The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a special candelabrum, the nine-branched Menorah or Hanukiah, one additional light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night.
An extra light called a shamash (Hebrew: “guard” or “servant”) is also lit each night for the purpose of lighting the others, and is given a distinct location, usually above or below the rest. The “shamash” symbolically supplies light that may be used for some secular purpose.
From the Hebrew word for “dedication” or “consecration”, Hanukkah marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of the King of Syria Antiochus IV Epiphanes and commemorates the “miracle of the container of oil”.
According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.
Hanukkah is also mentioned in 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. The first states: “For eight days they celebrated the rededication of the altar. Then Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication… should be observed… every year… for eight days. (1 Mac. 4:56–59)” According to 2 Maccabees, “the Jews celebrated joyfully for eight days as on the feast of Booths.”
The martyrdom of Hannah and her seven sons has also been linked to Hanukkah. According to a Talmudic story and 2 Maccabees, a Jewish woman named Hannah and her seven sons were tortured and executed by Antiochus for refusing to worship an idol, which would have been a violation of Jewish law.