World Marks Feast of Lights
Menu JTA Search

World Marks Feast of Lights

Download PDF for this date

Chanukah, the Feast of Lights commemorating a Jewish victory, is celebrated in various ways among the Jews of the world. In each country something has been added to the old traditional celebration to which Young Jewry looks forward principally because it includes pancakes, gifts of money and stories of the prowess of the Maccabees.

The oldest Chanukah customs have been retained by the Sephardic Jews, those who speak Ladino and trace their traditions back to Spain. The newest manner of celebrating Chanukah will be found among the Jews of Tel Aviv.

The Sephardic Jews are concentrated in the Balkan countries and in Turkey. Salonica is their principal city and the most important Jewish center in the whole of the Orient, Palestine included. It is in Salonica that the Sephardic tradition has been best preserved.

When Chanukah comes, the Sephardic teachers lead their pupils from one wealthy home to the other, asking for a different kind of food at each stopping place. The housewives deem it an especially good deed to give the visitors fruit, wine, cakes, raisins and other sweets. All these goodies are then taken back to the synagogue, where the teacher and pupils hold a party, at which they repeat certain of the psalms a great many times.

Some of the Sephardim of Jerusalem observe the custom of visiting the grave of Simon the Holy. They tell stories about how Arabs stoned a Sephardic holy man as he was on his way to the grave. The Arabs dropped in their tracks and could not rise until the Holy Man had prayed for them. I have heard similar stories about the grave of Mother Rachel and other sacred burial places.

The Sephardic Cabbalists stay up in “minyans” all night and read the Zohar. After that they drink black coffee and eat various fruits.


In other Sephardic circles, as among the Ashkenazim on Purim, it is the custom to wear masks on Chanukah. The maskers sing in the streets and go from house to house performing plays. This custom of wearing masks on Chanukah is thought to be very old. We find mention of it in a book published in Smyrna in 1731 and probably written by the followers of Sabbatai Zevi.

To the students at the yeshivas of Poland and Latvia Chanukah signified good meals and all too infrequent good times. They indulged in various games of cards, dominos, dreidl and kvitlach. And they regaled themselves with stories of the ancient Jewish men of might.


Of particular interest are the Chanukah celebrations in the courts of the Chassidic wonder rabbis. One of these courts, that of Reb David of Talna, is described in the memoirs of the famous can {SPAN}###{/SPAN} Linkofsky.

###me of Reb David, the ###ere was a Chanukah ###gold. The lamp was ###an and looked like a ###rs and little rooms. It had cost a huge sum of money. Near the lamp there stood a high silver chair upon which were inscribed the words: “David, King of Israel, Lives Eternally.” The lighting of the lamp was accompanied by a ceremony which included songs played by musicians specially hired for the occasion.

But there were those who disapproved of the ways of the Talner, and they reported to the Czar that there was a Rabbi who set himself up as a king.

Although it was well known that Reb David had nothing to do with politics, the government officials believed the story and issued an order to have Reb David “taken dead or alive.” Fortunately, the commissar of Talna, Ispravnin, was a friend of Reb David and warned him in time of the danger which threatened. The Talner fled to Brod, Galicia, where he lived for some time. When the business had blown over, he came back to Russia, but his chair was hidden away.

His Chanukah celebrations, however, continued to be very elaborate. Chassidim from all over the region came to attend them. They would surround the rebbe, clapping their hands as he danced and recited a quotation reminiscent of the inscriptions on his chair.

Often these dances lasted until midnight, when the Chassidim would repair to the taverns and drink all night.


The Chanukah celebration in Palestine is much different and quite original. There all sorts of Jews—Sephardim, Yemenites, Bukarians and Jews from the Causasus gather for the celebration near the high water tower in Tel Aviv, where Burgomaster Dizengoff lights the first Chanukah candle.

The city is filled with visitors from Jerusalem, Haifa and the surrounding colonies. The school children form in lines, each child with a candle in his hand, and ten or fifteen youngsters march through the streets of Tel Aviv. At the head of each group there is a band which plays various national songs which the children sing.

This is the greatest part of the celebration and is called the Celebration of the Candles. The Chanukah lamp of the municipality is placed high up on the water tower and can be seen not only from the city but from the surrounding region, where it excites the admiration of the Arabs.


In Palestine it is the custom to go to the town of Mudiem every Chanukah. Mudiem is a small forsaken village about which Josephus Flavius tells in his histories, where it is called the home of the Hasmonean family.

I visited the town last year, going by auto from Tel Aviv and passing the town of Ludd and the children’s school at Ben Shemen on the way. Now Mudiem is called Al Mudia. It is very poor and full of old ruins which the Arabs call “Kirbat Al Yahud.” There is a legend among the Arabs that here is the grave of the old Jewish heroes, and it may indeed be the site of the graves of Judah Maccabee and his brothers.

Nearby, there is an old ruin the Arabs call the “grave of the forty,” who are supposed to have been Jewish heroes who died in the battle for liberation. The Arabs say that when Jews will come and settle in that place, Palestine will become a Jewish land once more.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund