Poster Menorah
Israeli children celebrate the Jewish festival of Hanukkah with a menorah, which holds one candle for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.
Nadav Neuhaus/AFP/Getty Images

8 songs for 8 nights: Music for Hanukkah

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah recalls the story of how a small army of Jews — the Maccabees — defeated the oppressive Seleucid army to reclaim Jerusalem and their Holy Temple. When the Jews went to light the Temple's ner tamid (sanctuary lamp) there was enough oil to last only one day. But a miracle happened: One day's worth of oil lasted eight days.

Since then, Jews commemorate this miracle and the story of Hanukkah by lighting a hanukkiah (a menorah with eight branches, one for each night of Hanukkah). The lighting of the hanukkiah is followed by the blessing heard here:

After reciting the blessing for lighting the Hanukkah candles, it is the custom to sing "Ma'oz Tzur," or "Rock of Ages." "Ma'oz Tzur" is a 13th-century piyyut (Jewish liturgical poem) that celebrates how the Jews survived four enemies of their past.

"Ocho Candelikas" ("Eight Little Candles") was composed by Flory Jagoda, who was born into the Sephardic Jewish community of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, not long after Hanukkah 1926. Over the years, there have been lots of versions made of this charming tune, sung in Ladino, and it's a rare treat to hear it performed by its creator. Jagoda is in her 90s, but she continues singing, teaching and working to preserve the musical legacy of the Sephardi Jews.

Oh, Chanukah. Oh, Hanukkah. Oh, Channukah. Oh, why are there so many ways to spell the name of this holiday? There's actually an answer to this question, but never mind! Just enjoy actor/folk-singer/social activist/national treasure Theodore Bikel as he dishes up a hearty helping of a holiday favorite. He sings first in Yiddish — a language for which he had deep love — and then in English.

This is, like, Pentatonix with yarmulkes. Listen to this fun mashup of Hanukkah tunes, beginning with the most well-known song for the holiday, "The Dreidel Song."

Colorful dreidels
Wikimedia Commons

This is an up-tempo rendition of a Hebrew favorite. S'vivon is the Hebrew equivalent of the Yiddish "dreidel" (or "dreydl," or "dreidel," or "draydle" — another one of those spelling quandaries) and refers to a spinning top that Jews play with at holiday time. The top can be made of any one of a number of materials and is always decorated with Hebrew letters that stand for the words "A Great Miracle Happened There." That is, of course, unless you're in Israel, in which case the letters stand for "A Great Miracle Happened Here."

This was a fun find on a holiday concert CD featuring the Jay Ungar & Molly Mason Family Band — yes, it's the same Jay Ungar who wrote "Ashokan Farewell," made famous in the Ken Burns TV documentary series The Civil War. Jay says he wrote "Lights of Chanukah" for his daughter Ruthie years ago, and she can be heard on this performance.

"See, the Conqu'ring Hero Comes!" is from Georg Frederic Handel's oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. Judas the Maccabee was the leader of the small but determined army of Jews that conquered the Seleucids and pushed them out of Judea. It's during this moment of victory in Handel's oratorio that we hear "See, the Conqu'ring Hero Comes!"

Hear more

More Hanukkah musical treasures await in the all-new holiday special Candles Burning Brightly, hosted by Mindy Ratner.

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