Medieval Hanukkah - Judaism answers questions

Medieval Hanukkah

Titus menorah
Roman troops carry off the menorah from the Second Temple
(Arch of Titus, Rome, 70 AD)

In 70 AD, the Roman emperor Titus destroyed the Second Temple. Titus plundered the menorah along with other treasures from the Temple and brought it back to Rome in triumph. Now that the Second Temple had been destroyed, the idea of celebrating its rebuilding must have seemed a little depressing. But the olives still came ripe every fall, and every year people still celebrated Hanukkah, fried food, lit lamps, and remembered when the Jews had been independent and rebuilt their Temple.

After 135 AD, when Hadrian forced many Jews to leave Israel and Jews began living scattered all over the Roman Empire and the Parthian Empire, most Jews still lived in places where olive trees grew, and they still celebrated the olive oil harvest and their now lost independence. But by the Middle Ages, many Jews had moved further north, to Austria and Germany and Poland and Russia, where olives didn't grow. They stopped thinking of Hanukkah as an olive oil festival, but it was dark in northern Europe, and the festival of lights still seemed important. Christians killed Jews, and the Jews also liked the idea of having a Jewish country of their own.

19th century dreidel
Dreidel from the late 1800s (Austria)

Sometime around 1500 AD (or maybe earlier), there was a popular gambling game in Europe that people called "totum", meaning "All" in Latin. You spun a four-sided die shaped like a top, and if it landed on "Totum" you took the whole pot. If it landed on "Aufer" you took half the pot. "Depone" meant to put in two pieces, and "Nihil" meant to do nothing. Jews in Europe played this game too, and by the late 1700s they began to think of Totum as a Hanukkah game. Jews called the four-sided die a dreidl, and the Hebrew words used in the game were "Gadol", "Haya", "Sham" and "Nes".

Jews continued to fry foods in oil for Hanukkah too. Around the Mediterranean, Jewish people made sweet doughnuts, fritters, and briks (fried pastry around an egg) for Hanukkah. Further north, people fried grated turnips into pancakes called latkes. When people in Germany, Poland, and Russia began to eat potatoes, about 1750 AD, Jews began to fry potato pancakes for Hanukkah instead.

Earlier story of Hanukkah
Learn by Doing - Celebrating Hanukkah

Bibliography and further reading about Hanukkah:

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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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