-avo-seinu, Baya-meem ha-haim baz-man ha-zeh.
Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, Who made miracles for our forefathers, in those days at this season.
This blessing is said on the first night only.
Baruch ata Ado-noi Elo-heinu melech ha-olam, Sheh-he-che-yanu vi-kee-yimanu Vi-hee-gee-yanu laz-man ha-zeh.
Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
The following paragraph is said each night, after the first light has been kindled:
We kindle these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles which You performed for our forefathers in those days at this season through Your holy priests. During all eight days of Chanukah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, but only to look at them — in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name, for your miracles, Your wonders, and Your salvation.
Ha-nerot ha-lalu anach-nu mad-likin Al ha-nissim vi-al hanif-laot Al ha-tshu-ot vi-al ha-milchamot She-asita la’avo-teinu Ba-yamim ha-heim, ba-zman ha-zeh Al ye-dey kohan-echa haki-doshim.
Vi-chol shmonat ye-mey Chanukah Ha-nerot ha-lalu kodesh heim, Ve-ein lanu reshut li-heesh-tamesh ba-hem Ela leer-otam bilvad Kedai le-hodot u-li-hallel li-shimcha Al ni-secha vi-al niflo-techa vi-al yeshua-techa.