Hanukka Dreidel and Hanukkia

The Festival of Hanukka is described very early in Jewish historical sources as a festival of joy and happiness (1st Book of the Maccabees, Chapter 4). With the passage of time, however, the traditional sources became blurred as other historical events became associated with it.

These were principally the miracle of the oil-lamp (when one day's supply of purified oil for the holy lamp in the temple lasted 8 days until new supplies were available) and the victory of the Maccabees over the Greek invaders of the Land of Israel in 164 BC.

These events are commemorated by the lighting of candles every night for 8 nights. It is customary not to carry out normal household activities whilst the candles are still burning and therefore the children are given special toys to amuse them. The most popular of these is the "Savivon" (Hanukka dreidel), a spinning top which generally appears as a cube either with two opposite sides extended and sharpened into a point or with one side only sharpened and the opposite side bearing a peg for easier handling and rotating.

The origin of the savivon in fact goes back to very ancient days in India when the four sides were marked with the points of the compass. In the Middle Ages the game spread to Europe, especially Germany, the four sides of those used for Hanukka being impressed with Hebrew initials – which indicated "draw" (Yiddish: nisht, which means "nothing"), "win" (gantz, which means "whole"), "win half" (halb, which means "half"), and "lose" (shtel, which means "put in"). These same initials also stand for the phrase in Hebrew "Nes Gadol Haya Sham", meaning "a great miracle occurred there" which refers to the miracle of the oil, and eventually in Jewish circles the letters came to be given this meaning exclusively. In modern times in Israel the last letter has been changed to indicate "here" instaed of "there".

The savivon is found in a multitude of colourful forms made from many different materials including wood, silver and lead, moulded and covered with copper. Savivon is a more modern name: in Yiddish amongst other names it is called "Dreidel" or "Trandel" and Jewish children used to cast their own by pouring molten lead into specially made wooden moulds.

The stamp shows a cubic copper savivon. Its convex base has a projection in its centre on which the savivon revolves. This savivon was fashioned at the beginning of this century at the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem.

The stamp was issued in 1997, and is one of eight in a series dedicated to Hanukka issued between 1993-99. Designer: I. Gabay.


The previous stamp, featured with the Hebrew article (issued: 1999, design: I. Gabay), belongs to the same series and shows a candelabrum for the Festival of Hanukka – the Hanukkia.

This Hanukkia has at its centre an impression of Mattathias and above this the inscription. "For the Miracles and for the Mighty Deeds..." It shows the evolution of the festival of Hanukka from the time of Mattathias to the emergence of the customs of celebrating the festival by lighting eight candles and saying the prayer "For the Miracles and for the Mighty Deeds..." .

In 167 BCE, Mattathias, described as the son of John (Yohanon) who was the son of Simeon (Shimon), and his five sons led the national rebellion against the Greeks and those who had succumbed to their influence - and in particular against the decree of the Greek King, Antiochus Epiphanes banning the Jewish religion.

According to the account given in the Book of Maccabees (Book H, P. 2, v.1), Mattathias was a priest (and in some references is described as 'High Priest', a term indicating respect rather than high office). He was of the highly respected Jehoiarib family of Babylon whose move to Jerusalem is described in the Book of Nehemya (11 : 10) and he himself lived in Modin (Modi-in). His leaving Jerusalem appears to have been as a result of his bitterness about the Hellenisation of the Jews in the city and its influence on their religion. The historian, Josephus Flavius, described him as being Asamoneus (Hashmonai)(Antiquities of the Jews, Book 12, 6 : 1) but we cannot know for certain whether this was an additional 'nick-name' or if it was in fact his family's name, maybe after "Heshmon" where they lived. (Joshua 15 : 27).

The uprising broke out in Modi-in, after Mattathias had killed a Jew who wished to obey an order of the King's men to make sacrifices on the altar to a pagan god. Mattathias gave the cry "Follow me, those who are zealous of the Law and G-d's covenant" (Maccabim: Book 1, 2, v. 27) which became the uprising's battle-cry. Mattathias did not live to see the uprising's end, dying of old age and bequeathing the title Maccabees (Maccabi) to his son Judas (Yehuda) and the trust to continue the leadership of the uprising.

In 164 BCE Judas Maccabees liberated Jerusalem, re-sanctified the Temple and renewed Holy Worship there. On the 25th. day of the Hebrew month Kislev the temple was cut off for 8 days and in memory of this event Jews celebrate the festival of Hanukka every year for eight days starting on this date.

The custom of lighting candles on Hanukka is not mentioned in the Books of the Maccabees but first appears in writings from the days of the Second Temple, so in fact we do not know exactly when the custom originated or in what circumstances. Until the middle ages individual oil lamps, standing in a row, were lit, and there were various different customs for lighting them. Later a single candelabrum for all the candles began to be used and this could be made from a wide variety of materials - stone, pottery, metal, or any every-day material which would be added to it.

The Hanukkia would be molded and decorated with motifs – flowers, animals, religious symbols. The Rabbis even prescribed a special prayer for the festival, starting with the words 'For the miracles and for the mighty deeds...'.

The Hanukkia shown on the stamp was made in the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem by the sculptor Boris Schatz. The candle holders on the two sides of the Hanukkia are reminiscent of those from the Middle Ages in Europe, Aleppo (Syria) and in Persia. In these places it was the custom to light two extra candles one to be used for the lighting of the eight ceremonial candles and a second for illumination.