What is Chanukah About?

What is the historical story of Chanukah? This unit addresses the different stories of Chanukah and how they have influenced the character of the holiday.

Unit Ages: 9-11, 12-14 | 2-3 lessons


The holiday of Chanukah is based on a historical story that is told in the Books of Maccabees I and II. According to the story, following harsh decrees by the Seleucid ruler and the bringing of idols into the Temple, the Jews rebelled under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, reconquered the Temple and rededicated it on the 25th of the month of Kislev. Centuries after those events, a story about that rededication appeared in the Babylonian Talmud. According to that story, there remained only one small jug of pure oil for lighting the menorah that was regularly lit in the Temple. Miraculously, that oil lasted for eight days. These two stories are the basis for the customs of Chanukah and for different ideas associated with this holiday. In this unit, we will examine the connection and the differences between the two sources.

Desired Outcomes

Big Ideas

The holiday of Chanukah has different narratives, with distinct emphases and worldviews, which are expressed in different sources.

Essential Questions
  • How are symbols used in celebrations and holidays?
  • What can we learn from different generations?
  •  The students will be familiar with the story of the rebellion and the victory, as told in the Book of Maccabees.
  • The students will be familiar with the story of the miracle of the little jug of oil, as told in the Babylonian Talmud.
  • The students will be able to distinguish between the different narratives of the holiday and to identify how they are expressed in the texts recited on the holiday: Al HaNisim and HaNerot Halalu.
  • The students will know how the customs of the holiday are linked to the story of the holiday.

Assessment Evidence

What evidence will students provide to demonstrate that they:
Know the knowledge; Can do the skills; Can respond thoughtfully to the EQs and BIs

The teacher will determine a means for assessment before beginning to teach the curriculum module.

Learning Experiences

Possible Unit Plan

Possible unit opener:

Bring a chanukiyah into class and ask, “What story does the chanukiyah tell us?” Following the answers that you receive, you can conclude that, in fact, the chanukiyah tells us several stories that we are going to learn about. Alternatively, you can do a KWL (know, want-to-know, learned) activity: Have the students work in pairs and write down a list of things that they know about the holiday. You can ask each pair to present an item from their list to the class. Then, have each pair come up with at least one question or one thing about Chanukah that they are interested in learning more about. In conclusion, return to the information that was raised and see what they learned.


Content study:

  • You can start off by telling the students about the historical background of the holiday. You can base your explanation on the information provided in the Background for Teacher sections of the different resources for this unit. Alternatively, you can translate this Chanukah Diary, which describes the characters of the Chanukah story from the point of view of a girl living at that time. 
  • If the students have not yet learned about Chanukah, we recommend starting off with the resource Chanukah – The Story of the Holiday. That resource focuses on the well-known story of the miracle of the little jug of oil. Discuss the relationship between the story and the different customs of the holiday: lighting candles, eating fried foods and singing songs like “HaNerot Halalu.”
  • The next step is appropriate for older students, who are very familiar with the story of the miracle of the little jug of oil. At this point, they can become familiar with the historical story told in Maccabees I about the Maccabees’ rededication of the Temple after they reconquered it. This story is presented in the resource The Different Faces of Chanukah. As they learn, the students will distinguish between the focal points of each of the different stories and how they are expressed in the customs of the holiday.
  • For older students, you can also present another source regarding the miracle of the little jug of oil: the piyyut (prayer-song) Maoz Tzur.



Make sure that the students can identify how the stories of Chanukah are expressed in the customs of the holiday, the texts that are read and the songs that are sung. You can pass out to each student a picture of a candle or chanukiyah with the following statements:

“The Chanukah candles tell me…”

“The story of Chanukah teaches me the following about my own life today: …”

Have the students complete the sentences based on what they’ve learned in this unit.

If you did a KWL activity, go back to it now and see what the students learned. 

Related Resources