One of the world’s most joyous holidays begins this weekend. Hanukkah, sometimes referred to as the Festival of Lights, starts Monday, Dec. 22. (All Jewish holidays get under way at sunset the night before, so make that this Sunday night.)
The celebration lasts eight days, beginning on the 25th day of the month of Kislev in the lunar Jewish calendar. This places Hanukkah’s week-plus anywhere from late November to early January in the secular calendar, but a solidly December holiday, as occurs this year, is the usual.
Hanukkah grew out of the Jewish Maccabean army’s victory over Greek occupiers in 165 B.C., and the subsequent rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following its desecration by the invaders. Just a scant amount of clean oil was to be found to light the menorah, the temple candelabra, for the rededication ceremonies, but, miraculously, it burned for eight days.
One of the holiday’s signature symbols is the dreidel, a small spinning top whose sides are embossed with Hebrew letters.
For more about the subject, we turned to the experts, some of the first- and secondgraders at the HebrewDay School in the western San José neighborhood of Rohrmoser.
They had this to tell us during a recent visit by The Tico Times:
“On Hanukkah, we play with dreidels because in the times of Greeks, it was forbidden to learn Torah. The Jews continued to learn, and when the Greek police showed up, they would hide their books of Torah and begin to play dreidel.”
“We play dreidel to remember the miracle that God performed by saving the Jews. It’s a lot of fun playing dreidel.”
“The dreidel is called sevivon in Hebrew. Sevivon means ‘to spin around.’ The dreidel has four sides and the bottom is slanted so it could spin.”
“There are four letters, one on each side of the dreidel (nun, gimmel, hei, shin), which stand for ‘Nes gadol hayah sham’ (‘A great miracle happened there’).”
“In Israel, the four letters are nun, gimmel, hei and pei, which stands for ‘Nes gadol hayah po’ (‘A great miracle happened here’).”
What began as a brave act of defiance and a clever means of diversion evolved into a favored game played during the holiday.
Those four Hebrew letters also correspond to the first letters of four Yiddish words that supply the directions for each player, Hebrew Day School Director Chana Spalter explained.
Each player antes up a marker, be it a coin or a piece of candy or chocolate. The first player spins the dreidel. If it lands on nun ( ), which stands for nul in Yiddish, that player does nothing for that turn. Gimmel ( ) indicates gantz, or “whole,” and such a lucky spin gets the whole pot. Hei ( ), for halb, rewards the spinner with half the pot.
Finally, shin ( ) stands for shenk, meaning “give” in Yiddish, and that player must put in one marker.
Despite the famous Hanukkah song whose lyrics go “I have a little dreidel; I made it out of clay,” most of the tops for play use are made of plastic or wood these days.
Costa Rica’s largest dreidel, an enormous walk-in structure with children’s activities taking place inside, makes an appearance at the annual Sunday family Hanukkah program each December, held in western San José’s La Sabana Park (see box).
Thanks to Chana Spalter and Jaia Segal at the HebrewDay School.
Light the Menorah
Costa Ricans and people around the world will light the eight-candled menorah, Hanukkah’s most recognizable symbol, each night of the holiday. The country’s largest menorah stands at the entrance to La Sabana Park (Calle 42, Paseo Colón), behind the statue of former President León Cortés, courtesy of the Chabad Lubavitch congregation, and will be lit each of the eight nights. This Sunday’s program sees the largest attendance. Call 2296-6565 for more information.
Menorah Lightings: Dec. 21, family program at 4 p.m., lighting at 5:30 p.m.; Dec. 22-25, 6 p.m.; Dec. 26, 4:15 p.m.; Dec. 27, 6:30 p.m.; Dec. 28, 6 p.m.