Hanukkah is celebrated with a series of rituals that are performed every day throughout the 8-day holiday, some are family-based and others communal. There are special additions to the daily prayer service, and a section is added to the blessing after meals.
Kindling the Hanukkah lights
Each night, throughout the 8 day holiday, a candle or oil-based light, is lit. As a universally practiced “beautification” (hiddur mitzvah) of the mitzvah, the number of lights lit is increased by one each night. An extra light called a shamash, meaning “attendant” or “sexton,” is also lit each night, and is given a distinct location, usually higher, lower, or to the side of the others. The purpose of the extra light is to adhere to the prohibition, specified in the Talmud (Tracate Shabbat 21b–23a), against using the Hanukkah lights for anything other than publicizing and meditating on the Hanukkah miracle.
Hanukkah lights should burn for at least one half hour after it gets dark. The custom of the Vilna Gaon observed by many residents of Jerusalem as the custom of the city, is to light at sundown, although most Hasidim light later, even in Jerusalem. Many Hasidic Rebbes light much later, because they fulfill the obligation of publicizing the miracle by the presence of their Hasidim when they kindle the lights. Inexpensive small wax candles sold for Hanukkah burn for approximately half an hour, so on most days this requirement can be safely ignored.
Blessings over the candles
Typically three blessings (brachot; singular: brachah) are recited during this eight-day festival when lighting the candles: On the first night of Hanukkah, Jews recite all three blessings; on all subsequent nights, they recite only the first two.
The blessings are said before or after the candles are lit depending on tradition. On the first night of Hanukkah one light (candle or oil) is lit on the right side of the menorah, on the following night a second light is placed to the left of the first, and so on, proceeding from right to left over the eight nights. On each night, the leftmost candle is lit first, and lighting proceeds from left to right.
Each night after the lighting of the candles, the hymn Ma’oz Tzur is sung. The song contains six stanzas. The first and last deal with general themes of divine salvation, and the middle four deal with events of persecution in Jewish history, and praises God for survival despite these tragedies (the exodus from Egypt, the Babylonian captivity, the miracle of the holiday of Purim, the Hasmonean victory), and a longing for the days when Judea will finally triumph over Rome.
The song was composed in the thirteenth century by a poet only known through the acrostic found in the first letters of the original five stanzas of the song: Mordecai. It became the traditional hymn sung after the candlelighting in Ashkenazi homes. The familiar tune is most probably a derivation of a German Protestant church hymn or a popular folk song.
Dreidels / Spinning tops in a Jerusalem market
After lighting the candles and Ma’oz Tzur, singing other Hanukkah songs is customary in many Jewish homes. Some Hasidic and Sephardi Jews recite Psalms, such as Psalms 30, Psalms 67, and Psalms 91. In North America and in Israel it is common to exchange presents or give children presents at this time. In addition, many families encourage their children to give tzedakah (charity) in lieu of presents for themselves.
Special additions to daily prayers
An addition is made to the “hoda’ah” (thanksgiving) benediction in the Amidah (thrice-daily prayers), called Al ha-Nissim (“On/about the Miracles”). This addition refers to the victory achieved over the Syrians by the Hasmonean Mattathias and his sons.
“We thank You also for the miraculous deeds and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and the saving acts wrought by You, as well as for the wars which You waged for our ancestors in ancient days at this season. In the days of the Hasmonean Mattathias, son of Johanan the high priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous Greco-Syrian kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from the ordinances of Your will, then You in your abundant mercy rose up for them in the time of their trouble, pled their cause, executed judgment, avenged their wrong, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and insolent ones into the hands of those occupied with Your Torah. Both unto Yourself did you make a great and holy name in Thy world, and unto Your people did You achieve a great deliverance and redemption. Whereupon your children entered the sanctuary of Your house, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Hanukkah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name.”
The Torah is read every day in the shacharit morning services in synagogue, on the first day beginning from Numbers 6:22 (according to some customs, Numbers 7:1), and the last day ending with Numbers 8:4. Since Hanukkah lasts eight days it includes at least one, and sometimes two, Jewish Sabbaths (Saturdays). The weekly Torah portion for the first Sabbath is almost always Miketz, telling of Joseph’s dream and his enslavement in Egypt. The Haftarah reading for the first Sabbath Hanukkah is Zechariah 2:14 – Zechariah 4:7. When there is a second Sabbath on Hanukkah, the Haftarah reading is from 1Kings 7:40 – 1Kings 7:50.
The Hanukkah menorah is also kindled daily in the synagogue, at night with the blessings and in the morning without the blessings.
The menorah is not lit on the Sabbath, but rather prior to the beginning of the Sabbath at night and not at all during the day. During the Middle Ages “Megillat Antiochus” was read in the Italian synagogues on Hanukkah just as the Book of Esther is read on Purim. It still forms part of the liturgy of the Yemenite Jews.
The last day of Hanukkah is known as Zot Hanukkah, from the verse read on this day in the synagogue Numbers 7:84, Zot Chanukat Hamizbe’ach: “This was the dedication of the altar”). According to the teachings of Kabbalah and Hasidism, this day is the final “seal” of the High Holiday season of Yom Kippur, and is considered a time to repent out of love for God. In this spirit, many Hasidic Jews wish each other Gmar chatimah tovah (“may you be sealed totally for good”), a traditional greeting for the Yom Kippur season. It is taught in Hasidic and Kabbalistic literature that this day is particularly auspicious for the fulfillment of prayers.