Chanukah 101


Chanukiyah – Image (c)

By Dan Brosgol

On the Jewish calendar, Chanukah began on Sunday evening, December 6, and will last until sunset on Monday, December 14. Looking for some clarification on your most pressing Chanukah questions? You’re in luck. Here’s a few you might be wondering about—8 questions for 8 nights of the holiday.

1. How do you spell the name of the holiday in English?

Well, that depends on what you prefer: Hanukah, Hanukkah, Chanukah—take your pick.
I prefer Chanukah.

2. What does the word “Chanukah” mean?

The word Chanukah means “rededication,” referring to the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem following the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids in 164 BCE.

3. What do Jews celebrate at Chanukah?

Well, that’s a little complicated, as there are a two competing narratives of varying historicity:

  • The more kid-friendly version is about the Maccabees, a band of Jewish rebels, defeating the Seleucid army in 164 BCE and the subsequent restoration and rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. When the temple was being cleaned up and it came time to light the temple’s menorah, only one tiny container of oil was found, and it held enough oil to last only one night. Miraculously, that oil lasted for 8 days. And a holiday was born.
  • A different version assumes (probably correctly) that the oil miracle thing is basically a later Rabbinic fabrication, since the story of a guerilla force of fundamentalist rebels triumphing over the Seleucids and their assimilationist pals makes the modern reader feel a little iffy. The Book of Maccabees actually gives us a reason for the 8-day holiday that has nothing to do with oil, though. You can read in that text about how the Maccabees immediately celebrated the 8-day holiday of Sukkot (aka The Festival of Booths) when the temple was restored because they hadn’t been able to do so earlier in the year when they were fighting. The problem is that the Book of Maccabees missed the cutoff for the Jewish Bible because the events happened after the Bible had been accepted and canonized. So the plot thickens.
  • So why not just call it the festival of lights and leave it at that? Seems like an interesting middle ground.

4. What do you light on Chanukah?

This is sort of a trick question. While some people, perhaps most people, including Adam Sandler in “The Chanukah Song,” refer to the candelabra as a menorah, the more appropriate term is a chanukiyah (cha-noo-kee-ya). A menorah in the Temple traditionally only had seven candles, while a chanukiyah has eight branches plus a ninth for the shamash, the one candle that is used to light all others. Over the eight nights, you light the shamash plus the appropriate number of candles for the night of Chanukah that it is. Fun fact: One chanukiyah requires 44 candles to be lit over the course of the holiday. And in my house, where there are seven chanukiyot so each of us can light one, that’s a LOT of candles.

5. What’s the story with the dreidel?

Spinning the dreidel (a top with a Hebrew letter on each of its four sides) to win money, candy, nuts, or anything else that’s sitting in a pile in the middle of the table is a long-standing holiday tradition. Legend has it that when the study of Judaism was prohibited by the Seleucids, Jews would hide their Torah scrolls and instead take out these little tops to feign the appearance of game-playing, or better yet, gambling. Depending on which letter shows on the dreidel when it finally topples over, the spinner has to either contribute extra assets to the pot, claim half or all of its contents, or stand pat. The rules are easy.

6. What do the letters on the dreidelmean?

There are four letters- nun, gimel, hey, and shin, which stand for the phrase Nes gadol haya sham–“a great miracle happened there”—in reference to the Chanukah miracle. In Israel, the letter pey is swapped with the shin, to change the word from sham to po–from “there” to “here.”

7. Are there any special foods for Chanukah?

You bet. Most famously, you may be familiar with potato pancakes, also known as latkes. There are as many variations on latke recipes as there are Jews in the world, so there’s no one recipe, but most will feature potatoes and oil in a pancake shape, plus any number of additional ingredients. Also, the eating of jelly doughnuts, or in Hebrew, sufganiyot (soof-ga-nee-yot), is richly embraced. But it’s way more complicated and delicious than that. Both foods feature, you guessed it, olive oil, in honor of the aforementioned miracle. Lastly, chocolate coins known as gelt are traditionally given, and eaten, throughout the holiday.

8. Do people give (or get) gifts on all 8 nights?

There is no hard and fast answer to this one. In all honesty, gift-giving on Chanukah emerged from the American Jewish experience when Jews were exposed to Christmas, so there’s no ancient tradition or regulation of gift-giving policies. That being said, it has been embraced by the majority of Jews, and most Jewish families will exchange gifts during the holiday. Each family makes its own choice about how many gifts to give, whether they will give gifts each night, or how big of a deal gifts will end up being during the holiday. But in its truest sense, Chanukah is not about presents at all.

Happy Chanukah!

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