Hanukkah Exotica: On the Origin and Development of Some Hanukkah Customs*

In memory of Ro’i Shukrun
a Maccabbee of our time
who was killed in action
in Lebanon on 25 Av 5757

Most of the laws of Hanukkah are related to the lighting of the menorah or hanukkiya  (In the Diaspora, the Hanukkah lamp is called a menorah; in Israel it’s called a hannukiya. Technically speaking, the menorah is the seven branched candelabrum which was used in the Tabernacle and in the Temple in ancient times (Exodus 37:17-24; Numbers 8:1-4) and should not be used to describe a Hanukkah lamp). and are described in detail in the tractate of Shabbat and in the standard codes of Jewish law (Bavli Shabbat 21b-23b; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Megillah and Hanukkah 3-4; Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 670-684. For various articles related to the Hanukkah candles and lamps, see Sperber, Volume 5). In this article we shall describe some of the customs of Hanukkah. The main difference between laws and customs is that laws stem from rabbinic interpretations of the Torah and Talmud which then filter down to the Jewish people, while customs usually start with the people and filter up to the rabbis. Through customs, the Jewish people have shown their love for God and tradition and immeasurably enriched all aspects of Jewish observance (Regarding customs, see EJ, Vol. 12, cols. 4-26 and Menachem Elon, Jewish Law: History, Sources and Principles, Volume II, Philadelphia and Jerusalem, 1994, pp. 880-944).

We shall begin with one well-known Hanukkah custom and then proceed to describe four lesser-known customs. In each case we shall try to trace the origin of the custom and some of its permutations throughout Jewish history.

I) The Dreidl ( This section is based on Israel Abrahams in Emily Solis-Cohen, ed., Hanukkah: The Feast of Lights, Philadelphia, 1937, pp. 105-106; Rivkind, pp. 49-54; Sefer Hamo’adim, pp. 225-226; Akiva Ben Ezra, Minhagey Hagim, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 5723, pp. 138-139; Sidney Hoenig in Philip Goodman, ed., The Hanukkah Anthology, Philadelphia, 1976, pp. 265-266; and Uri Sela, Yediot Aharonot, 27 Heshvan 5748).

The dreidl or sevivon is perhaps the most famous custom associated with Hanukkah. Indeed, various rabbis have tried to find an integral connection between the dreidl and the Hanukkah story. The standard explanation is that the letters ,’נ’ג’ה’ש which appear on the driedl in the Diaspora, stand for “נס גדול היה שם”  “a great miracle happened there”. In Israel the dreidl says ,’נ’ג’ה’פ  which means “a great miracle happened here”. One nineteenth-century rabbi went one step further; he maintained that Jews played with the dreidl in order to fool the Greeks if they were caught studying Torah which had been outlawed ( Rabbi Azriel Selig Krelinstein as quoted by R. Yitzhak Wendrovsky, Minhagey Bet Ya’akov, second edition, New York, 5671, pp. 139-140, which is quoted in turn by R. Avraham E. Hirschowitz, Otzar Kol Minhagey Yeshurun, second edition, Lwow, 5690, pp. 50-51).

Others figured out elaborate gematriot  (A gematria is an explanation based on the fact that every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, so if word x = 100 and word y = 100 this can become the basis for a homiletical explanation connecting the two words. Regarding gematria, see EJ, Vol. 7, cols. 369-374 and the literature cited there; Shmuel Sambursky, Tarbitz 45 (5736), pp. 268-271; and Itamar Greenwald in Moshe Bar-Asher, ed., Sefer Hayovel L’mordekhai Breuer, Jerusalem, 5752, pp. 823-832). and word plays for the letters ‘נ’ג’ה’ש. For example, ‘נ’ג’ה’ש in gematria is 358, which is also the numerical equivalent of משיח or Messiah! ‘נ’ג’ה’ש is also the gematria equivalent of the sentence “God is king, God was king, and God will be king”! (This sentence is found in the Torah service on Shabbat and Festivals). Finally, the letters ‘נ’ג’ה’ש are supposed to represent the four kingdoms which tried to destroy us: N = Nebuchadnetzar = Babylon; H = Haman = Madai; G = Gog = Greece; and S = Seir = Rome.

