BILOXI -- There are many misconceptions about Hanukkah, but Rabbi Akiva Hall wasted no time in clearing up what he considers to be the biggest.
"Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas," he said. "There's no connection between the two other than they occur around the same time of year."
Hall, who grew up in Ocean Springs, is the leader of Chabad of Southern Mississippi, a Torah-based movement dedicated to strengthening Jewish life.
Hall operates Chabad with his wife, Hannah, out of their Biloxi home, which also serves as a synagogue for the Coast's Jewish community.
Known outside of Judaism as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah begins today at sunset and ends Dec. 14 at sunset.
"Hanukkah is one of many Jewish holidays," Hall said. "It's actually not a Biblical holiday -- it's not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament."
Hanukkah is an eight-day festival that begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Historically, it represents what happened after the Jews revolted against Greek oppression in Israel.
"The Greek culture tried very hard to assimilate various cultures they conquered," Hall said. "One of the ways to do this to the Jews was to limit the practice of the Jewish religion -- Shabbat observance was made illegal, circumcision for boys was made illegal and the public study of Torah, of Judaism, was also made illegal."
During the years that followed the Greek rule of Israel, a group of Jews known as Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem on the 25th day of the month of Kislev.
"That's one aspect of the miracle," he said. "The other miracle, the one most people are familiar with, is when the temple was rededicated, a menorah was lit. (It) could only be lit with a special type of oil and there wasn't much oil left and they lit a candle with that oil and it burned for eight days."
Menorah, other traditions
Hall said a candle is lit on a menorah every night during Hanukkah as a representation of the second miracle.
"In some families, everyone lights a menorah and in other families, the father lights the menorah," he said. "The way to properly do it is to light it by oil. Prayers are said and we remember the miracles that God has done for us."
Another role the menorah plays in Hanukkah is promoting Jewish pride, as it lets others know one is Jewish by lighting it and placing it in a window, Hall said.
"I want to make sure all of the Jews in the community have menorahs," he said. "We have menorah kits available if people need them."
Eating foods fried in oil such as donuts and latkes is another staple of Hanukkah.
Hall, however, said one tradition associated with the holiday was completely Western in its origins.
"There is no obligation to give presents," he said. "That's something that is American. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's not a true Hanukkah tradition."
The dreidel, a top used for game-playing, also is synonymous with Hanukkah.
"The dreidel was a way for the Jews to practice Hebrew and read the Torah while under the Greek influence," he said. "There are Hebrew letters on all four sides of the toy."
One of the ways Hall said he hopes to reconnect Jews with Hanukkah this year is by hosting a community menorah lighting at Edgewater Mall.
"We're going to do this on Thursday, Dec. 10 at 6:30 p.m.," he said. "This is the fifth night of Hanukkah. Mayor Gilich from Biloxi will be the guest speaker."
Hall said the ceremony will include face painting and food such as latkes and donuts.
"Hanukkah has a meaning for everyone," he said. "It represents when the Jewish people were at an all-time low and to see open miracles from God. It shows that in darkness and desperation, there's always hope and the possibility of good to come."