San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Oh, Hanukkah, oh, Hanukkah, come light the menorah’

The holiday commemorates the victory of the Jewish Maccabean army over the Greek invaders in 165 B.C. and the subsequent re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem.

Hanukkah’s most recognizable symbol is the eight-branched menorah, the candelabrum lit each of the eight nights in Jewish homes. Among the hubbub of decorations for that other late-year holiday, four metro-area shopping malls in Costa Rica – Multiplaza Escazú, Multiplaza Curridabat, Terramall and Mall San Pedro – display menorahs this time of year, too.

“It’s all part of publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah,” Rabbi Hersch Spalter of Chabad Lubavitch of Costa Rica told The Tico Times. As an international Jewish outreach organization, Chabad erects the mall menorahs each year, as well as a large menorah in western San José’s La Sabana Park. (See “Costa Rica’s largest menorah” below.)

For more on the significance of the menorah, The Tico Times went directly to the experts, the third-graders at the Hebrew Day School in Bello Horizonte in the southwestern San José suburb of Escazú. They had this to tell us during a visit earlier this month:

“The menorah was one of the objects used in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It had seven branches. Unlike the temple menorah, the Hanukkah menorah which we light nowadays has eight branches.” –Tami Rosenstock

“The menorah in the temple was hammered out of one piece of solid gold. The Hanukkah menorah doesn’t have to be gold; it can be made from any other material. Of course, you have to make sure it’s not flammable!” –Karina Stern

“The menorah in the temple had straight branches and pretty cups and flowers to hold the oil. Nowadays, our Hanukkah menorahs can have curved branches too.” –Jaya Rosenstock

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Student Karina Stern took some time to check the details of her menorah.

Alberto Font

“The menorah in the temple was lit by the high priest and it burned all night using olive oil. The Hanukkah menorah is lit by Jews all over the world from nightfall or any time after at home, work, or wherever you happen to find yourself.” –Hannie Barad

“During the war between the Greeks and the Maccabees, the Greeks entered the temple and defiled all the olive oil, making it impure and unfit to light the menorah. In the temple, the menorah could be lit only with pure olive oil. Although it’s preferable to light the Hanukkah menorah with olive oil, candles work too.” –Jaya Fainzilber

“When the Maccabees finally won the war and returned to the temple, they found one flask of olive oil that had remained pure but it was only enough to light the menorah for one day. It would take eight days to prepare new olive oil and bring it to the temple. They lit the menorah with one flask of oil and it burned for eight days. On Hanukkah, we add a new candle with every day to show that the miracle was even greater each day.” –Shaina Spalter

“The holiday of Hanukkah was established to remember the miracle that took place.” –Alex Gurfinkiel

“On Hanukkah, we have a custom to eat latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (donuts), since they’re both made with a lot of oil, to commemorate the miracle that happened with the olive oil.” –Mijal Gutiérrez

Costa Rica’s largest menorah

The country’s tallest menorah stands year-round near the east entrance of La Sabana Park on San José’s west side (Calle 42 at Paseo Colón), behind the statue of former President León Cortés. It measures five meters (16 feet) and was erected by Chabad Lubavitch. It will be illuminated each night of Hanukkah:

Wed.-Thurs., Nov. 27-28: 5:30 p.m.

Fri., Nov. 29: 4:30 p.m.

Sat., Nov. 30: 6:30 p.m.

Sun., Dec. 1: 4:30 p.m., family program; 5:30 p.m., menorah lighting

Mon.-Wed., Dec. 2-4: 5:30 p.m.

Orthodox law forbids the kindling of a fire during Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, which runs from sunset Friday to nightfall Saturday. Lighting times juggle around slightly to accommodate that necessity on Friday and Saturday nights.

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Finished menorahs.

Alberto Font

This year’s ‘Thanksgivukkah’: Why so early?

The eight-day festival of Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev in the lunar Jewish calendar. That usually translates into a solidly December holiday in the secular Gregorian calendar. This year is different, with Hanukkah kicking off the night before Thanksgiving.

The Jewish calendar reconciles days, months and years, explains Rabbi Hersch Spalter of Chabad Lubavitch of Costa Rica. Twelve lunar months clock in at about 11 days shorter than the solar year, causing the Jewish calendar to move back that amount of time each year relative to the secular calendar. The lunar Islamic calendar does exactly that without stopping, drifting backwards through the seasons over a 33-year cycle.

The Jewish calendar uses a built-in correction, Spalter says, by inserting an extra month every three years or so. This year, 5774 in the Jewish calendar, will be one of those “leap years,” pushing things forward again, allowing Passover, for example, to remain a spring holiday and preventing it from creeping back into the winter.

Until then, we have a Hanukkah that falls as early as it can possibly be. (Thanksgiving 2013 occurs as late in November as it possibly can, giving this unusual juxtaposition this year.)

“People sometimes confuse Hanukkah with Christmas since they usually fall around the same time,” Spalter says. “But they have nothing to do with each other.”

Adds Spalter: “This year, that won’t happen.”

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