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Hanukkah Music in America

Adapted from the liner notes to the CD A Hanukka Celebration by Neil W. Levin

Hanukkah Music in America feat2

HANUKKAH, THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS, is celebrated by Jews everywhere to commemorate the heroic Maccabean victory in 165 BCE over the Greco-Syrians in the fight for religious freedom. It marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the legend of the miraculous eight-day endurance of the light in the candelabrum (menorah). Traditional Hanukkah songs from many parts of the world, along with music composed in America, enrich the experience of this beloved holiday.

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A Brief History of Hanukkah

Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of kislev, the date of the rededication and also the accepted date on which pagan worship of Greek gods had been instituted forcibly in the Temple three years earlier.

Some historians see Hanukkah as the first instance of a successful war for religious liberty and minority religious rights. From a Judaic perspective, Hanukkah commemorates the spiritual survival of Judaism, and its revival after a period that had threatened to bear witness to its total disintegration and assimilation.

The postbiblical festival of dedication is an annual eight-day celebration of the Hasmonean-Maccabean victories of the Jews in 168–165 B.C.E. against the tyranny of the Greco-Syrian Seleucid Empire, ruled by Athenian-born Antiochus IV (Antiochus Epiphanes). The victory also ended the people’s fifteen-year struggle against the prohibition of Judaism and enforced paganism.

Judaism was outlawed and its practices forbidden as capital crimes in many cases. Pagan worship of Greek gods was established and required in the Temple and elsewhere by imperial authority and force; sacred venues and artifacts were defiled or destroyed.

A revolt was begun and led by Mattathias, an elderly priest of the House of Hasmon, and his five sons—of whom Judah, later nicknamed Maccabee (“hammer”), became the supreme commander of the partisan forces. Joined by bands of followers, the Hasmoneans-Maccabees conducted a three-year virtual guerrilla war against the Greco-Syrians as well as against their pro-Hellenistic Jewish supporters.

The war ended in a truce and partial surrender, along with an imperial edict rescinding the anti-Jewish measures and restoring freedom of Jewish worship and observance. As part of that truce, Judah Macabee was permitted to re-enter Jerusalem with his followers and retake control of the Temple.

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The Festival of Lights

Hanukkah is also known as hag ha’urim, the Festival of Lights, in commemoration of the rekindling of the candelabrum (menorah) at the rededication of the Temple in 165BCE—and the legendary “miraculous” eight-day duration of a single day’s worth of undefiled illumination oil on hand after the Temple’s cleansing and purification. That is why today, it is celebrated with an eight-candle candelabra (Hanukkah menorah, or “hanukkiah”).

The historical basis of the festival’s eight-day duration, however, likely stems from its original connection to the Festival of Sukkot. The people had been prohibited from observing the eight-day autumn holiday for three years, and public memory of having to forgo Sukkot was still acute, since its actual date occurred less than twelve weeks earlier. So the celebration was “retroactively postponed” and celebrated belatedly as part of the Temple’s rededication.

Jump to: Brief History | The Festival of Lights | What is Hanukkah Music? | Music in the Archive

What is Hanukkah Music?

Hanukkah music celebrates the survival of the Jewish religion and people, the re-sanctification of the Temple, and the many miracles associated with the events of the time. On a grander scale, it celebrates the victories of freedom over oppression and religious rights over intolerance.

A Hanukkah Celebration


Hanukkah’s connection to music is as old as the holiday itself. Under Judah’s leadership, the Temple was purified and rededicated with elaborate music and Psalm singing. Therefore, the reference to miracles in the Hanukkah liturgy concerns the unlikely victories of untrained resistance fighters as well as the legend of the oil lasting for eight days. 

Psalm 30 is recited or sung in the synagogue during the holiday, both because of its reference to deliverance and because it is thought to have been written or adopted for the original dedication of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, or perhaps the Second Temple.

