The Hanukkah Story

Over two thousand years ago the Jewish people lived in Israel, which was then called Judea. In Judea was the city of Jerusalem where the Jews’ holy temple had been built. Jewish people from all over went to the temple to worship. They often brought gifts to God.

At that time, Antiochus the Fourth, King of Syria, ruled over many small countries, including Judea. Although he collected taxes from the Jews he desired the gifts offered at the temple. But when Antiochus’ soldiers arrived at the temple the High Priest would not allow them to enter. As a result Antiochus forced the Jews to take Greek names, read Greek books, and play Greek sports. He also replaced the high priest with one of his own friends, Menelaus. Through Menelaus, Antiochus began to rob the temple of its gold, gifts, and other treasures.

The Jews managed to force Menelaus out of the temple and regain it for a while. However when Antiochus found out he sent his soldiers to Judea. His army tore down much of the city walls, burned Jewish homes, and sold many Jews into slavery. He placed a statue of Zeus in the temple. He also declared that the Jews could not celebrate the Sabbath or study the Torah.

Antiochus’ soldiers went through out all of Jerusalem forcing Jews to worship statues of Syrian gods. But when the soldiers arrived in the small village of Modi’in a Jewish man named Mattathias refused to worship the Syrian statue. Mattathias, his sons, and many of the people of Modi’in attacked the soldiers. They managed to win and escape into the hills.

Antiochus sent his army after Mattathias and his followers. But the Jews fought fiercely and ran surprise attacks on the Syrians. When Mattathias died his son Judah lead the Jews. As their new leader he was nicknamed the Maccabee, or "hammer", and his followers came to be known as the Maccabees. After many battles the Maccabees won.

When the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem they found the temple in ruins. They smashed the remaining Syrian statues and began to rebuild the temple. As they rebuilt the temple they searched for pure oil to relight the ner tamid, the "light that always burned." They found only one jar of oil, enough to burn for one day. They used this oil to light the ner tamid, but rather than burning for just one day the ner tamid stayed lit for 8 days, enough time to obtain more oil.

On the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in 164 to 175 B.C.E., the temple was rededicated to God. The Jews celebrated for 8 days and Judah declared that an 8 day holiday called Hanukkah, or "dedication," would be celebrated each year beginning on this day.

Hanukkah Traditions

During Hanukkah Jewish families celebrate the rededication of their temple. They light candles on a Menorah, a candle holder which holds 9 candles. Eight of the candles are for the eight days that the oil burned in the ner tamid. The ninth candle, called the Shamash, is used to light the other eight candles. After lighting the day's candles they recite prayers or sing songs to celebrate.

Latkes, or potato pancakes, are fried in oil and eaten to remind the Jews of the oil that burned in the ner tamid. The latkes are often served with warm applesauce.

A dreidel, or small four sided top, is used to play a game. On each side of the top is one Hebrew letter. These letters, Nun, Gimel, Hay, and Shin are the first letters in the sentence, "A great miracle happened there," or "Nes gadol hayah sham." In order for the Jews to teach their children Hebrew when Antiochus outlawed it, the Jewish people sometimes disguised Hebrew lessons in the forms of children’s games and toys.

Gifts are sometimes given to children. Often the gifts are Hanukkah gelt, or money, which can then be used when playing with the dreidel.

The Dreidel Game

To play this game one dreidel is used for two or more players. Each player begins with some coins, nuts, or other tokens. Every person then contributes one token to the center.

The first player spins the dreidel following the rule associated with the Hebrew letter which shows on top when the dreidel stops spinning. The second player then takes a turn, and so on. When all the tokens are gone from the center the person with the most tokens wins.

The rules associated with each letter are as follows:

Crafts for Hanukkah

A Gelt Cup

You will need:

Cut the construction paper to fit around the cup you are using. Use the markers, paper scraps, glitter, and glue to decorate the paper. Draw the Hebrew letters written on a dreidel, pictures of a menorah, gelt, or several Stars of David for decorations.

Next glue or tape the paper around the cup. Once the glue has dried, use the hole punch to make two holes near the top on opposite sides of the cup. Hook one end of the pipe cleaner in a hole and bend it to make a handle hooking it into the other hole.

If you are using individual yogurt cups, cut a piece of paper to fit the cup lid and decorate it also. Create one gelt cup for each player. Use the gelt cups to hold your tokens when you play the dreidel game.

Hanukkah Story Board

You will need:

Glue the large felt or flannel piece to one side of the corrugated cardboard. Make sure it is glued on smoothly, then set it to the side to dry.

Using the markers or crayons draw figures of the main characters and objects in the Hanukkah story. You will be cutting these figures out so do not draw any scenery. Make each figure about 3" x 6" in size. Consider drawing Antiochus, Syrian soldiers (1 or more), Menelaus, the Syrian stature, Mattathius, Judah, 1 or more Maccabee soldiers, and the ner tamid. Other figures to include are a bottle of oil, Jewish men, women, and children, temple doors, and gifts for the temple.

After you have drawn and colored all the figures carefully cut each one out. Turn the figures over and glue felt scraps to the back of each one. A scrap is most important at the top of each figure, but scraps in the middle and at the bottom will help hold them securely to the board. Allow the glue to dry thoroughly.

Once the glue is dry, lean the felt board against a chair, wall, or other object. On the first day of Hanukkah place the figures you have made on the board to show the first part of the story. Each day of Hanukkah rearrange the pieces, adding or taking away characters as needed. Leave your board where everyone can view the story.

These pieces are also fun to use to play with a friend.

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Related Subjects

To learn about two other important celebrations in the Jewish religion check out our Passover and Rosh Hashanah pages.

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