By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
December 6 is the final day of Hanukkah in 2021. The eight-day “festival of lights” may be the best-known Jewish holiday to Gentiles, but it’s far from the only one. Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is the holiest day of the Jewish year.
Hanukkah—also spelled Chanukah—concludes on December 6. It is widely known that Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday near the end of the year according to the Gregorian calendar and involves the lighting of a menorah, but some of the other aspects of the holiday aren’t as widely taught to non-Jews, or Gentiles. For example, Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish victory over the Hellenistic Syrians, who forbade Jewish practices and tried to force Greek deities onto Jews.
What’s more, Hanukkah is erroneously thought of in the West as the most important Jewish holiday. Yom Kippur is a much better fit for that claim. In his video series Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know, Dr. Mark Berkson, Professor of Religion at Hamline University, explained both holidays and their significance.
Hanukkah and the Importance of Oil
Dr. Berkson pointed out that the theme of Hanukkah is for Jews to maintain their commitment to tradition and faith even in times that both are threatened by external and internal forces. One miraculous story, which explains many of the holiday’s contemporary practices, ties directly into this idea of perseverance.
“After the Jewish victories [over the Hellenistic Syrians], the Temple had to be rededicated, since it had been defiled by the Syrians,” Dr. Berkson said. “The rededication process required the menorah in the temple to burn every night, but there was only enough oil for one night, insufficient to last until a fresh supply of holy oil became available. However, the oil burned for eight days, which was enough time to get the new supply.”
This is why the main symbol of Hanukkah is an eight-branched menorah, or candelabrum, which has an elevated ninth branch which helps to light the other candles. One candle is lit for each night of Hanukkah, and the menorah is often placed in a window of the home so others can share in the celebration and remember the miracle of the holy oil.
“Because of the importance of oil, foods cooked and fried in oil—such as filled donuts—are traditionally eaten on Hanukkah,” Dr. Berkson said. “One popular Hanukkah food is the potato pancake, known as a latke, and latke-making skill is celebrated, especially among Ashkenazi families.”
Even the famous dreidel, the toy top that is spun in a children’s game, has a connection to the miracle story. Each side of the dreidel has a Hebrew letter which stands for a Hebrew word. Together they make “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” which means “A great miracle happened there.”
From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur
The “High Holy Days” are the most important period of the Jewish liturgical year. They begin with Rosh Hashanah. During the Rosh Hashanah service, a ram’s horn called a shofar is blown.
“The shofar is mentioned in the Bible, and it is said that the Israelites trembled when the sound of a shofar echoed from the thick cloud on Mt. Sinai,” Dr. Berkson said. “The shofar was blown to usher in holidays, and it is said that the shofar wakes up those who are sleeping and reminds people that they stand before God.”
Ten days later comes the final High Holy Day: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, Dr. Berkson said, Jews reflect on their deeds from the previous year, stand before God’s judgment, and commit themselves to righteous living in the coming year. It’s considered the holiest day of the Jewish year.
“The main purpose of this day is to atone for one’s transgressions, and Jews are expected not only to engage in introspection and ask forgiveness from God, but also to ask for forgiveness from those they may have wronged the previous year,” Dr. Berkson said.
“Yom Kippur is a day of fasting for observant Jews, and unless an exception is granted for medical reasons, all Jewish adults are required to abstain from food, drink, sexual relations, and wearing perfume or leather shoes during Yom Kippur.”
The dates for all three holidays vary on the familiar Gregorian calendar, instead falling on certain dates of the Jewish lunar calendar. So do other major Jewish holidays such as Sukkot and Passover.