Back to top

4. Hanukkah: the Festival of Lights

The Festival of Lights, also known as the “Feast of Dedication,” is called Hanukkah (literally “inauguration” in Hebrew).

Hanoukkah : la fête des Lumières
Laurence Salzmann, Hanoukkah, Radauti Roumanie.jpg

Laurence Salzmann (Philadelphie, 1944), Hanoukkah, Radauti, Roumanie, 1974-1976

It commemorates the historic victory of the Maccabbean Revolt against the Seleucid dynasty, the Hellenistic rulers of Syria and Palestine, in 165 BC. Mattathias the Hasmonean and his sons led the Jewish revolt against King Antiochus IV Epiphanes after he desecrated the Temple of Jerusalem. Victorious, they rebuilt an altar, a large candelabrum and several pieces of sacred furniture. The re-establishment of Jewish worship was celebrated with great festivity.

The celebration instituted by the rabbis of the Talmud begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. Tradition has it that in the Temple Judah the Hasmonean found only one phial of unprofaned oil to light the lamps of the candelabrum. Miraculously, this oil burned for eight days, long enough for more oil to be produced.

For eight days, at nightfall, Jews light the eight lights of the Hanukkah lamp, adding a light each day. The lamp has to be placed by a window to be seen by all. Since the Middle Ages, Hanukkah has become a very popular festival with its traditional entertainments such as spinning tops and playing cards and, in the western world, the custom of giving gifts to children.

Lampe de reconsécration algérie ou tunisie.jpg

Lampe de la Reconsécration du temple (hanoukkiyyah), Algérie ou Tunisie, XIXe-XXe siècle

Although Hanukkah lamps are extraordinarily varied in form, they all have eight lights and often a ninth, called the “helper” or “servant” (shammash) used to light them. For those who could afford an expensive material, the ancient Roman type, a flat oil lamp with separate compartments, and the terracotta lamp with several spouts, were superseded in the Middle Ages by small bronze lamps with a triangular back, , intended to be hung on a wall. This type of lamp became the norm throughout Europe and North Africa, decorated with flowers, biblical scenes, mythological figures, architectural motifs.

From the 16th century, most lamps were affixed on the bank with legs, and the candelabrum form, more suitable for the synagogue and the use of candles, developed.   

Although we are more familiar with often elaborately decorated lamps made from durable materials (silver, copper, bronze), these belonged only to the wealthy. Modest or poor Jewish families made and used much more rudimentary and ephemeral vessels (terracotta, dried clay, hollowed stones and even vegetables), creating a particularly imaginative form of folk art.