The Wood River Jewish Community is celebrating the eight-day “Festival of Lights” this week with a combined Shabbat Hanukkah service on Friday, Dec. 23 at 6 p.m. at the Community building at 471 Leadville Ave. in Ketchum.
“The holiday of Hanukkah intentionally comes at a dark time of year,” said local Rabbi Cantor Robbi Sherwin. “Faiths that came before Judaism also celebrated the winter solstice, hoping to bring light into a dark world.”
Hanukkah always starts on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, but because the Hebrew calendar is based on a lunar calendar, the standard “English” date changes every year. This year, the eighth candle of Hanukkah will be lit on Dec. 26. The Chanukiyah, or Hanukkah menorah, represents the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Sherwin said Hanukkah, which began this year on Dec. 18, is based on the story of the Maccabees, a band of Jewish rebels who refused to abdicate their faith for that of King Antiochus and the Assyrian Greeks.
“Hanukkah, which means ‘dedication,’ recalls the story of those who fought for freedom to worship in their own way, and against assimilation,” Sherwin said. “In 70 CE, the Assyrian Greeks had destroyed the holy Temple in Jerusalem, built by King Solomon, which was the seat of government, commerce and faith for the region. The Maccabees cleaned up and rededicated the Holy Temple, lighting the eternal lamp that burns steadily, representing God’s eternal presence.”
Sherwin said the legend of a small jar of oil lasting eight days, although it was just a one-day supply, came about 300 years later, as the rabbinic sages did not want to celebrate a holy day that only commemorated a military victory.
“We celebrate by lighting one new candle each night in a specific menorah or chanukiyah, with special blessings and songs, until there are 8 bright lights, along with a helper candle, to dispel the darkness,” Sherwin said. “We also eat foods cooked in oil. Potato pancakes, or latkes, are popular, along with sufganiyot—jelly donuts, an Israeli treat.”
Sherwin said families celebrate Hannukah in their homes by singing songs, playing games with the dreidel, a spinning top, and enjoying family and friends.
“Some families also give gifts, but that is a distinctly American custom,” she said. “The immigrant Jews that survived the Holocaust and came to the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s felt left out by the customs of Christmas and started giving gifts at Hanukkah as well.”
Sherwin said giving to charity and working on Christmas so Christian neighbors and friends can have the day off with their families is also an important American custom.
“Wishing everyone a ‘hag urim samayach!’ a happy holiday of light” Sherwin said. ￼
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