25 Questions about Hanukkah, Answered!
From proper spellings and whether to call it a menorah or hanukkiah, to how to celebrate in space and where you can find a competitive dreidel game, we have the answers to 25 pressing questions about the Festival of Lights.
1. HOW DO YOU SPELL IT?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, variant spellings of the celebration include: Chanucha, Hanuca, Hanucka, Khanukah, and most every other combination imaginable, with the most common spellings today being Hanukkah and Chanukah. The reason for all the spellings is because Hanukkah isn't a native English word—it's not even from a language that uses the Latin alphabet.
When converting between alphabets, there is a choice whether to preserve the pronunciation or the spelling, and sometimes the results don't match [PDF]. In the case of Hanukkah and Chanukah, Hanukkah represents the spelling, while Chanukah more closely represents the original pronunciation, with a Ch like the Scottish pronunciation of loch.
2. WHAT DOES IT COMMEMORATE?
The story is that in the second century BCE Judea was under the rule of the Seleucid Empire. The Empire began forcing Jews to convert to Greek culture and religion, resulting in the Maccabee Revolt. Eventually the Maccabees emerged victorious and needed to rededicate the Temple and light the menorah. But there was a problem: They could only find one jug of oil that was still pure, which was enough for one day. Miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, which was enough time to get new oil. But historians still debate certain parts, such as how much of the Maccabee revolt was over Hellenization versus a power struggle between different factions of Judaism, and even when the story of the oil appeared in the record.
3. ON WHAT DATE DOES HANUKKAH START?
4. WHY DOES IT ALWAYS CHANGE DATES?
It changes dates for the same reason that there are so many spellings—conversion issues. In the Hebrew calendar the first day of Hanukkah takes place on the 25th of Kislev each year. But unlike the solar Gregorian calendar, the Hebrew calendar is lunisolar, meaning that the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars don't perfectly correspond to each other. So while followers of the Gregorian calendar see Hanukkah moving around, to a follower of the Hebrew calendar, dates like Christmas move around—being celebrated on 7th of Tevet one year, and the 17th of Tevet the next.
5. HOW MANY ARMS SHOULD A MENORAH HAVE?
This isn't as straightforward a question as it may appear. Outside the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) is a statue of a menorah with only seven arms. This represents the menorah of the Temple, which had seven arms and has long been one of the symbols of Judaism. And Hanukkah's miracle of the oil made use of the seven branched version.
6. SO HOW DID THE HANUKKAH VERSION APPEAR?
There are multiple hypotheses for the nine-branched menorah used for Hanukkah celebrations. One is that it was forbidden to make replicas of the seven-branched Temple menorah, so adding extra arms got around that prohibition. The other possibility is that the practicalities of an eight day celebration lent itself to a nine-branched menorah.
7. SHOULD I ACTUALLY CALL IT A MENORAH THEN?
According to historian Steven Fine, the Hanukkah fixture and many other types of lighting were all called menorahs until the late 19th century, when Hemda Ben Yehuda, the wife of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who was the driving force behind the reemergence of Hebrew as a language, decided that the Hanukkah lamp needed to be distinguished from the seven-branched menorahs that were starting to become widespread. Eventually, they came across a Balkan word, hanukkiah, to describe the lamp.
Today, some people maintain that menorah is fine to describe the Hanukkah candelabra, while others maintain that it should be referred to as a hanukkiah or chanukiah.
8. WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH THE MIDDLE CANDLE?
On a standard hanukkiah, one of the candles is raised, lowered, or otherwise separated from the other eight. This candle is called the shamash and is considered distinct from the main candles (in other words, on the first night of Hanukkah there are actually two candles lit—the first candle and the shamash). It serves multiple purposes, such as being used to light the other candles of the hanukkiah. The extra candle is also important because it's forbidden to use the main Hanukkah lights for non-religious purposes like reading or to derive a benefit from them. Part of the purpose of the shamash is to offload any benefit gained onto a non-important candle (although some Jews have other lights available to avoid even the shamash light).
9. WHAT DOES A TRADITIONAL HANUKKAH CELEBRATION ENTAIL?
While there are regional and even family differences as to specifics, one of the most common orders of events is that the shamash is lit, and then blessings, or brachot, are recited. On the first night there are three blessings, including the Shehecheyanu, which is only recited on the first night, meaning the other nights have two blessings. Following the brachot the candles are lit, and then traditionally Hanerot Halalu is recited and songs are sung.
