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Understanding Hanukkah: Why It’s Important

By Darren Poley

Photo by RDNE Stock project from Pexels:

To inhabit the Augustinian values of Veritas, Unitas and Caritas, let us take a moment to understand a few basic symbols associated with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

While the Bronze-Age hexagram or six-pointed star formed by two equilateral triangles, commonly called the Star of David, alternatively the Shield of David or Seal of Solomon, became in modern times the major sign for Judaism, the seven-branched candelabrum called a menorah was for centuries the symbol Jews identified with because of its association with the Tabernacle built by the ancient Israelites and eventually the Temple in Jerusalem. Hanukkah, The Festival of Lights, is today the holiday with which the menorah is affiliated the most, and there is a very good reason why.

Hanukkah means dedication and was first celebrated when the Jerusalem Temple was purified. A new altar was dedicated after the victory at the end of a three-year battle in the second century B.C. It was fought between the forces of the oppressive Syrian-Greek King Antiochus IV and the Israelites, who were led by a Jewish Priest and his five sons, collectively called the Maccabees, and who in turn were the progenitors of the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled ancient Judaea until near the end of the first century B.C. With the altar the Maccabees also reinstated the presence of the seven-branched menorah, which is simply the Hebrew word for lamp.

One legend about this first Hanukkah was that most of the lamp oil in the Temple had been defiled and there was only enough for one day and yet it kept burning on the menorah in the Hasmonean Temple for the eight-day dedication celebration. Burning lights having a long-time significance for the Jews since it was fire from heaven which appeared at the dedication of the altar in the days of Moses and at the sanctification of the first Temple in the time of King Solomon.

Jews the world over light an hanukkiah, which holds nine candles, one called the shammash or helper candle, which is used to light the other eight. One is lit on each night of the celebration, so on the eighth day all the lighted candles are ablaze. It is traditional for families to gather and for several blessings to be recited for the ritual lighting of the Hanukkah menorah. Because of the association of oil with the holiday, foods fried in oil such as potato pancakes called latkes or deep-fried doughnuts are also often eaten during Hanukkah.

Another major symbol for Hanukkah is the dreidel. Games have long been a feature of festive holidays in Judaism, and playing a bargaining game of chance using a spinning four-sided top marked with Hebrew letters called a dreidel is the one most recognized. In the game, players ante up and the letter on the side of the top which lands up determines winnings. It was a popular form of actual gambling during the Middle Ages but is now more often a children’s game using chocolate coins covered in gold foil called gelt, a Yiddish word for money with a root-word meaning of payment or reward.

Many popular stories that have been passed down through the generations about the dreidel grew up around it. One, is that the Hebrew letters, as the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed. explains “Nun, Gimmel, He, Shin (standing for Yiddish words Nimm, Gib, Halb, Shtell meaning take, give, half, and put)” were later “interpreted as standing for the Hebrew Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (‘a great miracle happened there’)” (p. 372). Another tale is that dreidels were used to fool the agents of tyrants who suppressed the learning of the Scriptures and Talmud. If a study group was being watched they would produce a dreidel to show that they were just gathered for fun and games. One story is that the coins used in the game are in recognition of the new coinage minted by the Hasmonean rulers after they overthrew the Greek Syrians.

The holiday is especially relevant this year. On October 11, a few days after the initial “horrific acts of violence in Israel and Gaza,” University President Father Peter Donohue, OSA, PhD, wrote this in his message to the Villanova Community:

“As these troubling incidents like these continue to occur, I find myself leaning on our Augustinian values. VERITAS – May wisdom prevail and allow everyone to see the value and worth of human life. UNITAS – As a community, let us challenge destructive tendencies and demonstrate our commitment to a just and peaceful world. CARITAS – May the actions of Villanovans be examples to those around us that love is the only way to drive out hatred.”

This year Hanukkah, which falls in either November or December because it is based on the Jewish lunar calendar, will be celebrated from December 7 to 15, so be sure to greet our Jewish friends with a holiday greeting.

Here are some recommended related resources available via Falvey Library:

  • “Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights, and Fried Foods” in Let’s Eat: Jewish Food and Faith by Lori Stein and Ronald H. Isaacs. eBook.
  • “Jacques Pepin’s Chanukah Celebration,” a 56-minute episode from KQED-TV produced by Peggy Lee Scott (Janson Media, 2004). Online video.
  • “Jews, Schmaltz, and Crisco in the Age of Industrial Food” by Rachael B. Gross in Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food edited by Aaron S. Gross and Jody Elizabeth Myers. Book, Call number: TX724 .F3715 2019.
  • The Maccabean Revolt: Anatomy of a Biblical Revolution by Daniel J. Harrington. Book, Call number: BS1825.3.H36 1988.
  • The Menorah: Evolving into the Most Important Jewish Symbol by Rachel Hachlili. eBook.
  • The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel by Steven Fine. eBook.
  • The Menorah, the Ancient Seven-Armed Candelabrum: Origin, Form, and Significance by Rachel Hachlili. Book, Call number: BM657.M35 H33 2001.
  • “Spin,” a 5-minute segment from Sunday Morning produced by Meggie Miao (Columbia Broadcasting System, 2014). Online video.
  • Tales of High Priests and Taxes: The Books of the Maccabees and the Judean Rebellion against Antiochos IV by Sylvie Honigman. eBook.
  • The Tree of Light: A Study of the Menorah, the Seven-Branched Lampstand by Leon Yarden. Book, Call number: BM657.M35 Y37 1971.