As a matter of fact, all of these elaborate explanations were invented after the fact. The dreidl game originally had nothing to do with Hanukkah; it has been played by various people in various languages for many centuries. The permutations of the dreidl game are outlined in the chart which follows (Regarding these different games, see note 4 above; The Oxford English Dictionary, Vol XI, Oxford, 1933, p. 143 s.v. Teetotum and p. 180 s.v. Totum; Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island, (first published in 1883), Chapter 33; Le Grand Robert de la Langue Francaise, 12th edition, Vol IX, Paris, 1992, p. 369, s.v. Toton; Tresor de la Langue Francaise, Vol. 16, Paris, 1994, pp. 367-368, s.v. Toton).:

CountryName of the GameTake AllTake HalfPut in MoreDo Nothing
England, Ireland
ca. 1500
(in Latin)
England 1801T-totumT=TakeH=HalfP=Put downN=Nothing
France 1611TotonT=TotonA=AccipeD=DaR=Rien
Sardinia, ItalyTutteT=TutteM=MesuP=PoneN=Nuda
GermanyTorrel, TrundelG=GanzH=HalbS=Stell einN=Nichts
Hebrew or YiddishDreidlGג=GadolHה=HayaShש=Sham

Furthermore, even among the Jews, this game has been called many different names. The Jews of medieval France and Italy seemed to have called this game – which was apparently not connected to Hanukkah – תם וחצי = whole and half; תם וחסר = whole and missing; or תם וכס = whole and half (See above, note 4. For thirteenth century Italy, see Shibboley Haleket Hashalem, ed. Buber, Vilna, 5647, p. 94, which is also quoted in Sefer Ha’agur Hashalem, ed. Hirschler, Jerusalem, 5720, p. 90).In German, the spinning top was called a torrel or trundl and in Yiddish it was called a dreidl, a fargl, a varfl [= something thrown], shtel ein [= put in], and gor, gorin [= all]. When Hebrew was revived as a spoken language, the dreidl was called ,גלגלן, חזרזר, כרכר גלגלון and סביבון, and the latter name is the one that caught on.

Thus the dreidl game represents an irony of Jewish history. In order to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, we play the dreidl game – which is an excellent example of cultural assimilation! Of course, there is a world of difference between immitating non-Jewish games and worshipping idols, but the irony remains nonetheless.

II) Katovess (For the sources and etymology of this word, see my Hebrew article in Sinai 106 (5750), pp. 175-183; H. Guggenheimer, ibid., 108 (5751), pp. 175-176; Berakhah Fischler, Leshoneinu La’am 44 (Tevet-Adar 5753), pp. 88-92).

The custom of Hanukkah katovess is first attributed to Rabbi Israel Isserlein (Austria, 1390-1460), after which the word is used frequently in Hebrew and Yiddish until the twentieth century. Unfortunately, neither the etymology nor the pronunciation of the word are clear and suggested etymologies run from Greek to Russian to Polish to French to German to Anglo-Saxon! (See my article, pp. 179-183). But the meaning of the word is clear; Hanukkah katovess were word games and riddles which were especially popular at the festive meals of Hanukkah and they were frequently connected to the Hanukkah candles. The following examples are taken from Leket Yosher, in which R. Yosef (Yozl) Ben Moshe of Hoechstaedt describes the customs of his beloved teacher, R. Israel Isserlein: (Leket Yosher, ed. J. Freimann, Berlin, 5663, section Orah Hayyim, p. 153).

A) “Remove my cloak (בגד) from me, then you will find my number.” Yozl (יוזל) in gematria is 53; בגד in gematria is 9. If you remove 9 from 53 you get 44, which is the number of candles needed for the eight nights of Hanukkah including the shamash!

