I love Chanukkah. While it is not a major holiday on the Jewish calendar, it is one that holds a special place in the hearts of many Jews…including myself. Chanukkah, like Pesach (Passover) is one of those holidays that “marks” a Jewish home. Yet unlike Pesach, Chanukkah has no restrictions on work (except for the first 30 minutes after lighting Chanukkah lights). However, there is still a “right” way to celebrate Chanukkah; and no, playing with dreidels is not all there is to it.
For those who are mindful of Jewish law, the following points need to be kept in mind when observing Chanukkah:
The menorah (or chanukiyyah). Although there are many artistic and fancy versions of chanukkah menorahs out there, a kosher menorah must have all of its lights on the same level, with the shamash higher than the rest. You should light the menorah after nightfall, and it should burn for a couple of hours at least (you can freeze your candles to make them burn slower).
Oil, not candles. Since the miracle of Chanukkah occurred on the oil, it is preferable to use an oil menorah as opposed to a candle-holding menorah (although, I know that the candle-holding type are much more prevalent in the stores — but you can buy inexpensive oil menorahs online). Now the first year I brought my oil menorah (I had used a candle-holding one before that), I poured olive oil into cups and threaded my own wicks. It was messy and also a royal pain. However someone told me about the Ner Lights, which are basically sealed vials of olive oil and wicks…which you set into the menorah and then break the tops off to expose the wick tip and then burn (of course). You can see them in action in the picture. I love them…and I believe they are the best route to go with if you want to use an oil menorah.
Placement. The entire point of the menorah is to publicize the miracle of Chanukkah. This means, the menorah should be positioned so that it can be seen by the public. In Israel, people set their Chanukkah menorahs out on their doorstep (in a glass box to protect the flames from the wind). But we diaspora Jews are a bit more protective. We have ours inside…but they still must be easily viewed by people on the outside.
Food. Fried foods cooked in oil are customary during Chanukkah. While its far from being healthy, a small latke and jelly doughnut won’t hurt most people. It is also customary to eat dairy because Yehudis made King Holofernes eat salty cheese, which made him thirsty for liquor, which then made him drunk and enabled her to kill him. I love dairy foods, so while I didn’t have any blintzes this year, we did get a cheesecake and my Grandmother’s lemon cheese squares 🙂 .
Praising G-d. Jews are also obligated to praise G-d on Chanukkah, by adding special supplications and hymns to our Sabbath service (since it is an 8-day holiday, there will always be a Sabbath that occurs during Chanukkah) and our daily prayers. Some of these extra recitings include Hallel, Al HaNisim, and Maoz Tzur.
That’s it really. Playing dreidel and handing out gelt and gifts are customary. Its a highly individual thing to balance how much of the ‘secular holiday season’ you want to take part in as well. In our case, we went to both of our families to celebrate their holiday (Christmas), but only “did” Chanukkah at home.