By Linda Specht, director of Shenker Academy

Hanukkah—the 8-day festival of light—begins this year on Dec. 16.

As the celebration of two miracles, Hanukkah honors the second century victory of the Maccabees, a small Jewish army who prevailed over the Greek army that occupied the Holy Land and was persecuting the Jews’ religious beliefs. Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the Jewish religion before his soldiers killed thousands in Jerusalem and desecrated the city’s Second Temple by sacrificing pigs, a non-kosher species, within its walls.

When the Maccabees liberated the Jewish Temple from the hands of the Greek invaders, they found only a small bit of pure, undefiled olive oil fit for fueling the Temple menorah(the eternal light), enough for one day. It would take eight days to produce new pure oil, though, under the conditions of ritual purity. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days and nights, and the menorah never went out.

The holiday also symbolizes that the small army, against all odds beat the mighty Greek army and religious freedom. Each year, Hanukkah celebrates the Temple rededication on the 25th day of the Jewish month Kislev.

The festival of Hanukah includes the nightly menorah lighting, starting with one flame then working up to eight throughout the festival. The menorah holds nine candles, with the center one used for lighting the others. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right of the menorah and lit while three blessings are recited. Each subsequent night another candle is added from right to left and lit from left to right. On the eighth night all nine candles are lit. On every night after the first, only two blessings are recited during the candle lighting.

Other Hanukkah customs include eating foods fried in oil such as latkes, or potato pancakes, and doughnuts to remind us of the miracle of the oil. Children play with dreidels, spinning tops that are inscribed with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, “a great miracle happened there.” The letters also stand for nit, gantz, halb and shtell, or nothing, all, half and put, which allow you to actually play dreidel. The gambling game requires everyone to put in one coin, then the dreidel is spun and the spinner either takes the whole pot, does nothing, takes half or puts another in coin, depending on what side the dreidel lands.

It is said that this custom originated from the fact that the people would be studying the Bible in homes, which they were not allowed to do, and people would be playing games outside to distract the Greeks.

The custom during the festival of light is to give Hanukkah gelt, or money, which would probably have been donated. The root of the word Hanukkah is actually Hinuch, which means educate. Winning the battle and being able to go back to the Temple to continue studying the Torah (Bible), is the blueprint for how we should live our lives.

Contrary to popular belief, Hanukkah isn’t a very important religious holiday. No, other Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Passover and Yom Kippur outweigh Hanukkah in terms of religious importance, but the latter is probably the most well-known, perhaps because of its closeness to Christmas on the Gregorian calendar.

In Southern Nevada, community groups and city organizations often hold menorah lighting ceremonies to herald the Hanukkah celebrations.