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Celebrating the Festival of Lights

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The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah arrives early this year. In fact, the Festival of Lights has not fallen this early in the year since 1899. And it won't be this early again until 2089.

Jewish holidays follow a lunar calendar. This calendar is adjusted slightly, with a leap year thrown in seven times every 19 years, in order to ensure that the major holidays always occur in their appointed season.

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Hanukkah is not one of these aforementioned major Jewish holidays. In fact, there is no mention of Hanukkah in the Torah.

"Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar," explains Jewish educator Joanne Seiff. "But all Jewish holidays have importance and offer chances to learn for those who observe them."

Seiff is a member of the New Shul, a two-year-old Winnipeg congregation dedicated to offering a hands-on, do-it-yourself, egalitarian Jewish experience. In anticipation of Hanukkah's early arrival this year, Seiff has been developing a one-day adult education course that explores how to make the holiday more meaningful. It is one of several informal Jewish courses she has developed over the years.

Hanukkah always begins on the eve of the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. This date usually falls in mid to late December. This year, however, the date corresponds to the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 27 on the Gregorian, or Western, calendar.

The unusual timing of Hanukkah has garnered considerable attention in the United States, where, for the first time ever, it falls on the same day as Thanksgiving. This anomaly has given rise to some new trends and rituals, including the invention of a menurkey, a Hanukkah menorah, or candelabrum, shaped like a turkey.

In Canada, the celebration of Hanukkah remains unchanged, although its early appearance ensures, appropriately, that it is less likely to be confused, compared or associated with Christmas.

According to the Book of Maccabees, Hanukkah commemorates the successful Jewish revolt over the Syrian-Greek Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV in the second century BCE. Antiochus had outlawed Jewish religious practice, forced Hellenism upon the Jewish people, and taken over and desecrated their holy temple in Jerusalem.

Led by the priestly Hasmonean family, the Jewish people rose up against Antiochus to demand their right to practise their religion, the only monotheistic religion at the time. When they finally liberated the holy temple, they found only enough oil to keep the temple's eternal light lit for one day. Miraculously, it remained lit for eight days.

That is why Jews worldwide celebrate Hanukkah by lighting candles for eight consecutive days. These candles are placed in a special nine-branch Hanukkah menorah. The ninth candle is used to light all the other candles.

In addition to lighting candles that recall the ancient miracle, Jewish people today typically celebrate the holiday with family and community parties, the consumption of festive foods cooked in oil, the singing of traditional songs and the giving of gifts and giving of charity.

schisvin@hotmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 $sourceSection0

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