Dreidel and Hanukkiyah: Hanukkah Folklore

Friday Folklore_Advent

If I had bothered to double-check my calendar, I would have posted about Hanukkah last week before it began, as part of the “advent” spirit of preparation! But, no, I was so freaking excited about the Krampus movie that I didn’t check. sighs Apologies to any Jewish readers.

What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah latkes
Latkes, or potato pancakes, are a traditional Hanukkah food.

For those not in the know, Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah), or the Feast of Lights, is an eight day celebration to commemorate the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century B.C.

The Syrian-Greeks had conquered Israel and defiled the Temple by erecting altars to Zeus and sacrificing a pig. A small group of rebels, called the Maccabees, drove out the Syrian-Greeks and re-dedicated the temple. As part of the re-dedication, a menorah had to be lit that would burn all the time. However, the Jews only had enough pure olive oil to last one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days, allowing for a fresh supply to be found1.

The story of the Maccabees can be read in the First and Second Books of Maccabees, though these books are no longer contained in the Hebrew Scriptures2.

While the common term for the candelabra used during the celebration is “menorah”, the proper term is “hanukkiyah”. Menorahs are lit with oil, while hanukkiyah is a Hanukkah menorah used specifically for the Feast of Lights. The hanukkiyah has nine branches. One candle is the shammash, the servant candle, and is used to light the others. Each night, the shammash is lit and is used to light another of the candles until all nine are burning at the end of the eight days.

Dreidel, Dreidel

The dreidel
The dreidel

Even if you aren’t Jewish, you’ve heard of dreidels and that, somehow, they’re a part of the holiday. Originally, the dreidel and its accompanying game had absolutely nothing to do with Hanukkah. What is called dreidel today has roots in a game popular among the Irish and English during Christmas and was picked up by the Jewish populace.

Today,  it’s explained that the Hebrew letters on each of the sides of the dreidel represent the four kingdoms that tried to destroy Israel (Babylon, Madai, Greece, and Rome). Others have come up with more complicated explanations that point to the Messiah or that it was a secret way of passing on the Jewish faith during the Syian-Greek occupation. None of these explanations are actually true.

An example of this phenomenon in Christmas lore is the song Twelve Days of Christmas. According to one explanation of the odd imagery, the song is a secret catechism Catholics used during the time of Queen Elizabeth I, when it was illegal to practice or teach the Catholic faith. In reality, this explanation has only been around since the 1950s.

The article I’m referencing calls the dreidel a great irony because: “In order to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, we play the dreidel game, which is an excellent example of cultural assimilation! Of course, there is a world of difference between imitating non-Jewish games and worshiping idols, but the irony remains nonetheless.”3

The Vanishing Flame

The Hanukkiyah
The Hanukkiyah

The following is a story called “The Vanishing Flame”, as told by Yerachmiel Tilles. It may be true or it be a nice legend. At any rate, it’s a wonderful ending to a post on Hanukkah:

It was the first night of Chanukah. Outside a snowstorm raged, but inside it was tranquil and warm. The Rebbe, Rabbi Baruch of Mezhibuz, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, stood in front of the menorah, surrounded by a crowd of his Chassidim (a sect of Jewish mystics founded in Poland in 1750). He recited the blessings with great devotion, lit the single candle, placed the shammash (“servant candle”) in its designated place, and began to sing HaNairot Halalu. His face radiated holiness and joy; the awed Chassidim stared intently at him.

The flame of the candle was burning strongly. Rebbe and Chassidim sat nearby and sang Maoz Tsur and other Chanukah songs. All of a sudden, the candle began to flicker and leap wildly, even though there wasn’t the slightest breeze in the house. It was as if it were dancing. Or struggling. And then, it disappeared!

It didn’t blow out, there was no smoke, it just was not there anymore. It was as if it flew off somewhere else. The Rebbe himself seemed lost in thought. His attendant went over to re-light the wick, but the Rebbe waved him off.

He motioned to the Chassidim to continue singing. Several times, between tunes, the Rebbe spoke words of Torah. The evening passed delightfully, and the Chassidim present had all but forgotten about the disappearing Chanukah candle.

