"There is a tradition to eat cheese on Chanukah." (Shulchan Aruch 670:2, Rem"a; Mishnah Berurah 670:10)


The Book of Yehudit —a book not considered part of the 24 Books of our Bible, as too the Book of Maccabees containing the Hanukah story— both include Yehudit—the daughter of Yohanan the Kohen Gadol, and brother therefore of Matityahu in our Al HaNisim prayer on the holiday—a daring and beautiful widow, who is upset with her Jewish countrymen for not trusting God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors. She goes with her loyal maid to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, to whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him information on the Israelites. Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent one night and feeds him salty cheese. To quench his thirst she plies him with wine, and as he lies in a drunken stupor, she decapitates him, then takes his head back to her fearful countrymen. The Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel is saved.

So in her merit, we too eat cheese.

In the dark Greek exile, the Greeks sought to put out the light of our Torah observance of Brit Mila (circumcision), Shabbat, and Kiddush HaChodesh (maintaining the Jewish calendar based on the lunar cycle). They believed that their "enlightened" view and philosophic/scientific approach had to be accepted—this view of course included such "advanced" societal values as involuntary slavery, infanticide, eldercide, and child rape.

When we eat cheese according to the Rabbinic decree about Hanukah cited above, we hearken back to Mount Sinai, for on Shavuot Day it is also a custom to eat dairy foods, and renew our dedication to Torah and mitzvot, those precepts that have preserved our people. For "more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people."

The word in Hebrew for cheese, 'gevina', has a numerical value of 70, the same as Sod/secret, thus reminding us of the hidden hand of the Al-mighty, the hand which directs all that happens below. That is why we spin the Dreidel from the top, to hint to the miraculous deliverance—controlled by the hand of G‑d—we received during this time.

Cheese and milk

We have always eaten them on Shavuot to connect to the reception of the Torah over 3300 years ago. And we eat on Hanukah to celebrate a victory, the victory of our Torah over Greek "enlightenment."

So let’s talk cheese. I'm going to try to eat my Hanukah cheese in cubes.


Cube means to raise to the third power, the power of 3.

So where is the 3 in Hanukah?

As we said, the Greeks attempted to disrupt Jewish life by issuing a ban against the three institutions of Rosh Chodesh, Shabbat, and Berit Milah. This attempt was focused at the "heart" of Jewish practice, at our way to bring G‑d into our physical lives. The Greeks could not fathom that. They would not mind if a Jew fasted for health purposes, but they did not want us to associate our physicality with holiness and our spirituality. For this reason they forbade us to keep these three basic mitzvot. Shabbat involves much physical pleasure, but it is for the sake of G‑d and his Holy day that we are supposed to enjoy it. Brit Milah is a sign that we curb our desires for the sake of better fulfillment of the commandments and G‑d’s will. Chodesh, celebrating the monthly renewal of the moon, strengthens our faith that even though we might almost disappear like the moon, our love for G‑d and His love for us will always enable us to grow and shine.

The Greeks therefore tried to eliminate 3 of our most important spiritually powerful connections to the Creator.

So how do these three (the power of 3) apply to our cheese cube?

The Ben Ish Hai writes that the first letter of the word חֹדֶשׁ Chodesh (month) is חֹ Cheit, the second letter of the word שַּׁבָּת Shabbat is בָּ Bet, and the third letter of the word מִילָה Mila is לָ Lamed. These three letters spell the word חָלָב Chalav/milk, and therefore the custom developed to eat dairy products like cheese on Chanukah.

And with this eating of dairy on Hanukah, much like eating Haman's hat or his ears or his pockets (Hamantashen) on Purim, is—in the words of the Netivot Shalom-- our ultimate victory: imbuing our physical actions with spiritual intention, and thus bringing G‑d more into our lives.

OK, everyone, "Say Cheese!