Chanukah for dummies: 5 facts about the Jewish holiday

A large Chanukah menorah stands in New York City. Billed as the World's Largest Chanukah Menorah, the steel frame stands on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street across from Central Park and will be lit each evening during to mark the Jewish holiday.
Chris Hondros

For those of you who aren't from New York or California, and don't exactly understand what happens during the eight days of Chanukah, here are five facts about the Jewish holiday.  

5. The Chanukah Menorah.   

The act of lighting a special, nine-branched candelabrum is one of the main rituals for Chanukah, but what most people don't know is that the correct name for the candleholder is Hanukkiah or Chanukah menorah.

A menorah has seven candleholders, and was the lamp used in the ancient holy temple in Jerusalem. A Hanukkiah, which is used during Chanukah, has nine candlesticks- one for each of the nights of Chanukah and an extra, called a shamash, to light the others. 

4. Israel Menorah Traditions.

In Israel, lighting the Chanukah menorah takes on a whole new tradition- one linked to the Olympics. Runners race a burning torch from the Israeli city of Modiin to Jerusalem. The entire race is about 20 miles, and at the end, the chief rabbi lights a giant menorah at the Western Wall. The tradition has been replicated in Jewish communities throughout the world.  

3. Chanukah vs Christmas.

Though Chanukah didn't become a popularized holiday until the late 1800s, its history predates that of Christmas. The word Chanukah means "dedication" and is a celebration of the Jewish Maccabees' victory over the Syrian army in Jersalem.  

The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple after the Maccabees fought against the Syrian King Antiochus, who had dedicated the temple to the worship of the Greek god Zeus.  

2. The Maccabees.  

The name Maccabee is an acronym for the verse, "Mi Chamocha Ba'eilim Hashem" (Exodus 15:11) which means "Who is like you amongst the supernal beings, O'Lord." 

The Maccabees were a small band of rebel fighters, led by Matisayu and his son Judah. They battled against the Greek/Syrian Empire, which was led by King Antiochus. 

1. The dreidel.

When the Greek/Assyrians controlled Israel, it was forbidden to learn the Torah. Children would meet up in secret to study, but if a Greek soldier found their study session, they would pull out their dreidels and pretend to gamble.