B) “If the servant falls you must attend to him; but if the master falls, no one comes to set him up.” This riddle refers to the laws of the Hanukkah candles. If the shamash or “servant” goes out, you must relight it. This is because you are not allowed to derive benefit from the Hanukkah candles, so if you inadvertently use the light, you are, so to speak, using the shamash. But if the “master” or Hanukkah candle goes out you don’t have to relight it because once you lit it, you have fulfilled the mitzvah (See Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 673:1-2).

C) “ושר שמריה יהי רם שרשו” was written by Shmerel or Shmaryah. It means “Shmaryah sang, may his root (or origin) be elevated”, which sounds like nonsense. But Shmerel was really quite clever, since this katovess is a palindrome which reads the same in both directions!

D) The last katovess we shall quote was written once again by Yosef of Hoechstaedt:

“טבת יוסף לעד, גם אץ זן הרש כחק” which means “You treated Joseph well forever, he also quickly fed the poor according to law”. This katovess not only describes the activities of Joseph in Egypt and hints at the name of its author, but manages to use every letter of the Hebrew alphabet once!

Hanukkah katovess are no longer in vogue, but it would be good to revive this beautiful custom which flourished in Germany and Eastern Europe for at least four hundred years ( In 1820, an anonymous author published a Hebrew booklet in Breslau called Hanukkah Ktoviss V’gam Miley Div’dihuta which contains thirty katovess for Hanukkah. A copy of this extremely rare pamphlet can be found in the Rare Book Room of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America).

III) Card-Playing on Hanukkah (This section is based on Yitzhak Rivkind, Hadoar 5/7 (1 Tevet 5686), pp. 101-102 and 5/9 (22 Tevet 5686), pp. 133-134; Rivkind, pp. 48-49; Sefer Hamo’adim, pp. 229-230; and Akiva Ben Ezra (above, note 4), pp. 136-138. The sources quoted use the Hebrew root שחק which can mean gambling or cardplaying. Since some of the sources explicitly mention cards, we have consistently translated שחק as cardplaying).

The Ashkenazi custom of playing cards on Hanukkah is first mentioned as a permitted activity in the responsa of R. Jacob Weil (d. before 1456) (Responsa of R. Ya’akov Weil, Jerusalem, 5748, No. 135).The custom book Leket Yosher mentioned above reports that R. Israel Isserlein (1390-1460) was opposed to the custom because the children used to play cards by the light of the Hanukkah candles and it is forbidden to derive benefit from the Hanukkah candles, as explained above (See notes 12 and 12a above). Rabbi Israel Bruna (1400-1480), on the other hand, relates that the community “made a takkanah [= communal ordinance] not to play cards except on days when tahanun is not said, (Tahanun, a prayer of supplication, is not recited on Shabbat, festivals, Hanukkah, Purim and other holidays). and on Hanukkah and the like it is permissible to play cards” (Responsa Mohari[=R. Israel] Mibruna, Stettin, 1860, No. 136).

The custom book of R. Yuzpe Shamess (1604-1678) describes the customs of his native Worms in great detail from 1648 until shortly before his death. He relates that in 1638 Rabbi Benjamin Hacohen (d.1645) forbade card-playing during the year, but allowed it during Hanukkah. His successor, R. Meshulam Eliezer Zussman, however, imposed a “large fine” against men and women who played cards together on Hanukkah ( It is not clear if he objected to playing cards or to the mingling of the sexes or to both! Minhagim dk”k Wermaiza L’rabi Yuzpe Shamesh, second edition, Jerusalem, 1992, pp. 238-239).