10. HOW DO I LOAD AND LIGHT THE HANUKKIAH?
According to the Talmud, this was a debate between two of the major sages of first century BCE Judaism, Hillel and Shammai, and their schools of thought Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Hillel argued that on the first night, only one light should be lit (not including the shamash), and then on the second night two lights, and so on until eight lights are lit on the eighth day. Shammai argued for the reverse; on the first night eight lights should be lit, decreasing by one until the last day. Each side backed up their argument with theological evidence (Shammai compared it to the bulls of the Festival of Succot, where the sacrificed bulls decreased by one each day, while Hillel argued that holiness should increase, not decrease). A vote was held and Hillel’s thought won and is the common practice today.
So on the first day, one candle is placed on the rightmost holder on the hanukkiah and lit. On the second day, a candle is placed in the rightmost holder and then another candle in the second rightmost holder. When it comes to lighting, the order is reversed. After lighting the shamash, the newest candle is lit first and then the previous candle, and so on. So the hanukkiah is loaded right to left, but lit left to right.
11. DOES IT HAVE TO BE CANDLES?
No. In fact, olive oil (with cotton wicks) is considered the ideal fuel as that is likely the oil used in the original miracle. Beyond that, beeswax candles and many other candles and oils are considered perfectly acceptable for use in a hanukkiah, as long as the light doesn't flicker. Where the debate occurs is in electric hanukkiahs. Some view them as a fine update on the tradition, especially for people who can't have or don't want open flames. According to Chabad.org though, there are issues. One of the major ones is that "fuel" (electricity) gets continually added, while one of the requirements of the lighting is that the required fuel needs to be present at the beginning, although they concede that battery-powered hanukkiahs likely fulfill this requirement. There are also issues with how the light is generated, so many people say to use electric hanukkiahs only for display purposes or if a traditional hanukkiah isn't possible.
12. WHAT HAPPENS ON SHABBAT?
Since Hanukkah ranges over eight days, it will inevitably overlap with the Shabbat (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday), which has its own lighting tradition. In that situation, the Hanukkah candles should be lit first, as it is forbidden to light candles after the Shabbat candles are lit and the blessings said. But to ensure that the candles last at least half an hour after dark, special candles are recommended.
13. HOW TRADITIONAL ARE LATKES?
Not as traditional as one might think. Potatoes are native to South America and weren't encountered by Europeans until the 16th century. Before then, it's thought that latkes were based on an Italian ricotta pancake. Eventually the potato came to dominate, possibly thanks to the available frying oil. One theory for the change is that in Eastern Europe the pancakes were fried in chicken fat as opposed to a plant oils. As dietary laws prohibit Jews from mixing meat and dairy, the ricotta had to go, likely in favor of things like buckwheat. Meanwhile, another theory (not mutually exclusive) says that as crops failed in Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century, potatoes became a popular replacement crop. Come Hanukkah, people fried what was available to them.
14. HOW DID CHEESE ALWAYS END UP ON THE MENU?
The 16th century Rabbi Moses Isserles wrote "There are those who say to eat cheese on Hanukkah because the miracle was done through milk, which Judith fed the enemy."
The Judith in question was a beautiful widow in the town of Bethulia. As the town was under siege, the story goes, she went into the enemy camp and fed the enemy commander salty cheese to get him thirsty, then wine to get him drunk. After he got suitably drunk Judith cut off his head and ended the siege of the town.
According to NPR, despite the events of the Judith story taking place centuries before Hanukkah, medieval Jews began conflating the two, turning Judith into a close relation of Judah Maccabee. Judith's close association with cheese made it a natural Hanukkah dish.
15. WHY SO MANY FRIED FOODS?
Fried foods are a very traditional part of the Hanukkah celebration for Jews around the world, and this is for a very simple reason—to recognize the miracle of oil.
16. WHAT OTHER TRADITIONAL FOODS SHOULD I MAKE FOR HANUKKAH?
Gil Marks's Encyclopedia of Jewish Food contains several other traditional Hanukkah foods from all over the world. These include zangula, a type of fried batter from North Africa; sefengor kindel, an Algerian plum filled fried dough; and even a Yemeni dish called laches djezar, which Marks describes as a carrot sauté.
