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Cross-curricular resources: Hanukkah

The history of the Jewish festival can be a springboard for lively debate and fun activities, writes Clive Lawton

The history of the Jewish festival can be a springboard for lively debate and fun activities, writes Clive Lawton

  • Hanukkah, 20-28 December
    • Like Christmas, Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, has become increasingly popular. While Christians may feel the need for a winter festival to lift their spirits, more and more Jews seem to have embraced the alternative as a way to distract their children from the razzamatazz of Christmas.

      Observed for eight days and nights, Hanukkah can be held at any time between late November and late December. This year it begins on 20 December, outside the school year, but there are still many reasons to teach children about its importance in the Jewish calendar.

      In the 160s BCE, Israel was ruled by the Hellenistic Syrian Seleucid empire. In a clumsy and self-defeating move, the empire attempted to impose Hellenism (the culture of ancient Greece) on the Jews. The king banned circumcision and the observance of Shabbat (the day of rest) and introduced idolatrous worship into the Jerusalem Temple. This led to a revolt spearheaded by the Maccabees, a priestly family now known as the Hasmoneans, who eventually succeeded in gaining Jerusalem's independence.

      However, rabbis decided not to put the Books of Maccabees in the Bible, placing them in the Apocrypha instead. They also played down the military aspect of the revolt, focusing instead on the "miracle of the oil". This took place when the Jews who were rededicating and purifying the Temple found that most of the oil needed for lights had been profaned. There was only one day's supply, but, miraculously, it lasted for eight days.

      Hanukkah, which means "dedication", was the resulting celebration. It is marked by lighting a nine-branched candelabrum (pictured, left), known in Hebrew as the hanukia. One light is lit on the first night of Hannukah, another on the second night, and so on for eight nights. The ninth light, which has a higher or lower position, is the only one that can be used to light the others.

      The mitzvah (the commandment or requirement) of lighting the hanukia is the only mitzvah that must be performed visibly to the world. Traditionally, hanukia were placed outdoors or in the most prominent window of the home. In recent years, however, many town centres have placed a large one alongside the civic Christmas tree, which not only symbolises an insistence on religious equality, but is also an act of growing confidence on the part of Jewish communities.

      Hannukah has always been a time for gift-giving, though perhaps not on the same scale as Christmas. Many families, especially those with young children, present each other with small gifts as the lights are lit on each of the eight nights.

      But why should non-Jewish children learn about these traditions in school? Understanding what others do is always of value, but Hanukkah also presents engaging activities for children. Making your own hanukia is a satisfying craft lesson, and creating your own oil and wick lights and experimenting with different materials for wicks will teach children what burns steadily and what does not.

      A Hanukkah game features a little four-sided top called a dreidel, which is Yiddish for "spinner". Its four sides are labelled "put", "take", "half" and "nothing" (see picture, right). The initial letters for those four words in Hebrew stand for "A great miracle happened there". As the dreidel falls, each player is instructed to take from or contribute to whatever bounty is at the centre of the players - a little pot of sweets, for example.

      But Hanukkah is also a chance for pupils, particularly older ones, to explore its theme of freedom-fighting. You might want to discuss when it is right to take a stand. By teaching the history of the post-Alexandrian empire and the beauties of Hellenism, it is also possible to consider the challenges for those who chose to resist it and fought for the right to be different. The modern resonances are astounding. This kind of debate also creates a highly evocative picture of the land of Israel, still so heavily contested, with the Jews again feeling they must fight to keep its Jewish character.

      In addition, school activities for Armistice Day might be reflected on. The rabbis, for example, chose to consider this military victory as a God- given miracle. Wonderful work can be achieved with children, too, as they consider what they would give to their parents if they had to choose eight gifts, as Jews do during Hanukkah.

      Of course, you could then segue neatly into the later period of history, and what happened once the Romans turned up. A century and a half on, another story unfolds, demanding the attention of the world - and the RE classroom. It all happened in the same place. And it produced another religion.

      Clive Lawton is scholar-in-residence at the London Jewish Cultural Centre and was, until recently, chair of the Shap working party on education in world religions

      What else?

      For fun Hanukkah classroom activities, try resources from allenk, gboorman or janeyrobbo's presentation comparing different festivals of light.

      Find all links and resources at

      Original headline: Shine a light on Hanukkah

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