Israelis began the eight-day festival of Hanukkah at sundown Sunday with a warning against overdoing the holiday culinary specialties from someone who should know — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Families gathered at sundown to light the first candle of the Hanukkah festival, which commemorates an ancient victory of Jewish forces in the Holy Land against foreign conquerors.

After the candle lighting, many families sat down to a traditional meal that included delights like fried potato pancakes and jelly-filled doughnuts.

Many assume they'll gain weight during the festival, when children are off from school, families get together and — in the rainy days of winter — there is little else to do than sit and eat.

Sharon advised against letting go. The badly overweight Sharon, 77, was back at work Sunday, a week after suffering a mild stroke. Doctors insisted that he must go on a diet, something they've been urging unsuccessfully since 1965.

Estimates of the rotund, 5-foot-7 Israeli leader's weight varied widely in Israeli media, from 258 to 313 pounds.

Speaking at the beginning of the weekly Cabinet meeting, Sharon smiled as he said, "I hope you will all eat doughnuts and potato pancakes. You have permission to eat them, but I recommend that you don't overdo it," evoking laughter from the ministers.

Theologically, Hanukkah is a minor festival on the Jewish calendar, but it has grown to prominence because of its proximity to Christmas. This year the first night of the holiday coincides with Christmas Day, a rare coincidence of the two calendars — the first time it has happened since 1959.

The practice of gift giving carried over into Hanukkah because of the Christmas precedent, though the Jewish holiday precedes the Christian one.

Hanukkah recalls the victory against all odds of the small Maccabean army against the Syrian king Antiochus in 165 B.C. The eight-day length of the festival is a result of the account that when the Jews rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by the invaders, a single vial of oil, enough for one day, burned miraculously for eight.

The story, though it is not included in accounts of the struggle, has become one of the main trademarks of Hanukkah, which means "dedication" in Hebrew. The holiday is also known as the "Festival of Lights."

Rabbi Michael Melchior, a member of the Israeli parliament, said the holiday has significance for modern-day Jews as well. "It is the festival of assimilation and counter-assimilation, of being able to keep your identity, your tradition, your religion, your belief, even when the trends are against this," he told AP Television.