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Festival of Lights

Steve Albert

According to Google, there are 16 ways to spell Hanukkah. Most involve various combinations
of “k’s” and “h’s,” along with the optional “C” at the beginning, but there are some more unusual
options like “Xanuka” and “Chanuga.” In Hebrew, Hanukkah means “dedication,” and the
holiday commemorates the military victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian armies in 165 BCE
and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

No matter how you choose to spell it, Hanukkah remains among the most popular and widely
celebrated of Jewish festivals. In the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah begins on 25 Kislev and lasts
for eight nights; this year, those dates correspond to December 10-18 on the Gregorian
Calendar. Like other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah begins at sunset on the first night. Our
community will celebrate by eating latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganyot (jelly donuts) – fried
foods that remind us of the tiny vial of oil that burned, miraculously, for eight days in the
rededicated Temple. We’ll also play dreidel (a game with a spinning top), give gifts, and sing
songs, all of which have been Hanukkah traditions for generations.

At its core, Hanukkah is the “Festival of Lights.” Celebrated at the darkest time of year, the
Hanukkah menorah (candle holder) literally brings light into our homes and neighborhoods each
evening. Historically, the holiday celebrates the light of the rekindled eternal flame in the
rededicated Temple in ancient times. Metaphorically, the celebration of Hanukkah brings light
into our lives, by bringing us together with family and friends (usually in-person, but virtually this
year) to celebrate, sing, play, and eat. Hanukkah can also be a time to bring light to others,
especially those who are suffering or in need - a time to think about social justice, doing mitzvot
(good deeds), and recommitting to tikkun olam (repairing the world).

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) has a project called Ner Shel Tzedakah or “Candle of
Righteousness.” On the 6 th night of Hanukkah, families and individuals focus on the problem of
poverty by learning about the issue and/or donating money or gifts. The idea is to “help the
Jewish candle of righteousness glow brightly for those in need.”

When we aren’t confronting a pandemic, some of the ways that families choose to observe Ner
Shel Tzedakah
include volunteering at a shelter or food pantry or delivering meals with an
organization like “Meals on Wheels.” This year, there are still opportunities to help. Consider
making donations of money, food or clothing, in honor of friends and/or family members, to
families in need. Perhaps you can work with a local social service organization to get matched
with a family in need to support. (This year, most needs are being addressed with gift cards,
rather than toys or clothing, to reduce the need to shop.) Make a commitment to learning more
about the problem of houselessness in Portland and what you can do to help.

The URJ suggests the following blessing on the 6 th night of Hanukkah:

As we light this “Ner Shel Tzedakah” tonight, we pray that its light will shine into the dark
corners of our world, bringing relief to those suffering from the indignity and pain that
accompany poverty. May our act of giving inspire others to join with us in the fight against the
scourge of hunger, homelessness, need and want. Together, let us raise our voices to cry out
for justice, and may that clarion call burst through the night’s silence and declare that change
must come.


Best wishes for a joyous Hanukkah. Let’s all help the holiday bring light to everyone.

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