Traditional Music for the Festival of Lights

The celebration of Hanukkah is a family event, and it is also expressed in the liturgy. The benedictions and liturgy are generally sung at home with the assembled family and guests.

Public candle-lighting ceremonies are also well-established, often associated with Hanukkah concerts. The tradition of annual Hanukkah concerts dates to pre-20th-century Europe and has been perpetuated and even enlarged in many American communities. Cantorial-choral settings of the candlelighting benedictions have thus been created by composers and arrangers throughout the 20th century, in a wide variety of styles.

Liturgical Music of Hanukkah

The Hanukkah ceremony on each of the eight nights begins with the rabbinically ordained lighting of the Hanukkah candles or oil-burning lights, preceded by three benedictions (b’rakhot l’hanukka) and ending with two succeeding liturgical texts (hannerot hallalu and ma’oz tzur). Unlike certain other parts of the Ashkenazi liturgy, there is no single authoritative melody for the Hanukkah benedictions.

Two benedictions are recited (preferably sung) before the lights are kindled. The first one praises and acknowledges God for enabling the Jewish people to attain holiness (closeness to God) through observance of the commandments. The second benediction praises and acknowledges God’s role in ensuring the victorious outcome of the Hanukkah episode. On the first night of Hanukkah, the kindling ceremony includes a third benediction that is also recited on other occasions out of similar sentiment. It expresses gratitude for having been sustained and preserved thus far, and therefore able to reach and witness the current season.

Immediately after the lights are kindled, the assemblage sings hannerot hallalu, which underscores the exclusive function of the lights in recalling God’s miracles, wonders and deliverance.

The candlelighting ceremony concludes with ma’oz tzur, probably the most widely known Hanukkah hymn text, sung after each light appropriate to the particular sequential night has been lit. The poem is the creation of one “Mord’khai,” apparently a 13th-century Ashkenazi poet whose name appears as an acrostic in the initial letters of each of the five stanzas.

The text refers to four principal instances of deliverance of the Jewish people from its oppressors. The fifth and final stanza offers a twenty-four-word summary of the Maccabean struggle, along with the traditional legendary account of the miraculously burning oil.

Hanukkah Music for Kids

Hanukkah observances have traditionally reserved a central role for children in the context of family celebrations. Over the course of centuries, various games were devised, especially for the duration of the burning Hanukkah lights. These games serve both as entertainment and tools for learning reinforcement.

A Hanukkah Celebration


The most popular symbol of Hanukkah games is the dreidl (Yiddish, from drei, to spin or turn), or s’vivon, in Hebrew. This is a four-sided spinning top with the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hei, and shin appearing one on each side. These are the initial letters of the words of the sentence nes gadol haya sham (a great miracle happened there). In modern Israel, those initials are often adjusted to read nun, gimel, hei, pei, representing nes gadol haya po—a great miracle happened here. Countless works have been written around the dreidl’s message and playful nature.

Many songs also refer to latkes in their lyrics—flat cakes or pancakes (usually potato-based) fried in oil, which have become the most typical symbolic Hanukkah food among Ashkenazi Jews. Although such customary Hanukkah foods vary among different traditions and regions (in Israel, for example, the prevailing one is a type of doughnut, or sufganiya), the common element is the oil in which they are fried, recalling the oil involved in the rededication of the Temple.

Jump to: Brief History | The Festival of Lights | What is Hanukkah Music? | Music in the Archive

Hanukkah Music: Works in the Milken Archive

The Milken Archive’s collection includes an entire album devoted to Hanukkah liturgy and folk music composed by some of the greatest Jewish composers in America.