Rabbi Yair Hayyim Bachrach (1638-1702) of Worms describes the efforts of his father Rabbi Moshe Shimshon Bachrach (1607-1670) to abolish card-playing on Hanukkah:

And it annoyed my pious father that the miraculous days [of Hanukkah] which were established to thank and praise God should be designated for card-playing and frivolity. And he tried to forbid it and move it to the eight days of their festival [=between Christmas and New Year] which would not entail cancelling commercial transactions because people stay at home [in any case], but he did not succeed because they would not agree to change the custom (Responsa Havot Yair, Jerusalem, 5757, No. 126. It is worth noting with regard to Rabbi Bachrach’s suggestion, that Jews in Eastern Europe used to play cards and avoid learning Torah on Christmas eve, which they called nitl nacht. That term is a corruption of the “night of Natali” Domini [= the birth of the Lord]. See Rivkind, p. 54; Sperber, Vol. 3, pp. 93-95 and Vol. 4, pp. 329-330; Marc Shapiro, The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, Vol. 8 (1999), pp. 319-353).

Indeed, R. Yosef Yuzpe Kashman Segal of Frankfurt reports in 1718 that “in all the communities they decreed not to play cards all year long except for Hanukkah and Purim when they allowed it” (Noheg Katzon Yosef, second edition, Tel Aviv, 5729, p. 188, par. 12).

Rabbi Moshe Shimshon Bachrach was not the only rabbi opposed to card-playing on Hanukkah. Rabbi Yehiel Mikhal Epstein (1829-1908) of Navarodok, Russia vented his spleen against this custom in the Arukh Hashulhan (Orah Hayyim 670:9), which is now one of the standard codes of Jewish law: “But those who play cards [on Hanukkah] their punishment is great, and due to our many sins this leprosy has spread among the house of Israel!”.

An almost contemporaneous account of card-playing on Hanukkah can be found in Herman Leder’s Yiddish memoir Reisher Yidn, which describes the Jews of Reishe (Rzeszow) in Galicia ca. 1900:

We were far removed from mischief and foolishness. We did not devote ourselves to such things, not even to idle talk, except for Hanukkah when we stopped learning for several hours a day and played cards or watched as others played. I was one of the latter because I never had any money, and without money, one cannot play cards. So I stood around and kibbitzed. Frequently, the one I was standing next to, and at whose cards I was looking, lost every round. Suddenly, he woke up, so to speak, from his sleep, turned around to me, and said in a loud voice: “Get away from here you jinx! You are unlucky! I am losing because of you!” So I immediately went away; after that, not one of the players wanted me to stand near him (Herman Leder, Reisher Yidn, Washington, D.C., 1953, p. 186. The translation is my own. For similar Eastern European stories from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Sholom Aleichem as quoted by David and Diane Roskies, The Shtetl Book, New York, 1975, pp. 224-227 and Murray Stadtmauer, My Father’s Century, New York, 1999, pp. 8-9).

Finally, a word must be said about the cards themselves. In Yiddish, they were called kvitlech [= little notes] or klein shass [= a small Talmud (sic!)] or tilliml [= a small book of Psalms (sic!)] or lamed alefniks [= 31ers]. The latter name stemmed from the fact that the deck had 31 cards, one for each of the 31 kings of Canaan mentioned in Joshua, Chapter 12. These cards were usually hand-painted by the teacher or the children in heder and the card game played was very similar to black jack ( For the rules of “Lamed Alef”, see Sefer Hamo’adim, pp. 229-231. For pictures of the cards, see Rivkind, p. 43 and Roskies (above, note 22), p. 225).

IV) Cheese on Hanukkah  ( For a recent article on this topic, see Simons. The conclusions presented below were reached long before that article appeared).

In his glosses to the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 670:2), Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Cracow, 1525-1572) relates:

It is customary to recite songs and praises [to God] at the festive meals which are common [on Hanukkah] and then the meal becomes a mitzvah meal. Some say that one should eat cheese on Hanukkah because the miracle occured through milk which Judith fed the enemy (Kol Bo and R”an).

