Hanukkah begins tonight, and we are recognizing these next eight days and nights with works from a series by Michael Hafftka. As the son of two Jewish Holocaust survivors, Hafftka’s art reflects his resulting experiences and feelings. His work is centered on explorations of his faith and relationship with God, while also dealing with human suffering, and how faith can be maintained in its wake. The works are typically figurative, done in a hurried and spontaneous style with either oil or watercolor. This particular series features works based on the Hebrew alphabet, and we chose one image for each day of Hanukkah to represent a special aspect of the holiday.
Chet (ח) is for Hanukkah (חנוכה).
Hanukkah is the Jewish festival of Lights. Although it is actually a minor
holiday, Hanukkah has gained the most widespread familiarity among non-Jewish people. The holiday lasts for eight days and nights, and commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt against the Greek Seleucid Empire in the second century CE. It is celebrated yearly according to the Hebrew calendar, falling anywhere between late November and late December on the Gregorian calendar.
Mem (מ) is for Maccabee (מכבי).
The Maccabees were a group of Jewish rebels who refused to worship the Greek gods as mandated by their Seleucid rulers. Through guerilla tactics, the Maccabees were able to gain victory over the Seleucid army and retake Jerusalem. The timely death of the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV stalled a second campaign against the Maccabees, who were able to capitalize on the situation and negotiate for their religious freedom. It is this struggle for religious freedom, rather than the military victory, that is central to the celebration of Hanukkah.
Shin (ש) is for Oil (שמן).
Oil is a central part of the Hanukkah celebration. According to Talmud, after the Maccabees retook Jerusalem and rededicated the temple to the Jewish faith, they needed to light the menorah at the altar. Unfortunately, the Greeks had defiled almost all of the ritual oil in the temple before they left. Only one jar with an unbroken seal remained- enough for one night- yet the menorah continued to burn for 8 nights, allowing enough time to create more ritually pure oil. This miracle was taken as a favorable sign from God, and this is why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights.
Lamed (ל) is for Latke (לביבה).
Latkes are a type of potato pancake typically made during Hanukkah. Along with donuts, Latkes are eaten because they are cooked in oil- a nod to the miracle of the oil at the heart of Hanukkah celebrations.
Nun (נ) is for Candle (נר).
Candles play an important role during Hanukkah. Their light is both symbolic of the light of God, as well as a reminder of the miracle of the oil. The candles are placed in a special candelabra called a hanukkiah (menorahs are different, and while they are a symbol of the Jeiwsh faith, they are not specifically Hanukkah related), which holds nine candles- eight for each night of Hanukkah, and one for a special candle called the shamash, which means “helper” or “servant” in Hebrew and is used to light the others. It must be set on a different level than the other eight candles in order for the hanukkiah to be kosher. Each night, one candle is added from right to left, but they are lit from left to right. The hanukkiah is often placed in a central doorway of the home, or in the windowsill, in order to share the joy of the celebrants’ faith.
Bet (ב) is for blessing (ברכה).
The recitation of blessings is an important aspect of the Jewish faith, and it is a key part of the Hanukkah celebration. Before each candle is lit, different blessings are recited to praise God and demonstrate the faithful’s sense of dutiful obligation. They express wonder at how blessed God is. During Hanukkah, blessings are usually sung together by family and friends gathered around the hanukkiah.
Tzadik (צ) is for Charity (צדקה).
Charity is an important tenant of the Jewish faith. Called “tzadeqah,” giving aid to those in need is considered a duty of all faithful Jews. During Hanukkah, small gifts of money called “gelt” are exchanged, often given to children as a reward for studying the Torah well. This gave rise to the popular chocolate coins, which are also often used in playing dreidel games. The origin of gelt is tied to the Jewish concept of tzadeqah; money was given to the poor who could not afford to buy candles, giving them a way to join the Hanukkah celebrations without feeling any shame.
Samech (ס) is for Dreidel (סביבון).
Dreidels are a type of spinning top used to play a special game during the Hanukkah season. A dreidel has four sides, each with a Hebrew letter written on the surface. These letters are Shin (ש), Hey (ה), Gimmel (ג), and Nun (נ) and together, form an acronym for the phrase, “a great miracle occurred there” in Hebrew- referring to the miracle of the oil in Jerusalem that Hanukkah is based around.
The rules are simple: Any amount of players can play. Each starts with an equal amount of money, candy, toys, or any other unit. If playing with money, players are encouraged to donate all or part of the winnings to tzadeqah (charity). All the players add one piece to the pot at the start of each round, and every time the pot is emptied. Players take turns spinning the top and taking an action that corresponds to whatever letter the dreidel lands on. Nun is for “nisht” (nothing)- the player takes no action. Gimmel is for “gantz” (everything)- the player takes the pot. Hey is for “halb” (half)- the player takes half the pot. Shin is for “shtel” (put in)- the player adds a unit to the pot. The game is finished when one player has everything.