Stream the Full Album on Spotify

Explore the Music and Composers

Br'akhot l'ḥanukka
Solomon Ancis, Raymond Goldstein and Joshua Lind

The Benedictions for the Kindling of the Hanukkah Lights heard here is a setting for cantor and choir by Raymond Goldstein that utilizes unrelated melodies by three traditional cantorial composers. … read the full liner notes »

Hannerot hallalu
Hugo Adler

Hannerot hallalu, which underscores the exclusive function of the lights in recalling God’s miracles and wonders and His deliverance, is sung immediately after the lights are kindled. … read the full liner notes »

Ma'oz tzur
Aaron Miller

Apart from two well-known versions, there are many alternative melodies for ma’oz tzur that have not gained wide currency. The present Ma'oz tzur by Cantor Aaron Miller is familiar only among the contemporary Bobover Hassidim, to which dynasty he belonged. … read the full liner notes »

To Celebrate a Miracle 
Samuel Adler

Samuel Adler’s To Celebrate a Miracle, for large wind ensemble, or wind orchestra, incorporates the melodies of nine of the most popular and best-known Hanukkah-related songs and hymns (seven secular and two liturgical), creatively developing their constituent motives and phrases and judiciously exploiting the various timbres and technical possibilities of the individual instruments. … read the full liner notes »

Leo Low

Leo Low’s LikhtelekhDi khanike likht set to Rosenfeld’s poem have both enjoyed popularity. Low’s is presented here in a choral arrangement by Larry Moore, as it might have been heard in the past by Yiddish folk chorus presentations. … read the full liner notes »

Di khanike likht
Zavel Zilberts

Di khanike likht, the well-known poignant poem by Morris Rosenfeld (1862–1923) about the Hanukkah lights—and their evocation of lament over lost Jewish sovereignty and the ensuing centuries of persecution and suffering—has served as the lyrics for many folksong versions as well as art and quasi-art songs and choral settings. … read the full liner notes »

Hanukkah Madrigal
Herbert Fromm

Herbert Fromm’s Six Madrigals is a series of contrapuntal a cappella choral pieces. In his preface, he wrote, “The work is grouped around the Sabbath and five Jewish holydays and combines secular with sacred selections, so that the term ‘madrigal’ (generally denoting secular content) is given a broader implication here.” … read the full liner notes »

The Flames of Freedom
Samuel Adler

Samuel Adler’s The Flames of Freedom—A Hanukkah Celebration is a cantata for three-part treble-voice chorus and piano, based on ten well-known Hanukkah songs and hymns together with original music to two other liturgical Hanukkah texts. It consists of eight short movements, each representing one of the eight Hanukkah lights. … read the full liner notes »

Mizmor shir ḥanukkat habbayit
Solomon Ancis

Mizmor shir hanukkat habbayit is emblematic of Solomon Ancis’s finely honed skill in writing for male voice choir, with its distinctive timbres and idioms, along with his appreciation for traditional cantorial style. It has been used frequently for Shabbat Hanukkah services—Sabbaths that occur during the eight-day festival. … read the full liner notes »

Nun, Gimel, Hei, Shin
Judith Shatin

Judith Shatin’s Nun, gimel, hei, shin is a simple, gay-spirited round, reflecting the dreidl’s momentum as it spins. The song’s parts may be repeated at will, and the composer has also suggested improvised accompaniments—either in lieu of or in conjunction with the printed piano part recorded here. … read the full liner notes »

Adonai z'kharanu
Alexander Olshanetsky

Alexander Olshanetsky did not necessarily compose this setting of Adonai z'kharanu exclusively for Hanukkah, and indeed it achieved popularity through its performance on a Passover Seder recording by Moishe Oysher. Yet it is no more related to Passover than to Hanukkah or any other occasion for Hallel. … read the full liner notes »

Aspects of a Great Miracle
Michael Isaacson

Aspects of a Great Miracle, by Michael Isaacson, was assembled for a 1997 performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Isaacson selected four of his individual SATB choral settings that had already enjoyed success, and reworked them into this larger format, each piece constituting a movement. … read the full liner notes »

Jump to: Brief History | The Festival of Lights | What is Hanukkah Music? | Music in the Archive

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