Indeed, that is what the Kol Bo and R”an say. The R”an is R. Nissim Gerondi (Spain, ca. 1310-1375). In his commentary to Rabbi Yitzhak Alfassi (the Rif) on Shabbat 23a (catchword שאף) he says that “it says in a midrash that the daughter of Yohanan [the High Priest] fed the enemy leader cheese to get him drunk and cut off his head and they all fled, and therefore it is customary to eat cheese on Hanukkah”.

The Kol Bo, which is an anonymous halakhic work written in Provence in the early fourteenth century, has a slightly different version of the story. It says that the daughter of Yohanan the High Priest fed the Greek King “a cheese dish in order that he become thirsty and drink a lot and get drunk and lie down and fall asleep”. That is what transpired; she then cut off his head and brought it to Jerusalem and when his army saw that their hero had died, they fled “and that is why it is the custom to cook a cheese dish on Hanukkah” ( Kol Bo, ed. Lemberg, 5620, parag. 44, fol. 3c, which is also found in the related work Orhot Hayyim by R. Aaron Hacohen of Lunel, Florence, 1750, Laws of Hanukkah, parag. 12, fol 118a).

The question, of course, is where did the Ran and Kol Bo find this story? It sounds a lot like the story of Judith and Holifernes as found in the Apocryphal Book of Judith. Indeed, cheese is mentioned in some ancient versions of Judith 10:5, which list the foods that Judith took with her when she left the besieged city to visit Holifernes (See Yehoshua Grintz, Sefer Yehudit, Jerusalem, 5717, p. 148, end of note 5 and Simons, p. 58). Nevertheless, Judith 12:17-20, which describes the way in which Judith got Holifernes to go sleep, says explicitly that Judith gave him wine to drink and not a cheese dish! In any case, the Book of Judith seems to have been written in Hebrew but has only reached us in Greek translation and was unknown to medieval Jews. They knew the story of Judith from medieval Hebrew sagas called “The Story of Judith” and the like. Some eighteen versions of the medieval story have been published until now and they can be divided into four types (Grintz, Sefer Yehudit, pp. 196-208, 212 discusses twelve versions of the medieval story, which he divides into four types. Additional versions were published by Israel Adler in Charles Berlin, ed., Studies… in Honor of Dr. I. Edward Kiev, New York, 1971, Hebrew section, pp. 1-8; A. M. Haberman, Hadashim Gam Yeshanim, Jerusalem, 1975, pp. 45, 56, 60, 72; and David Shulevitz, Genuzot, 1 (5744), pp. 165-168). Most of those versions, like the Book of Judith itself, say that Judith gave Holifernes wine to drink, but two of the versions do indeed mention milk or cheese.

Ma’aseh Yehudit, which was first published in Sefer Hemdat Yamim, Livorno, 1763, says that Judith “opened the milk flask and drank and also gave the king to drink, and he rejoiced with her greatly and he drank very much wine, more than he had drunk in his entire life” (This midrash was reprinted by A. Jellinek, Bet Hamidrash, Part 2, Leipzig, 5613, p. 19 and by J. D. Eisenstein, Otzar Midrashim, Vol. 1, New York, 5675, p. 207. Simons, p. 60 copied from Sefer Hemdat Yamim, but does not mention the more accessible Jellinek and Eisenstein editions). In other words, according to this version of the story, Judith gave Holifernes both milk and wine. It is clear that the author was influenced by the Story of Yael and Sisera in the Book of Judges, because the phrase in italics was borrowed from Judges 4:19.

Megillat Yehudit published by Haberman from an Oxford manuscript relates that Judith after fasting asked her maidservant to make her two levivot [= pancakes or fried cakes]. The servant made the levivot very salty and added slices of cheese. Judith fed Holifernes the levivot and the slices of cheese “and he drank [wine] and his heart became very merry and he got drunk and he uncovered himself within his tent and he lay down and fell asleep” ( Haberman (note 27, above), p. 45, which is copied from Ms. Oxford 2746. Simons, p. 60 copied this passage from Ms. Oxford, but seems unaware that it had been published by Haberman).

