Marcus and I are an interfaith family. While I don’t identify with any organized religion, I have grown up celebrating Christmas each December. As I have spent this past year being geographically much closer with Marcus’ family than my own, I have found myself learning about and sharing in many of the customs of Judaism. Many of the things I have learned have been extremely interesting, and I’m not just saying that! I find learning about the traditions and customs of other cultures fascinating, so I asked Marcus to help me share some lessons with you! We wrote this post together, and we hope you learn something new!
Note: These facts come from our own knowledge and research of Jewish customs. If your own experience or knowledge differs, please share! We would love to hear others’ perspectives.
Judaism is old. Really old. While much of the religion closely represents the nascent Judaism of over 3,000 years ago, some aspects are now completely foreign, vestiges of a time when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem.
The Temple was the stage for the holiest practices of ancient Judaism. Destroyed in 586 BC after being first built in 957 BC, it was rebuilt beginning in 538 BC. The Second Temple, as it was known, was effectively defiled by the ruling Greeks. This, predictably, enraged the Jews, and spurred the Maccabeean revolt. Led by Judah Maccabee, they reclaimed the ancient land of Judea and restored the Temple.
The word Hanukkah is roughly translated to “dedication” in Hebrew, signifying the rededication of the Temple.
Of course, this is all well and good, but what’s the miracle, here? Well, when the Temple was reclaimed by Jewish soliders, there was only a single container of kosher oil to light the Temple’s menorah. A single container typically lasted a single day, but this oil burned for eight days, long enough for new oil to be pressed.
1.There is no right or wrong way to spell “Hanukkah” - in English, at least.
Hebrew is an interesting language. Read right to left, one other component unfamiliar to those of us who grew up speaking English is the “chh” sound. Pronounced poorly, it’s vaguely akin to the sound a cat makes when coughing up a hairball, but for native Hebrew speakers, it’s a very abbreviated noise that sounds surprisingly natural in the flow of speech. The “chh” sound comes from the letter chet. Chet looks like this: ח
The reason Hanukkah is alternatively spelled Chanukkah is because the word begins with the letter chet, rather than the letter heh (ה), one of the letters on the dreidel, and a letter which makes the traditional H sound.
Ultimately, transliteration isn’t an exact science. Purists will opt to spell the holiday’s name “Chanukkah,” but purer purists will forgo the English entirely and choose חֲנֻכָּה
2. Hanukkah is not the most religiously significant Jewish holiday.
Far from it, in fact. Hanukkah is merely the most widely known Jewish holiday due to its proximity to the Christian holiday of Christmas.
3.The date of Hanukkah each year is determined by the “lunisolar” calendar.
Judaism precedes the modern (ish) Julian calendar by over 1000 years. By the time the Romans were figuring out leap years and roads in 45 BC, Jews had been relying on their own lunisolar calendar to identify their holidays for centuries. The lunisolar calendar is keyed to lunar phases, themselves subject to the vagaries of orbits and suffering from “error” of 11-12 days a year. So while Hanukkah started last night this year, next year it will begin on December 20th, and the year after that, November 27th (!). However, the first night of Hanukkah is always on the 25th day of the month Kislev in the Hebrew calendar. This has caused much consternation for American Jewish kids who’d really prefer that Hanukkah overlap with Christmas and winter break.
Ironically, this proximity to Christmas and subsequent secularization of the holiday runs directly opposite to the beginnings of the holiday, a revolt against Jewish assimilation and secularization. However, most Jews view this in a positive light: the ability of Jews to assimilate into American society is a profound indicator of religious tolerance.
4.We don’t light the menorah on Hanukkah.
On Hanukkah, Jews light the candles on a hanukia (pronounce ha-noo-kee-uh), though many people incorrectly refer to it as a menorah. The word menorah refers to the original, seven-branched candelabrum housed in the Jewish Temple. Modern hanukiot are modeled after the menorah and images of the menorah often appear in Hanukkah celebrations, but candles are always lit on a hanukia!
5. There are special rules for how to light and display the Hanukkah candles.
Hanukiot have places for nine candles: one for each night of Hanukkah and one for the shamash, or servant candle, usually placed at a different height or position. The shamash is lit first, then used to light the remaining candles. The shamash is used because the Hanukkah candles are meant for viewing only and should not be used for any other purpose, such as lighting a household at night.
Hanukkah candles should be placed from right to left, as the Hebrew language is read, but they should be lit from left to right, in order to pay honor to the newer thing first. You can see on our hanukia from last night, the first night’s candle is placed on the far right. Hanukkah candles are meant to be displayed in a window or near a door so that passersby may see them and be reminded of the miracle of Hanukkah. (Exceptions to this rule have been made in certain places or in times that Jews faced religious persecution.) The Hanukkah candles should be left to burn for at least one half hour, though many people leave them to burn down the whole way.
6. Jewish people eat fried foods on Hanukkah to symbolize the miracle of the oil.
The miracle of Hanukkah was the holy oil lasting for eight days. While many Jewish holidays are traditionally somber occasions, on Hanukkah, Jews eat sweet foods fried in oil like latkes and sufganiyot, or filled fried donuts, to commemorate the sweetness of their victory and the miraculous oil. Plus, who doesn’t love donuts?
7. Gifts are not traditionally given on Hanukkah.
Gift-giving is not a traditional part of Hanukkah, but is likely the result of Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas. The only traditional gift given on Hanukkah is Hanukkah gelt, or coins. Today, Hanukkah gelt is represented by chocolate coins, but historically, Hanukkah gelt was money, given to the children of the families.
9. “Latke” and “gelt” are Yiddish words, not Hebrew.
That’s all. : )
10. Dreidels in the US are different from dreidels in Israel.
Children often play with dreidels during Hanukkah. A dreidel is a four-sided top with one Hebrew letter on each side. Here is the US, dreidels have the letters nun נ (none), gimmel ג (all), heh ה (half), and shin ש (put). These letters also stand for the phrase “nes gadol haya sham,” “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel, shin is replaced by the letter pay פ, to represent the phrase “A great miracle happened here.”
Much of this information can be found at the Jewish Virtual Library.
Did you learn something new about Hanukkah today?