It was nearly midnight when the harsh sound of carriage wheels grating on the snow and ice exploded the tranquility. The door burst open and in came a Chassid who hailed from a distant village. His appearance was shocking. His clothes were ripped and filthy, and his face was puffy and bleeding. And yet, in stark contrast to his physical state, his eyes were sparkling and his features shone with joy.

He sat down at the table, and with all eyes upon him, began to speak excitedly. “This isn’t the first time I came to Mezhibuz by the forest route, and I know the way very well. But there was a terrible snow storm this week, which greatly slowed my advance. I began to worry that I wouldn’t get here in time to be with the Rebbe for the first night of Chanukah. The thought disturbed me so much, I decided not to wait out the storm, but to plod ahead and travel day and night, in the hope that I could reach my destination on time.

“That was a foolish idea, I must admit, but I didn’t realize that until too late. Last night, I ran into a gang of bandits, who were quite pleased to encounter me. They figured if I was out in this weather, at night, alone, I must be a wealthy merchant whose business could not brook delay. They demanded that I surrender to them all of my money.

“I tried to explain, I pleaded with them, but they absolutely refused to believe I had no money. They seized the reins of my horses and leapt on my wagon. They sat themselves on either side of me to keep me under close surveillance, and then drove me and my wagon off to meet their chief to decide my fate.

“While they waited for their chief to arrive, they questioned and cross-examined me in great detail, searched me and the wagon, and beat me, trying to elicit the secret of where I had hidden my money. I had nothing to tell them except the truth, and that they weren’t prepared to accept.

A synagogue in St. Petersburg, Russia
A synagogue in St. Petersburg, Russia

“After hours of this torture, they bound me and threw me, injured and exhausted, into a dark cellar. I was bleeding from the wounds they had inflicted, and my whole body ached in pain. I lay there until the evening, when the gang leader came to speak with me.

“I tried to the best of my ability to describe to him the great joy of being in the Rebbe’s presence, and how it was so important to me to get to the Rebbe by the start of the holiday that it was worth it to endanger myself by traveling at night.

“It seems that my words made an impression on him, or else he was persuaded by my adamancy even under torture. But whichever it was, thank G-d he released me from the handcuffs, saying:

“I sense that your faith in G-d is strong and your longing to be with your Rebbe is genuine and intense. Now we shall see if this is the truth. I am going to let you go, but you should know that the way is extremely dangerous. Even the most rugged people never venture into the heart of the forest alone, only in groups, and especially not in a storm and at night. You can leave and try your luck. And I am telling you, if you get through the forest and the other terrible conditions safely, unharmed by the ferocious wild beasts or anything else, then I will break up my gang and reform my ways.

“If you actually reach the outskirts of the city, then throw your handkerchief into the ditch next to the road, behind the signpost there. One of my men will be waiting, and that is how I will know that you made it.

“I then became terrified all over again. The hardships I had already endured were seared into my soul, and now even more frightening nightmares awaited me. But when I thought about how wonderful it is to be with the Rebbe at the menorah lighting, I shook off all my apprehensions and resolved not to delay another moment. My horse and carriage were returned to me and I set off on my way.

“There was total darkness all around. I could hear the cries of the forest animals, and they sounded close. I feared that I was surrounded by a pack of vicious wolves.

“I crouched down over my horse’s neck and spurred him on. He refused to move in the pitch blackness. I lashed him. He didn’t budge.

“I had no idea what to do. At that moment, a small light flickered in front of the carriage. The horse stepped eagerly towards it. The light advanced. The horse followed. All along the way, the wild animals fled from us, as if the tiny dancing flame was driving them away.

“We followed that flame all the way here. I kept my end of the bargain and threw my handkerchief at the designated place. Who knows? Perhaps those cruel bandits will change their ways, all in the merit of that little light.”

It was only then that the Chassidim noticed that the Rebbe’s Chanukah light had returned. There it was, burning in the elaborate menorah, its flame strong and pure as if it had just been lit.

1“8 Things You Should Know About Hanukkah”, Brynn Holland, http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/8-things-you-should-know-about-hanukkah

2“Why the Maccabees Aren’t in the Bible”, Rachael Turkienicz, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/omitting-the-maccabees/

3“The Surprising Origin of the Dreidel”, Rabbi David Golinkin, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-origin-of-the-dreidel/

Do you celebrate Hanukkah? What traditions do you have? Comment below!

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