Purpose. When Israel came under Syrian-Greek rule in 175 BCE, the Jews were persecuted and ultimately forbidden to practice their ancient faith. This led to a revolt instigated by an aged priest, Mattathias who, with his sons and a poorly armed band of followers, attempted to overthrow the enemy. After years of fighting, the Jews were temporarily successful and drove out the enemy. Meantime Mattathias died and his son Judah carried on the struggle. He was known as "The Maccabean," from the initial letters on his banner of the motto Mi Chamochah Ba'elim A-donai - "Who is like you O God?"
The festival of Chanukah (Lit. "Dedication") thus marks both the defeat of the enemy and the rededication of the desecrated Temple.
Date. Chanukah is celebrated for eight days from the 25th Kislev.
Hanukkah - "Dedication." This name commemorates the rededication of the Temple.
The Hebrew name also incorporates a short history lesson, for it can be divided into two parts: Hanu - "they rested" and kah - "twenty five," recalling the day when the fighting ceased and the Temple was dedicated.
Hag Ha'urim - "The Festival of Lights." This name describes the main feature of the Festival, namely the lighting of an eight-branch candelabrum.
Lighting the Chanukah Menorah. The Chanukah menorah has 8 branches (in contrast to the one in the Temple that had 7 branches. Commencing on 25th Kislev, the Chanukah menorah (or Chanukiah) is kindled to proclaim the miracle of the Temple lights, when the cruse of oil containing only enough oil to light the Temple Candelabrum for one day, lasted for eight days. Starting with one light on the first night, an additional light is added on each of eight nights.
Publicizing the miracle. The lights are placed near a window or doorway in order to publicize the Chanukah miracle.
Ma'oz Zur - This popular hymn is sung after the candles are lit. The song recalls the miraculous defeat of Israel's enemies over the generations.
Chanukah Gelt - Chanukah Money. Chanukah Gelt is distributed to children after the candle lighting.
Dreidel - "Spinning top." While the lights are burning, it is customary for the children to play a "put and take" type game with a spinning top, called Dreidel. On the sides of the top are Hebrew letters that both indicate the rules of the game and offer a mnemonic of a Hebrew phrase indicating that "a great miracle happened here."
In the Synagogue
Lights are kindled in the synagogue as well as in the home. Extra prayers are recited. Psalm 30 with its theme of the deliverance of the House of God is an integral part of the festival service in the synagogue.