Medieval Hanukkah – Jewish holidays

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Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus: Roman soldiers carry off the big menorah from the Second Temple in Jerusalem (70 AD, but the arch was built in the 80s AD)

In 70 AD, after the First Jewish Revolt, the Roman emperor Titus destroyed the Second Temple. Titus plundered the menorah along with other treasures from the Temple. He 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. So every year people still celebrated Hanukkah, fried food, lit lamps, and remembered when the Jews had been independent and rebuilt their Temple.

After the Second Jewish Revolt in 135 ADHadrian forced many Jews to leave Israel. Jewish people scattered all over the Roman Empire and the Parthian Empire. But most Jews still lived in places where olive trees grew. They still celebrated the olive oil harvest and the independent country they had lost.

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, so the Jews still missed having a Jewish country of their own.

Dreidel from the late 1800s (Austria)

Dreidel from the late 1800s (Austria)

What about the dreidel game?

Well, 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. But Jews called the four-sided die a dreidel, and they used the Hebrew words “Gadol”, “Haya”, “Sham” and “Nes”.

Jews kept on frying 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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By |2017-08-24T11:55:10+00:00August 24th, 2017|Medieval, Religion|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Medieval Hanukkah – Jewish holidays. Study Guides, August 24, 2017. Web. December 16, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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