The celebrations of the Jewish New Year's, Rosh Hashanah, until Yom Kippur 10 days later. Rosh Hashanah is considered to be the day God judges each individual on his or her deeds and from this makes a decree for the following year. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and Reconciliation, begins with fasting at sundown and continues until sundown of the following day. Considered the most holy day, it is observed as a business holiday for Jews.
These two days are the most important of all Jewish Holidays as they are purely religious and not related to any historical or natural event. The blowing of the Shofar (the ram's horn) marks the beginning and end of these celebrations, referred to as the High Holy Days.
As Chanukah coincides with Christian celebrations it is appropriate to wish co-workers, colleagues and counterparts "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas." Chanukah cards or generic Seasonal Greeting cards, without biblical or religious orientation, are well received.
Chanukah remembers the victory of a small Hebrew army led by the five Maccabee brothers (Judah, John, Simon, Eleazar and Jonathan) over the Syrian-Greek army of Antiochus Epophanes in 165 B.C.E.
The Talmud (Jewish oral law) relates that the small army stood firm in the face of overwhelming odds and was joined by others who refused to surrender their convictions and be dominated.
After the defeat, the first task was to reclaim the sacred temple and purify its sanctuary. While making preparations for the re-dedication ceremony no undefiled oil to light the lamps could be found. Eventually, in one of the Temple chambers, a small cruse of olive oil was discovered. Under normal circumstances this oil would have been sufficient for only one evening. Miraculously, the oil kept the Temple lights burning for eight nights, until new pure oil was obtained. It is this miracle that is commemorated by the kindling of the Chanukah lights.
A special form of the Menorah (candelabrum) is used on Chanukah. It has nine branches, one for each night of Chanukah and one branch used to light the others. Chanting of appropriate blessings and the singing of songs accompanies the kindling of lights. Each night a new candle is lit from the ninth light, the shamash (servant light) until all the candles are burning.
Chanukah is now a time that families celebrate an eight night festival with traditional foods such as sufganiyot (donuts) and latkes (potato pancakes) both being cooked in oil to remember the oil miracle. Small gifts (sometimes one each night) are exchanged as are gold-covered chocolate coins called gelt.
Families participate in the traditional game of dreidel a spinning top which has four Hebrew letters (Nun, Gimmel, Heh and Peh/Shin) carved or painted onto the sides. These letters represent "Ness Gadol Haya Sham" meaning "A Great Miracle Happened here." Outside of Israel the letter "peh" is often repaced by "Shin" making the meaning to read "A Great Miracle Happened There". The players deposit coins, nuts or similar items into a kupah (kitty). Eventually the spinning dreidel will fall on one of the letters which are interpreted as:
* Nun (no) - no win-no lose
* Gimmel (good) - take all from the kitty
* Heh (half) - take half of the kitty
* Peh/Shin (bad) - lose what you deposited
In a broader sense, however, the Chanukah light symbolizes the light of religious, national and cultural freedom won by the Maccabees for their people. It gave new force to the faith that had waned under the influence of Hellenism and Jewish culture began to flourish again. Also the Hebrew language, which had been supplanted by Greek, came into its own once more.