Hanukkah: Hanukkah for beginners

Hanukkah is approaching, and faced with your own minimal religious background, you just don't have a clue what to do. Or perhaps you aren't even Jewish, and you stare at the kids blankly when they ask, "What's Hanukkah, mommy?" Whatever your situation, or religious inclination, here's a quick lesson to get you up to speed on this special holiday.

When is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah starts on a different day each year.

Why does Hanukkah last for eight days?

To understand this, you'll need an abbreviated history lesson. In 164 B.C.E., Jerusalem was under Hellenistic control. All religions were forbidden, in favor of the Greek belief system. That is, until a priestly tribe called the Maccabees reclaimed Jerusalem and the holy temple. Unfortunately, by the time they reached the holy temple, they found it in ruins. And there was only enough oil to keep the light above the alter burning for one more day. The miracle is that the little bit of oil managed to burn for eight straight days, long enough for the Maccabees to prepare more sacred oil. As a result, Chanukah is called "the festival of lights" and serves as a reminder of the ancient Jews' struggle to keep their religion alive.

What is a menorah and how does it work?

A menorah is symbolic of the eight days of light. It holds nine candles -- one for each of the eight days of the celebration, and one, called the Shamash, to light the other candles. Each night, add a new candle moving toward the left, and light the candles from left to right. Always keep the Shamash burning when the other candles are lit. Let the candles burn for a minimum of a half hour. The following day, replace melted candles. All in all, you will need about 44 candles.

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