Finally, the milk and cheese version of the Judith story is mentioned in a Hebrew poem for Hanukkah published by R. Naftali Hacohen in 1757:

…It is mitzvah to eat and rejoice,
eating cheese – one cannot force.
It is customary to remember, not to forget,
The story of Judith who did it on purpose,
To feed him milk to make him sleep (R. Naftali Katz, Sha’ar Naftali, Bruna, 5517, p. 36 quoted by Sefer Hamo’adim, p. 282 and Simons, p. 64. For aharonim (later authorities) who mention this custom, see Simons, pp. 62-64).

V) The Scroll of Antiochus  (There is a vast literature regarding this scroll. See EJ, Vol. 14, cols. 1045-1047 and the literature cited there; the critical edition of the Aramaic text published by M. Z. Kaddari in Bar Ilan 1 (5723), pp. 81-105; the Hebrew and English versions in Philip Birnbaum, ed., Daily Prayer Book, New York, 1949, pp. 781-794; Fried; and Sperber, Volume 5, pp. 102-120, which includes a bibliography).

There is one custom which we would expect to find on Hanukkah which is missing – the reading of a scroll in public. After all, on Purim we read the Scroll of Esther every year in order to publicize the miracle. Why don’t we read a scroll on Hanukkah in order to publicize the miracles which God wrought for our ancestors in the days of Matityahu and his sons? The result is that most Jews only know the legend about the miracle of the cruse of oil (Shabbat 21b) and not about the actual military victories of the Maccabees.

The answer is that, in truth, there is such a scroll which was read in private or in public between the ninth and twentieth centuries. It is called “The Scroll of Antiochus” and many other names and it was written in Aramaic during the Talmudic period and subsequently translated into Hebrew, Arabic and other languages. The book describes the Maccabean victories on the basis of a few stories from the Books of the Maccabees and Shabbat 21b with the addition of a number of legends without any historic basis whatsoever. The scroll is first mentioned by Halakhot Gedolot, which was written by Shimon Kayara in Babylon ca. 825 c.e.: “The elders of Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel wrote Megillat Bet Hashmonay [=the scroll of the Hasmonean House]…” (Halakhot Gedolot, ed. Venice, 5308 [=Warsaw, 5635], fol. 141d). Rav Sa’adia Gaon (882-942) calls it “kitab benei hashmonay”, the book of the sons of the Hasmoneans, and he also translated it into Arabic (Rav Sa’adia Gaon, Sefer Hagaluy, quoted by Fried, p.109, note 68. For Sa’adia’s preface to his Arabic translation, see PAAJR 14 (1944), pp. 1-23). Rav Nissim Gaon (North Africa, 990-1062) calls it in Arabic “the scroll of the sons of the Hasmoneans” (R. Nissim Ga’on, Hibbur Yafeh Meihayeshu’a, ed. H. Z. Hirschberg, Jerusalem, 5714, pp. 2-3).

Furthermore, we know that this scroll was read in public at different times and places. Rabbi Isaiah of Trani (Italy, ca. 1200-1260) says that “in a place where they are accustomed to read Megillat Antiochus [=The Scroll of Antiochus] on Hanukkah, it is not proper to recite the blessings [for reading a scroll] because it is not required at all” ( Tosfot R”id to Sukkah 44b, catchword havit, Lemberg, 5629, fol. 31b).

In Mahzor Kaffa, which was published in the Crimea in 1735, the Scroll of Antiochus is printed in Hebrew and preceeded by the following instructions: “It is customary to read Megillat Antiochus during minhah [=the afternoon service on Shabbat] after kaddish titkabbel [=the reader’s kaddish] in order to publicize the miracle [of Hanukkah]…” ( Quoted by Fried, p. 114).