Darren G. Poley is Associate Director of Research Services and Scholarly Engagement, and Theology, Humanities & Classical Studies Librarian at Falvey Library.



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Happy Hanukkah! Recommended Resource: The Choosing

Happy Hanukkah to our community’s Jewish members!

As we welcome the feast of lights, we invite you to sample items from my personal saved list of books related to Hanukkah.

If you are seeking something heartwarming that chronicles the whole Jewish year, including Hanukkah, as well as one person’s journey from a Lutheran upbringing to Judaism, “check out” The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days.

According to the description, in The Choosing, the author “Andrea Myers fuses heartwarming anecdotes with rabbinic insights and humor to describe what it means to survive and flourish on your own terms…. With stories connected to each of the holidays, Myers draws on her unique path to the rabbinate-leaving behind her Christian upbringing, coming out as a lesbian, discovering Judaism in college, moving to Israel, converting, and returning to New York to become a rabbi, partner, and parent.”

Access, via Falvey Library, available here:

Shawn Proctor

Shawn Proctor, MFA, is Communication and Marketing Program Manager at Falvey Library.


Holiday Movies for Not-So-Jolly Nights

By Shawn Proctor

Even if December is totally your jam, there are likely going to be days when your enjoyment of Christma-kwanza-nakuh-yule wanes.

Will Farrell’s Elf needs to stay on the shelf, you think to yourself. Jingle All the Way can just jingle-go-away.

Wait! There are films for those days when your cheer is not in gear. Save yourself from going full Scrooge with this slate of holiday favorites that take a more sanguine approach to this season. And some you might not realize are holiday movies at all.



Image courtesy of Movie Graveyard

Die Hard
There are three certainties in life: Death, taxes, and Die Hard IS a Christmas movie. There’s all of the trapping of Christmas, including snow, fun Christmas music, and, of course, Bruce Willis fashioning quotable Christmas lines like, “Now I have a machinegun! Ho! Ho! Ho!”

Dig Deeper: If you want to look back at the inspiration for Die Hard, check out Roderick Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever (available via InterLibrary Loan), sequel to the book The Detective, which was also adapted to film and starred Frank Sinatra.

Learn more about every film in the franchise by listening to the Die Hard retrospective series from Now Playing Podcast.

Content warnings: violence, harsh language, drug use


Image Courtesy of Movie Scene

This delightfully horrific tale twists Christmas iconography into something far darker. But for every scary gremlin, there’s the mogwai like Gizmo to give you big doses of cute and cuddly.

There’s no place like home for the holidays, and nothing like chaotic mogwai (which incidentally means “monster” and “evil spirit”) to warm your heart…by possibly burning down your house.

Content warnings: violence, a melodramatic story in which Santa is disproven


Image courtesy of Regal Movies.

Edward Scissorhands

Picture a snow globe with an idyllic town with little people and a house high up on a hill. Picture yourself inside that snow globe. Now picture a weird, gothic automaton that no one understands, except you. That’s Edward Scissorhands in a nutshell…er, globe.
This underappreciated classic features Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) and Winona Ryder (Stranger Things) at the height of their quirky, wonderful powers. It’s breathtaking, beautiful, and sad. And obviously directed by Tim Burton.

Image courtesy of Arts Meme

L.A. Confidential
This is a movie where the holidays are the inciting incident from which a Los Angeles power struggle begins.
The best police force in the world is tarnished by scandal during a robbery/massacre and Christmas party that goes from “Silent Night” to melee. There’s twists. There’s intrigue. There’s enemies who become friends, and friends who become betrayers. All of this carries right through to the tense climax.
It also features a slate of amazing, charismatic actors, including Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce, and Kim Basinger.
Dig Deeper: The film was adapted from the James Ellroy novel, L.A. Confidential (available from InterLibrary Loan.)
Content warnings: racially insensitive language, violence, harsh language, Kevin Spacey (unfortunately)
Honorable Mentions:
Philadelphia is a great city for Christmas, and it has appeared in many notable films. If you want to get to know the City of Brotherly Love in cinema, be sure to check out the delightful superhero film Shazam! The film has great comedy scenes, solid acting, and a great message about celebrating found family.
Harder hitting and darker is the original Rocky. It shuns the glamor of the later films, but this Oscar-winning drama captures the ’70s vibe of Philadelphia in the winter and the unbreakable spirit of its people. With gritty moments leading to the ultimate David vs. Goliath fight, Rocky depicts the American dream, as told through a journeyman boxer who must discover the endurance to go the distance against the best fighter in the world.
Did I miss one of your not-as-cheery holiday movies? What about a classic incidentally Christmas film? Let me know!

Shawn ProctorShawn Proctor is Communication and Marketing Program Manager at Falvey Memorial Library.


Happy Hanukkah!


Happy Hanukkah to our community’s Jewish members!

As we welcome the feast of lights, we invite you to take a look at a selection available in our digital collection: The Hanukkah Anthology.

This tome is described as delving “into the stories and messages of Hanukkah as they have unfolded in Jewish literature over the past two thousand years: biblical intimations of the festival, postbiblical writings, selections from the Talmud and midrashim, excerpts from medieval books, home liturgies, laws and customs, observances in different nations, stories and poems, art, and recipes.”

The Hanukkah Anthology is a successor to Hanukkah: The Feast of Lights by Emily Solis-Cohen, Jr., published in 1937.



Last Modified: November 29, 2021

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