By Georgie Alford
– November 2021 –
During the eight days between November 28th and December 6th, Jewish people around the world will celebrate Hanukkah, the “festival of lights.” The specific dates when Hanukkah is celebrated in the Gregorian calendar (the calendar we usually use) change every year because the festival aligns instead with the Hebrew calendar based on the movements of the moon. The name “Hanukkah” derives from the Hebrew verb “חנך”, meaning “to dedicate.”
On each night of Hanukkah, an additional candle is lit on a candelabrum with nine branches called a menorah. One branch, usually placed in the middle of the menorah, is used every night to light the other branches. On the first night of Hanukkah, the middle candle lights one branch, on the second night it lights two, and so on, until the eighth night where the entire menorah is lit.
The origins of Hanukkah come from a period in Jewish history in the second century BCE. During this time, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who outlawed Jewish practice and defiled the Jewish Temples by removing Jewish symbols and instead installing an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs. A small army of Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees fought back against this religious persecution and against all odds, succeeded in forcing out the Seleucid rulers. When arriving at the main city Temple, it is said a miracle occurred. While there was only enough oil to keep the Temple’s menorah burning for one day, the flame stayed lit for eight days, hence the eight day celebration that is now called Hanukkah.
There are approximately 392,000 Jews in Canada, according to a 2018 survey by the Environics Institute. Unlike other immigrants during European settlement in the Americas, the Jewish population had already been internationally dispersed so they did not arrive from a country where they were the majority cultural group. Initially, Jews were legally barred from setting up residence in New France because immigration was restricted to Catholics. After the French were defeated, Jews began to settle in the Province of Quebec and by 1768, the Jewish population in Montréal was well established enough to set up Canada’s first synagogue, Shearith Israel. In 1856 the first synagogue was established in Toronto, called Holy Blossom Temple.
While the Jewish community has certainly changed over time, especially with the arrival of immigrants after the Holocaust and an increased awareness about the threat of anti-Semitism, the contemporary Jewish community in Canada is now the fourth largest in the world. Today, Hanukkah has come to represent the Jewish alternative to Christmas, with rabbis taking inspiration by including children in Christmas church events and introducing special Hanukkah celebrations for children at synagogues. It is now commonplace to celebrate the festival by lighting candles, singing hymns and handing out sweets and giving gifts (known as Hanukkah gelt) as a way to entice children and adults alike. Although Hanukkah is by no means the most important festival in the Jewish calendar, it has come to be one of the most celebrated in recent years.