Chanukah – The Story of the Holiday

We will become familiar with the Chanukah story and the customs associated with the holiday. We will discuss what we can learn from the story and how it can serve as a source of inspiration in our lives today.

Resource Ages: 6-8, 9-11


What is Chanukah? […]

When the Greeks entered the Holy Temple, they defiled all of the oils in the sanctuary. And the royal Hasmonean dynasty overpowered them and triumphed.

They searched and found but one jug of oil that had been placed under the seal of the High Priest.

And there was not [enough] in it to light [the menorah for more than] one day, and a miracle occurred, and they lit [the menorah] from this oil for eight days.

The following year, they established these [eight days] as days of festivity, filled with praise and thanksgiving to God.

Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Shabbat, daf kaf aleph, amud bet

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How are symbols used in celebrations and holidays?
  • What can we learn from different generations?
  • How can exploring the past impact our present?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • How is the Chanukah story manifested in the holiday customs?
  • What values and ideas are reflected in the Chanukah story?
  • How do the Chanukah customs encourage us to think about the deeper meaning of the holiday?
  • How do the Chanukah customs enhance our awareness of the wonders of life – great and small?

Background for Teacher

Chanukah is celebrated for eight days, starting on the 25th of Kislev, and it is one of the holidays which the Sages set, and isn’t mentioned in the Bible. Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees (the Hasmoneans, led by Judah Maccabee) over the...

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Chanukah is celebrated for eight days, starting on the 25th of Kislev, and it is one of the holidays which the Sages set, and isn’t mentioned in the Bible.

Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees (the Hasmoneans, led by Judah Maccabee) over the Greeks and the miracle of the jug of oil. According to the Book of Maccabees and other sources, in 167 BCE, King Antiochus IV (ruler of the Seleucid kingdom centered on the Greek island) issued religious decrees against the Jewish religion in the Land of Israel which was under his control at that time and conquered the Temple, placing in it a statue of the Greek god, Zeus.

Following the decrees, a revolt began among the Jews which eventually led to the establishment of an independent Jewish kingdom in the Land of Israel. The Maccabees recaptured the Holy Temple from the Greeks, purified it from the altars of idols and prepared it for the service of God. They lit a menorah (candelabra) to replace the menorah that had been there but was looted by the Greeks, and for a period of eight days celebrated the dedication of the Temple and its return to the Jewish people so they could worship God. The Maccabees then established a holiday in memory of the miraculous victory of the few over the many, to be celebrated every year for eight days – the holiday of Chanukah.

The Babylonian Talmud, written hundreds of years after the Maccabean revolt, brings the first mention of an additional miracle celebrated on Chanukah, the miracle of the oil jug. According to the description in Tractate Shabbat, the Maccabees found only one small jug of olive oil that had not been defiled by the Greeks and was thus suitable for lighting the menorah. Despite the fact that the amount of oil in the jug was enough for only one day of lighting, a miracle occurred and the oil lasted for eight days.

We are reminded of the miracle of the jug of oil by lighting Chanukah candles and by eating foods made with oil, like doughnuts and potato latkes. The candles are lit on a chanukiyah which has room for nine candles. The ninth candle is intended for the shamash, which is used to light the other candles. Each night we add another candle, to symbolize the miracle of the jug of oil which lasted for eight days and the light which became greater with the victory of the Maccabees. In addition, it is customary to play sevivon or dreidel which adds to the children’s holiday fun. The sevivon has the letters  נ,ג,ה,פ/ש – which stand for the first letters of the words in the sentence

נס גדול היה פה/ שם   (A great miracle happened here/there).

The story of Chanukah and its customs can teach us about the power of belief, about the victory of light over darkness, about the ability to change reality by our acts, about the importance of fighting for what is important to us, about safeguarding our identity and more.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • Bring objects to class as examples of the Chanukah customs (chanukiya, donut, candles, oil, dreidel). The students work in pairs and explain in writing how each of these objects connects to the Chanukah story. After gathering all the answers, tell the Chanukah story as reflected in different sources – the Book of Maccabees and the Babylonian Talmud.
  • Watch this film about the Chanukah story (in English, up to min. 1:30). You can play the film with the volume turned down and tell the story yourselves against the background of the images.
  •  Read this fictional diary of a Jewish girl from the period as a way to tell the Chanukah story.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. The text says that the Maccabees set aside the days of Chanukah as days of festivity with giving thanks. What things mentioned in the Talmudic source are we thankful for at Chanukah?
  2. What do you think the Maccabees felt when they found the tin of oil? How did they feel when it lasted eight days?
  3. Which of the events in the Chanukah story would you like to have been present at? Why did you choose that one? In what way would you have taken part in this event?
  4. What Chanukah customs are you familiar with? How do they relate to the Chanukah story?
  5. What does the Chanukah story teach us?
  6.  For older students: What ideas and values do we express when we light the Chanukah candles for eight days by our windows? How do these connect to the story of the holiday?
  • Stage a play based on the Chanukah story or ask the students to draw comics based on the story.
  • If you brought objects to the classroom you can include them in the story: when you get to a part that relates to one of the objects, the students can point to it or raise their hand. You could also give them pictures of candles, oil, etc. and they can raise the pictures at the appropriate point in the story.
  • You can practice Chanukah customs in class – lighting the chanukiya, eating latkes and donuts, playing with the dreidel.
  • Imagine that you are inviting a non-Jewish friend who has never seen a Chanukah celebration to light candles in your home or at school. You have to tell them about all the customs, explain how they are related to the Chanukah story and to the ideas and values it embodies. How will you do it? The teacher can play the role of the guest. The students prepare the ceremony and the teacher asks various questions.
  • Learn more about the Chanukah miracle through the resource about The Miracle and become familiar with the “Al ha-Nisim” prayer it presents.
  • For older students: Expand on the different narratives of the Chanukah story in the Book of Maccabees and in the Babylonian Talmud through the resource Chanukah – Different Aspects of the Holiday (suitable for age 12+).
  •  Look at pictures of sevivon (dreidels) from around the world and explain the difference in the letters that appear on the sevivonim in Israel and elsewhere. Explain how we play with the sevivon.