The First Night of Hanukkah

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins tonight at sundown on December 22 and end at nightfall on December 30. This year the first night coincides with the first full day of winter. It is a commemoration of he rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt. Traditionally the story goes that there was not enough oil to last for eight days to rededicate the Temple but miraculously the oil lasted.

When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was looted and services stopped, Judaism was outlawed. In 167 BCE, Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple. He banned brit milah (circumcision) and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the temple.[33]

Antiochus’s actions provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattathias (Mattityahu), a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. It started with Mattathias killing first a Jew who wanted to comply with Antiochus’s order to sacrifice to Zeus, and then a Greek official who was to enforce the government’s behest (1 Mac. 2, 24–25). Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”). By 166 BCE Mattathias had died, and Judah took his place as leader. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted to celebrate this event. Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, unadulterated and undefiled pure olive oil with the seal of the kohen gadol (high priest) was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. The story goes that one flask was found with only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of kosher oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.

Truth be told, there is no mention of the “miracle” in 1 Maccabees. But, hey, who ever said reindeer can’t fly?

Hanukkah, like most Jewish festivals, is centered around the family and food. Food being the most important component. Children play spinning the dreidel and are rewarded with “gelt,” gold foil covered chocolate coins. Based on an old German gambling game, the four sides of the top bear four Hebrew letters: nun, gimel, hei, and shin. Each player in turn spins the dreidel and proceeds as follows:

  • נ‬ nun – take nothing
  • ג‬ gimel – take everything
  • ה‬ hei – take half
  • ש ​shin – put one in

Traditional foods are all fried or baked in oil (preferably olive oil) to commemorate the miracle of a small flask of oil keeping the Second Temple‘s Menorah alight for eight days thus the tradition of Potato Latkes and jelly donuts. Below the fold is my families favorite recipe for Latkes. We cheat a bit on the donuts; they come from either Duncan Donuts or Tim Horton’s. We also serve an chicken recipe from an old cookbook by Jennie Grossinger, The Art of Jewish Cooking, that coats the chicken in breadcrumbs, browned in oil (I use canola) and finished in the oven. It makes it less greasy but keeps with tradition. I can’t find the recipe online but the cookbook is still available.

Bon Appetite and Happy Hanukkah!

Traditionally, according to kosher law, when latkes are served with a fish meal they are fried in oil and served with sour cream. If they are served with meat, they are fried in chicken fat and served with apple sauce. Since, I haven’t kept a kosher kitchen in over 40 years, I fry the latkes in oil and serve both apple sauce and sour cream.

Because this recipe has no flour or egg, the latkes are more delicate and lacy. These are best served when they are fresh from the pan, so, we take turns making them all during the meal. It can actually be fun.

Pure Potato Latkes

  • 4 large Idaho potatoes, about 2 1/4 lbs.
  • 1 large onion, peeled
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup canola oil

In a food processor with a coarse shredding disc or o the large shredding hole of a hand grater, shred the potatoes. Squeeze them well to rid them of as much water as possible and place them in a bowl. I use a cotton dish towel to squeeze the water out. it gets them really dry. Shred the onion and add to the bowl. Add the salt and pepper. Mix well. More water will be exuded and should be squeezed and drained thoroughly.

In a large heavy frying pan (a 12 inch iron pan works best), over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons until a slight haze appears on the surace of the oil. Drop about 1/4 cup of the mixture into the oil, flattening slightly with the back of a spoon Leave a little pace between the pancakes for ease in turning. They should be about 2 1/2 inches in diameter and will flatten as they cook.

Cook about 7 minutes or until the edges turn golden brown. Flip and cook another 5 to 7 minutes or until the other side is golden brown. If the oil starts smoking or the latkes brown too quickly, reduce the heat and briefly remove the pan from the heat. Remove the latkes and drain on layers of paper towels Continue with remaining mixture adding 2 tablespoons of oil with each batch.

Serve with apple sauce and sour cream.

Bon Appetite and Happy Hanukkah!