This week marks the start of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday commemorating the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV. Also referred to as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah recalls the event. According to the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.
Thus Hanukkah was born to commemorate these miracles. A nightly menorah lighting is at the heart of the festival: in addition to the Shamash, the ninth candle on top, on the first night, a single flame is lit, two on the second and so forth until night eight, when all flames are set alight.
Some typical customs of Hanukkah include eating foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (doughnuts), all fried in oil; spinning the dreidel, a four-sided spinning top; and exchanging gifts each night.
Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. The Jewish calendar is primarily based on the lunar cycle, and its dates fluctuate with respect to other calendar systems. Thus, the first day of Hanukkah can fall anywhere between November 28 and December 26.
The Library of Congress provides several wonderful resources on the holiday’s history. The Hebraic Section in the library’s African and Middle Eastern Division has long been recognized as one of the world’s foremost centers for the study of Hebrew and Yiddish materials. Established in 1914 as part of the Division of Semitica and Oriental Literature, it grew from Jacob H. Schiff’s 1912 gift of nearly 10,000 books and pamphlets from the private collection of a well-known bibliographer and bookseller Ephraim Deinard. The gift is commemorated with the exhibition, “Words Like Sapphires: 100 Years of Hebraica at the Library of Congress, 1912-2012.”
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 contains both personal recollections and examples of Yiddish folklore. Search the collection for “Jewish” to locate accounts of Jewish culture and traditions such as “A Genzil for the Holidays.”
The collection American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 features more than 70 unpublished Yiddish play-scripts. “Chanukah Party: A Drama in 4 Acts,” written in 1909 is one such play.
In commemoration of Jewish settlers’ emigration to the New World and their more than 350-year history in America, the library also presents the online exhibition “From Haven to Home,” which features more than 200 treasures of American Judaica from the collections and examines the Jewish experience in the United States through the prisms of “Haven” and “Home.”