Jewish Customs of Hanukkah

Project 366 - 363/366 Happy HanukkahJewish tradition sought to embellish these days of celebration. It is the practice to have festive meals for the eight days, and in addition to Latkes, jelly doughnuts fried in oil became popular. (Both symbolize the miracle of the oil.)

Other popular sources of joy are the Hanukkah gifts and Hanukkah gelt (money.) The major ritual ceremony of the holiday is the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah. The eight days are marked by prayers of thanksgiving, special songs of praise (for the miracles and redemption), the Shmoneh Esrei (the central silent prayer) three times a day, and grace after meals.

Lighting the Candles

Some Jews light one candle the first night and add one additional light every subsequent night. Others Jews start with all eight candles lit and decrease one every night.
Since the object of the lighting is to publicize the miracle, the candles are usually placed near windows: to remind others of the holiday and the redemption. It is customary to light the candles right after sundown. After the destruction of the temple the menorah became the most important Jewish pictorial motif: what had been a holy implement became the symbol of Judaism.

The main prophetic reading of Hanukkah is the prophecy of Zechariah, which ends, “…Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6).


A Hallel is a song of praise celebrating God’s mighty acts on behalf of His Chosen People, the nation of Israel. The complete text of the song is contained in Psalms 115 through 118. The complete HALLEL is recited in the morning service throughout the eight days of Chanukah.

Al Hanisim

The prayer of “Al Hanisim,” in which we give thanks to God for all the miracles of Chanukah, is recited in the Shmone Esrei (Amidah) as well as in the Birkat Hamazon (grace after meal) each day of Chanukah.

Reading the Torah

The Torah is read each day of Chanukah, specifically, the story of the dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert and the special gifts donated by the leaders of each of the twelve tribes of Israel in connection with the dedication. This Torah portion is read on Chanukah because the Tabernacle was completed on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the same day in which the miracle of Chanukah took place close to one thousand years later.

Spinning the Dreidel

Those who would like to quickly part with their gelt play the game of Dreidel (spinning top). On the Dreidel are Hebrew letters Nune, Gimel, Shin, and Hay. On the surface, those letters stand for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – A great miracle happened there” Each player puts the same amount of something— nuts, raisins, pennies, or chocolate coins in the middle, which is called “the pot”. Play proceeds clockwise around the circle of players. Each player takes a turn spinning the Dreidel. Whatever the Dreidel lands on decides what you are to do.

  • HAY: you get half of the pot.
  • GIMEL: you get ALL of the pot.
  • NUNE: you get nothing.
  • SHIN: you must put 1 (nut, or raising, or penny, etc.) in the pot.

Whoever has the most in the end wins! The Rabbis are opposed to gambling games and it became customary to give any Dreidel money to charity.

Learn More About Hanukkah

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