Tonight at sunset begins the Jewish Festival of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, which is an eight-day holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE.
The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched Menorah or Hanukiah, one additional light on each night of the holiday, progressing upward to eight on the final night. (One extra candle called the shamash candle is present to provide light as needed throughout the holiday.)
By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful and the Temple, which had been desecrated, was subsequently liberated and purified. According to the Talmud, olive oil was needed for the menorah in the rededicated Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. The story goes that there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.
The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not for the “lighting of the house within”, but rather for the “illumination of the house without,” so that passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday’s miracle. Hanukkah lights should burn for at least one half hour after it gets dark.
Hanukkah is further celebrated by a series of rituals that are performed every day throughout the 8-day holiday, some are family-based and others communal. There are special additions to the daily prayer service, and a section is added to the blessing after meals. Many families exchange gifts each night, and fried foods are eaten.