While most non-Jews recognize Menorahs and dreidels* as symbols of Chanukah, few may realize that their significance is drenched in oil (olive oil to be more exact), including the fact that each of the dreidel’s four-sides feature one of the Hebrew letters נ (Nun, ג (Gimmel), ה (Hey) and ש (Shin) spelling out an acronym for “Nes Gadol Haya Sham, “A great miracle happened there.” That miracle refers to the “miracle of the oil” that took place more than two thousand years ago as described below.
Chanukah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt in 167-165 BCE., when a band of Jews led by Judah Maccabee defeated the Seleucid King Antiochus IV and retook the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Antiochus had ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple, and outlawed most Jewish religious practices including circumcision.
Judah comanded that the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the desecrated one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud (Jewish code of law) olive oil was needed for the menorah in the 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. Hence the custom of lighting a candle for each night of the eight-day holiday to commemorate this miracle.
The significance of the oil is also expressed in the custom of eating foods fried or baked in oil (preferably olive oil) including potato latkes (pancakes), and fritters as well as jam-filled doughnuts known as sufganiyot. Israeli bakeries have popularized many new types of fillings for sufganiyot besides the traditional strawberry jelly filling, including chocolate cream, vanilla cream, caramel, cappucino and others.
There is also a tradition of eating cheese products on Hanukkah recorded in rabbinic literature. This custom is seen as a commemoration of the involvement of Judith, a “pious” widow who seduced the Assyrian general Holofernes with wine and cheese and then cut off his head after he passed out drunk, totally demoralizing his army.
*Any amount of people can play dreidel. All they need is the top and 10 pieces of “Chanukah gelt” (pieces of candy, pennies, dried beans or even small stones, etc). To start each player antes one piece. If נ Nun comes up nothing is done and the next player takes a turn. If , ג Gimmel comes up the player collects the entire pot. If ה Hey comes up the spinner gets half the pot, and if ש (Shin) appears the player must put one piece of gelt into the pot. The game is won when one player has gotten all the pieces.