Annesley Street Synagogue: Hanukkah

Hanukkah (or Chanukah) is an eight-day religious festival celebrated by those of Jewish faith. In 2023, Hanukkah will begin on the 7th of December and last until the 15th. The celebration marks the reclamation of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.[1] Chanukah means ‘rededication’. The earliest record of Belfast Hanukkah celebrations in the newspaper archives dates from 1907 when Lady Jaffe, wife of Belfast Lord Mayor Otto Jaffe, presided over the ‘annual Children’s Chanukah Concert and Treat’ at Jaffe Memorial School, Cliftonville Road. The concert culminated in the distribution of ‘fruit and sweets’ to the children and a rendition of ‘God Save the King’.[2]

Hanukkah celebrates the victory of Judah the Maccabee and his four brothers (The Hasmoneans) over the Syrian Greeks in 165 BC. The Syrian Greeks had forbidden Jews from performing their basic religious practices, such as the observance of the Sabbath, and converted the Temple into a pagan shrine.[3]. The Hasmoneans led a rebellion again the Greeks and defeated the Syrian Army. After their success, the rebels recaptured the Temple, rebuilt the altar and rededicated the Temple.[4] According to tradition, this took eight days and so Hanukkah is observed for eight days.[5] Although Hanukkah celebrates one of the greatest victories in Jewish history, it is only recently that this was highlighted.

Upon capturing the Temple, the Syrian Greeks desecrated all the jugs of oil that the High Priest had prepared for lighting the Temple menorah (pictured to the left). Among the destruction, The Hasmoneans found one sole jug of oil, which only contained enough to burn in the menorah for one day. The High Priest lit the menorah and a miracle occurred: the flame continued to burn for eight days! To commemorate this event, it was decided that the holiday would be observed by kindling lights for eight days. Therefore, Hanukkah became known as the Feast (or Festival) of lights.[6]

The day of Hanukkah reflects the number of candles lit on the menorah e.g. one on the first day, two on the second etc.[7] The light from the menorah is used solely to celebrate the holiday, hence why it is traditionally placed in a window to publicise the miracle to passers-by.[8] While women are traditionally ‘exempt from performing time-bound positive commandments’, they are obligated to light Hanukkah candles.[9] This is because both women and men witnessed the miracle of Hanukkah. The nightly menorah lighting is at the heart of celebrations. The Belfast Jewish Record, the monthly magazine for the local Jewish community, reminded its readers in December 1957 to purchase ’40-odd candles’ for the family menorah to mark the occasion.

Traditionally, children received ‘gelt’ or Hanukkah money on the fifth night of the holidays to reward positive behaviour and devotion to Torah study.[10] ‘Gelt’ also gave children the opportunity to give tzedakah (charity). Today many people distribute chocolate coins to continue this tradition. According to Alfred Kolatch, the more recent practice of gift-giving was influenced by the Christian tradition of giving children presents at Christmastime.[11]

It is also customary to play with a ‘dreidel’ or draydel: a four-sided top with a different Hebrew letter on each side during Hanukkah. The letters represent the words, ‘A great miracle happened there’, referring to the miracle of the oil.[12] Deep-fried foods such as potato cakes (latkes) and doughnuts (sufganiyot) are also eaten during celebrations to represent the miracle of the oil.[13] In recent decades, particularly in North America, Hanukkah has developed into a major commercial phenomenon, largely because of its proximity to Christmas. However, from a religious perspective, Hanukkah remains a relatively minor holiday that places no restrictions on working, attending school or other activities, unlike comparable religious celebrations.[14]



[2] Belfast News-Letter, 7 December 1907.

[3] Alfred. J. Kolatch, The Jewish Book of Why, J. David Publisher: New York, 1981: p.260.

[4] Kolatch, The Jewish Book of Why: p.260.

[5] Ibid: p.262.

[6] Kolatch, The Jewish Book of Why: p.262.

[7] Ibid: p.263.

[8] Ibid: p.263.

[9] Ibid: p.268 (?)

[10] Ibid: p.266. and

[11] Ibid: p.267.

[12] Ibid: p.266.

[13] Ibid: p.267.

[14] Ibid: p.259.

Members Involved

YEAR: 1904

Location: Annesley Street