Sweet Treats and Family Fun: The Delightful Traditions Surrounding Hanukkah

November 13, 2020

by: Sarah Yoder, BFP Staff Writer

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During the season when daylight is short in Israel and sheets of rain are accompanied by frigid winds, the holiday of Hanukkah (Festival of Lights) offers a welcome reprieve. For eight days, this lively holiday is filled with the warmth of light, the sweetness of festive foods and the joy of family time. Join me as we unpack some of the delightful traditions that surround Hanukkah.

Sufganyot

Sufganyot is a word that has become synonymous with Hanukkah in Israel. Sufganyot, the plural form of the word sufganiyah, are the sweet doughnuts that characterize the sweetness of the Festival of Lights. These yeasty treats range from the traditional jelly-filled doughnut topped with a dusting of powdered sugar to more elaborate flavor combinations and decadent toppings. In the weeks leading up to Hanukkah, endless varieties of sufganyot overflow from bakeries, cafes and malls in Israel as bakers contend for the most delicious doughnut. According to the Times of Israel, more than 20 million sufganyot are consumed in Israel each year.

How exactly did these sweet treats come to characterize the holiday of Hanukkah? The most common explanation is that the doughnuts fried in oil celebrate the miracle of one portion of oil lasting for eight days at the rededication of the Temple. This rededication took place on the heels of the Maccabees’ astounding victory over the Seleucid Empire in the second century BC, when they took back Jerusalem and regained the freedom to worship the Lord in His Temple.

The origin of the word sufganyot is similar to the Greek word sufan, which means “spongy” or “fried,” as well as the Arabic word sfenj, which is a small, deep-fried doughnut. There was a longstanding tradition of eating these small doughnuts during Hanukkah in northern Africa for centuries before the establishment of the Jewish state. But these doughnuts do not resemble the traditional, jelly-filled doughnuts enjoyed during Hanukkah today. It would seem that the jelly filling and round shape were adopted from European culture when Ashkenazi Jews [Jews of German/Eastern European origin] began immigrating to their ancient homeland in the early 20th century. And so sufganyot, like many other customs unique to Israel, emerged through the mingling of extraordinarily diverse Jewish cultures.

Dreidels

“Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel
I made you out of clay
And when you’re dry and ready
Oh Dreidel we shall play”
The Dreidel Song

The dreidel game is one of the most beloved family activities during Hanukkah. A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top marked by a Hebrew letter on each side: nun (נ), gimel (ג), hey (ה) and shin (ש).

The game is played with an unlimited number of players who each contribute something to the middle pot, such as coins, candy or gelt—the chocolate coins given as gifts during Hanukkah specifically for use in the dreidel game. Each player then takes a turn spinning the dreidel and performing the action indicated by whichever Hebrew letter is face up when the dreidel lands. If a nun (נ) is played, nothing happens. For a gimel (ג), the player takes all of the treasure from the middle pot. If it’s a hey (ה), half of the pot is taken, and for a shin (ש), the player adds one token to the middle. The game continues until someone wins by collecting everything from the middle.

Similar spinning-top games have been played all over the world throughout history, and archeologists have uncovered various styles of tops dating back as early as 2,000 BC. It was not a Jewish custom, however, until the 16th century when the Yiddish speaking Jews of Europe adopted the game from a German spinning top. This German top­—called a Torrel (or Trundl)—also had four sides with four letters and was a popular winter game for children. Gradually, the dreidel game gained popularity in Jewish culture, and the addition of the Hebrew letters connected the players to their ancient history. These four letters are an acronym for the phrase נס גדול היה שם, which translates to “a great miracle occurred there,” referring to the great miracle of the Maccabean victory in Israel.

When immigrants from Europe brought the Hanukkah tradition of the dreidel game to Israel, it became necessary to change one of the Hebrew letters on the dreidel. No longer was the dreidel spun in remembrance of the miracle that occurred there—the Jews living in the Land could now victoriously proclaim “a great miracle occurred here.” Consequently, the letter shin (ש) for שם of “there” was replaced by the letter pey (פ) for פה or “here” to alter the acronym, and the new dreidel unique to the Land of Israel became known as a sivivon.

Latkes

A conversation about Hanukkah traditions would not be complete without mentioning latkes, the satisfying deep-fried potato fritters. Much like the origin of the dreidel, latkes became part of Jewish festivities because of a Yiddish adaptation of a very popular fried pancake in Europe. Latke in Yiddish means “a little oily thing” and is traditionally made from shredded potatoes combined with egg, bread crumbs and spices, and deep fried in a pancake shape. As with the sufganyot, latkes are deep fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of the oil burning for eight days.

A Delightful Heritage       

Each of these delightful Hanukkah traditions speaks to the unique Israeli phenomenon of decidedly diverse cultures coming together to forge new customs. Each year in Israel as families gather around to light their hanukkiah (nine-branched candelabra), they demonstrate not only a remembrance of their heritage but also the resilience of a people group that has overcome enormous cultural challenges and emerged victorious.

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