Rabbi Yahya ben Yosef Zalih, who was the leading rabbi in San’a, Yemen ca. 1715, says “that some read Megillat Antiochus on Shabbat [of Hanukkah] after the haftarah. This is not required; it is only a general mitzvah to publicize the miracle among the Jewish people” (Tiklal Etz Hayyim, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 5722, fol. 163a). But Rabbi Amram Zabban of G’ardaya in the Sahara Dessert viewed this reading as a requirement. In his Sefer Hasdey Avot published in 1926, he states:

Megillat Antiochus according to the custom of the holy city of G’ardaya, may God protect her. The cantor should read it in public in the synagogue after the Torah reading on the Shabbat during Hanukkah. And he reads it in Arabic translation so that the entire congregation should understand [in order to] publicize the miracle which was done to our holy ancestors, may their merit protect us…translated from the Hebrew from Siddur Bet Oved of R. Yehudah Shmuel Ashkenazi [Livorno, 1853] (Quoted by Fried, pp. 114-115).

This is a fascinating passage. Rabbi Zabban translated Megillat Antiouchus from Hebrew into Arabic in 1926 so that the entire congregation would understand it. He seems unaware that Arabic translations already existed. He also presents this custom as a required activity, despite the fact that he seems to have made it up! Perhaps he had heard that this was an accepted custom in other communities and wished to imitate them.

The Jews of Kurdistan, on the other hand, used to read the Scroll of Antiochus at home during Hanukkah (Erich Brauer, Yehudey Kurdistan, Jerusalem, 5708, p. 273). Rabbi Yosef Kafah (1917-2000) reports that his grandfather Rabbi Yihye Kafah (1850-1932) used to teach it to his pupils in Yemen in the Aramaic original along with the Arabic translation of Rav Sa’adya Gaon ( R. Yosef Kafah, Halikhot Teiman, third edition, Jerusalem, 1982, p. 38).

It would seem that there is no point in reviving the specific custom of reading the Scroll of Antiochus in public, because that work is legendary in nature and not a reliable source for the events of Hanukkah. But we do possess such a source for those events — the First Book of Maccabees, which was written in Hebrew in the Land of Israel by an eyewitness to the events described therein (EJ, Vol 11, cols. 656-658). Therefore, we should thank Rabbi Arthur Chiel who published the First Book of Maccabees, Chapters 1-4 as a separate booklet over twenty years ago under the title “The Scroll of Hanukkah” (Rabbi Arthur Chiel, Megillat Hanukkah, New York, 1980, 61 pp).It is intended for reading in public or in private during the holiday. We should adopt this beautiful custom and begin to read those chapters in public every year on the Shabbat of Hanukkah after the haftarah. By so doing, we will be reviving the custom of reading a “scroll” on Hanukkah but, more importantly, we will thereby disseminate the oldest surviving account of the “miracles and triumphs” which God performed for the Jewish People “in those days at this season”.

* * *

There are many other Hanukkah customs worth investigating, (Such as latkes, sufganiyot, Hanukkah gelt, hanerot hallalu, ma’oz tzur, hanukkiyah designs, lighting candles in the synagogue, Psalm 30 as a special psalm for the day, and more). but these examples will suffice to show how the Jewish people have enriched and enhanced the Festival of Lights.


* This article appeared in Conservative Judaism 53/2 (Winter 2001), pp. 41-50. An abbreviated version appeared in Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre, eds., A Different Light, 2000, pp. 177-182. The dreidl chart is taken from the latter version.


EJ = Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem, 1972

Fried = Natan Fried, Sinai 64 (5729), pp. 97-140

Rivkind = Yitzhak Rivkind, Der Kampf Kegn Azartshpielen bei Yidn, New York, 1946

Sefer Hamo’adim = Yom Tov Levinsky, ed., Sefer Hamo’adim, Volume 5, Tel Aviv, 5714

Simons = Hayyim Simons, Sinai 115 (5755), pp. 57-68

Sperber = Daniel Sperber, Minhagey Yisrael, Vols.1-6, Jerusalem, 1989-1998

Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at: golinklin@schechter.ac.il. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *