In the Jewish religion, Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday celebrated on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev.
The religious observance consists of lighting the menorah, a candelabrum with eight branches and a central socket. Each branch represents one day of the holiday and the ninth candle, which is placed in the central socket, is called the Shamash — this candle is known as the “helper” or “servant.” The Shamash is the candle which is used to light the other eight candles.
Each night, families light a candle by starting with the Shamash and the candle furthest to the left. By the last night, every candle is lit. During the lighting of the menorah, Jewish people say a prayer about the lighting of the candles. In Hebrew, the prayer reads, “Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu, l’had’lik neir shel Chanukah.” The English version translates to, “Blessed are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made us holy through God's commandments, and commanded us to light the Hanukkah candles.”
Most people are familiar with the menorah and lighting candles, but the story of Hanukkah and why it is celebrated is lesser known. Over 2,000 years ago, Israel was ruled under a Syrian-Greek regime, headed by the Syrian King Antiochus III. During his reign, Antiochus III allowed Jewish people to practice their religion. Many Jewish people were influenced by their surroundings and became Hellenists, individuals who focused on idol worship and followed the Greek culture.
When Antiochus III passed away, his son, Antiochus IV, took over. Antiochus IV was not as kind as his father, forcing all Jewish people to worship Greek gods and banning Judaism. Antiochus IV sent his soldiers into the city of Jerusalem, which resulted in thousands of deaths and the destruction of the city’s holy Second Temple.
Antiochus IV’s actions forced many Jewish people into a rebellion led by the Jewish Priest Mattathias and his five sons. When Mattathias died, his son Judah Maccabee took over and Jewish people were then named the Maccabees. After winning the war against the Syrian Greeks, the Maccabees were sent to cleanse the Second Temple, rebuild its altar and light its menorah which represented knowledge. The flames were meant to be everlasting.
When going to reignite the everlasting flames on the menorah, the Maccabees found only enough oil to last them one day. They claimed by some miracle, however, that the flames stayed lit for a total of eight days. This gave them enough time to find a fresh supply of oil to keep the candles burning. This is why Hanukkah is celebrated over eight days and why the menorah is lit every night during the holiday.