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Ignition of Hanukkiah, here already on the seventh evening: Bringing light into the darkness, moving closer together, giving warmth


Pond5 Images / IMAGO

A candelabra with eight or nine arms: it stands on windowsills and shelves in Jewish families. A large version can be found these days on Pariser Platz in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The chandelier in the heart of the capital is one of the most visible symbols of Judaism in Germany.

The candlestick in the Advent season is not just an annual ornament. It is lit up on the occasion of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. For eight days, it is celebrated by devout Jews all over the world.

This year, many may find it a special Hanukkah. Anti-Semitism in Germany is more palpable than it has been for years, and many Hanukkah celebrations are under increased police protection. For the first time, Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz will be coming to light the large candelabra at the Brandenburg Gate this Thursday.

In light of the Hamas terror attacks, the new war and pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Germany as well, the message of the festival seems all the more important: to bring light into the darkness, to move closer together and to provide warmth.

What happens on Hanukkah

Hanukkah means "initiation" – the festival commemorates the rededication of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Temple is an important sanctuary for Jews, called Bet HaMikdash in Hebrew. The fact that it was rebuilt after its destruction is still celebrated by devout Jews today.

The Jewish King David made Jerusalem the capital around a thousand BC, and shortly afterwards the first temple was built. About 400 years later, the Babylonians destroyed it, and a second temple was not built until 164 BC. Apostate Jews had meanwhile worshipped Zeus in the building. With the dedication of the Second Temple, Jewish Temple service was reintroduced.

70 years after Christ, the Romans had the building torn down, and the second temple was also destroyed. All that remained was the western outer wall in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City. As the Wailing Wall, it is now considered an important sanctuary and place of pilgrimage in Judaism. Behind the wall, on the site of the former temple, Muslims have now built the Dome of the Rock. The ongoing dispute over the site, which is important for both religions, is one of the reasons for the conflict between Jews and Muslims.

This year, Hanukkah will be celebrated from the evening of December 7 to the evening of December 15, 2023. Thursday evening is considered the eve of the actual eight-day festival. The day is called Erev Hanukkah. Basically, the Festival of Lights always takes place during the Advent season, but not on a fixed date such as Christmas. This is because the Jewish calendar is calculated differently than the Gregorian calendar.

The most important act on Hanukkah is the lighting of the candles every evening, with another one added every night. The light is meant to commemorate the rededication of the temple. There stood the so-called menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum: the menorah is an important symbol in Judaism. It shall never be extinguished and is filled with consecrated oil.

Latkes and Dreidel

When the temple was recaptured, legend has it that there was only one day's worth of oil left. It took eight days to make something new. Miraculously, it is said, the menorah burned through for eight days – until the new consecrated oil was made. This eight-day miracle is commemorated at Hanukkah – and the menorah was given an arm. This particular menorah is called Hanukkiah.

Hanukkiah has either eight or nine arms. The arms stand for the eight days, the ninth arm is the "candle holder" – in it is the candle with which one illuminates the others. Jewish families come together every evening and light another candle until all eight burn in the end. The Hanukkiah light is always lit right after dark, after which songs are sung.

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Homemade latkes as a classic Hanukkah meal: the main thing is baked in oil

Photo: Matthew Mead/ AP

Hanukkah is considered a rather private celebration in the circle of the family - in its homeliness it is not dissimilar to Christmas. Every evening, families gather with friends, and there are often gifts and sweets for the children. Important, and this is also very similar to Christmas, is the food: There are latkes, potato pancakes, or sufganiya, doughnuts. The main thing is that the food is baked in oil.

Another custom is the dreidel: this is a small spinning top with Hebrew letters. Children use it to "poker" for sweets during Hanukkah.