For millions of Jews all around the world, the message of Hanukkah is a message of light, both literally and figuratively.
"Hanukkah reminds us that a little light can defeat an empire of darkness, human goodness can defy terror and brute force, and life and spiritual vitality can overcome destruction," said Rabbi Benny Zippel, director of Chad Lubavitch of Utah.
The eight days of Hanukkah (also appropriately spelled "Chanukah") begin Tuesday, Dec. 20 and continues through Dec. 28. The annual Festival of Lights, as Hanukkah is often called, will be officially observed tonight at Utah's Governor's Mansion, where Rabbi Zippel and Gov. Gary R. Herbert will participate in a ceremonial Menorah lighting ceremony.
The Menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum, figures prominently in the history and tradition of Hanukkah. According to Rabbi Zippel, the Hanukkah Menorah is based on the seven-branched Menorah that was at one time a significant element of daily service in the Holy Temple at Jerusalem. When the Greek army occupied Jerusalem 2,100 years ago, "the Syrian Greeks desecrated and defiled the oils prepared for the lighting of the Menorah … rendering them unfit for use," Rabbi Zippel said.
When a "militarily weak but spiritual strong " army of Jews, known as the "Maccabees," defeated the Greeks and the Jews reclaimed the temple and their right to worship freely and openly, they found one lone jar of undefiled oil – enough to keep the temple Menorah lit for only one day.
"Miraculously, that one small cruse of oil lasted for eight days until new, pure olive oil could be produced," Rabbi Zippel said. "Ever since, in commemoration of this event, the Jewish people have celebrated Hanukkah for eight days by lighting an eight-branched Menorah (there is also a place on the candelabra for a "helper candle," which is used to help light the other candles of the Menorah)."
Using the helper candle, one candle is lit on the first day of Hanukkah, two on the second, three on the third and so on until the eighth day of Hanukkah, when all of the candles burn brightly.
Rabbi Zippel said that the Hanukkah Menorah is traditionally placed on a windowsill or on a doorpost facing the outside in order to share the light of Hanukkah with all who can see. In that way, Hanukkah is the most publicly oriented of Jewish holy days even though it is not a Biblical holiday, like Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur. The Passover Seder is conducted privately at home. At Rosh Hashanah, the shofar is sounded within the walls of the synagogue. But the Hanukkah Menorah is to be publicly displayed according to a concept called "pirsumei nissa," or "publicizing the miracle."
"The Hanukkah holiday serves as a symbol and message of the triumph of freedom over oppression, of spirit over matter, of light over darkness," Rabbi Zippel said. "Especially in America, founded to vigorously protect the right of every person to practice his or her religion free from restraint and persecution, the Menorah takes on profound significance, embodying both religious and constitutional principles."
In addition to the tradition of the Menorah, there are other Hanukkah traditions that are observed to one degree or another by Jews all around the world. Because of the central role that oil played in the tradition, it is customary to eat foods that are fried in oil: latkes, or friend potato pancakes, and doughnuts are among the most commonly used. It is also customary to give gifts of money to children, and for children to play with the dreidel, or four-sided spinning top, with writing on the four sides that says, "a great miracle happened there."
In addition to the usual Hanukkah traditions, Rabbi Zippel is adding a new tradition for Utah Jews: ice-skating. On Thursday, Dec. 22, Chabad Lubavitch is presenting "Hanukkah on Ice," which will feature free skating at the Gallivan Center, on 200 South between Main and State streets in downtown Salt Lake City. The event will feature live Jewish music, latkes, jelly doughnuts and dreidels. At 6:15, participants will help light Utah's largest Menorah.
"The Menorah candelabra helps to make the holiday's universal message of religious freedom tangibly accessible to thousands of residents throughout the state of Utah," Rabbi Zippel said. "It is a symbol of our community's dedication to preserve and encourage the right and liberty of all its citizens to worship God freely, openly and with pride."
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