17. WHAT'S THE STORY BEHIND THE DREIDEL?
The dreidel is a traditional spinning top game. The top has four sides each with a letter on it, and depending which side comes up after a spin, the player has to do nothing, put a piece into a pot, or get some or all of the pot. The traditional story is that the letters represent the phrase nes gadol haya sham or "a great miracle happened there," in reference to the Hanukkah miracle of the oil. Some versions go further, saying that the top was a tool persecuted Jews used to study the Torah. But modern historians tend to doubt this story, suggesting that it traces to a top game called teetotum or just totum. These tops traditionally had the letters of the action (Take all, take Half, Nothing, and Put) and when this was adapted for the Hebrew alphabet, the current dreidel appeared.
18. ARE THERE UNNECESSARILY COMPETITIVE DREIDEL LEAGUES?
You bet: Major League Dreidel. In 2008, NPR explained that the contest, which featured such athletes as Tasmanian Dreidel and Jewbacca, wasn't the same as the traditional game. Instead, "Spinners compete on how long their dreidel spins on progressively smaller surfaces." And the puns don't stop at the player names: their "court" is referred to as the "Spinagogue," also the name of their tabletop game. This year, the Major League Dreidel championship will be held in Austin, Texas on December 1, the night before Hanukkah begins.
19. WHERE DID HANUKKAH GELT COME FROM?
There are several different origin stories for Hanukkah gelt, the foil wrapped chocolate coins of every Hanukkah celebration. One version says that it derives from the coinage that the Maccabees minted after independence. Another story relates it to the word hinnukh, or education. This hypothesis says that due to the pronunciation and possible etymological relation between hinnukh and Hanukkah, coins were given to teachers and students at that time of year. There are other possibilities, but these were all real coins. According to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, the chocolate may have come from an entirely different holiday figure: Santa Claus. The books says that in Belgium and the Netherlands people celebrated St. Nicholas' feast day on December 6 by giving both chocolate and real coins to students and children, although they caution "it would be a mistake to draw too close a connection between this Christian tradition and Chanukah gelt." No matter what, the first Hanukkah chocolate gelt is believed to have been from a chocolatier in the 1920s.
20. WHY ARE THE COLORS BLUE AND WHITE?
Likely because of the Israeli flag. In the 19th century, the Jewish poet Ludwig August von Frankl wrote that "blue and white are the colors of Judah," likely basing the assertion on the Jewish prayer shawl the tallit. Eventually, the colors became associated with Israel and Judaism, and eventually Hanukkah.
21. WHAT'S THE TALLEST HANUKKIAH IN THE WORLD?
There's a reason that the hanukkiah is only 36 feet tall. That’s the generally agreed limit on how high above ground the candles are supposed to be placed, because any higher and people won't be able to look at the lights. This causes a problem for Jews living in a high floor of an apartment complex. According to New York's Lincoln Square Synagogue, people in this situation should place the hanukkiah by the front door as opposed to in the window. But they say some authorities maintain that if there are apartment buildings opposite that are clearly visible from your apartment, the window is an acceptable place for the hanukkiah.
22. HOW DO ASTRONAUTS CELEBRATE HANUKKAH?
In 1993, astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman went up to help fix the Hubble Space Telescope. But he wasn't going to let that ruin the Hanukkah celebrations. The mission broadcast him playing with a dreidel as he attempted to "reinterpret the rules for space flight, since there's no up or down." He then broke out a small hanukkiah, although he refrained from lighting it.
23. AND HOW ABOUT IN ANTARCTICA?
In 2015, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory published a blog post detailing how Hanukkah was celebrated at McMurdo Station. And there were problems. The first is that for safety reasons, open flames (like from a candle) are banned [PDF]. Special dispensation had to be granted for the hanukkiah that required the fire marshal to be present and it be lit in the McMurdo galley. The other issue was lighting the candles at sunset—in the Antarctic summer, there is no sunset. According to blog author Jenna Kloosterman, one person argued that they should go with New Zealand sunset, another voted for Jerusalem time, and someone else suggested United States sunset. In the end, Kloosterman says, "we just had to go with the time that the fire marshal was available, which was 7:15 p.m."
24. BUT WHAT IF YOU CROSS THE INTERNATIONAL DATELINE?
According to Ohr Somayach's "Ask The Rabbi," there are a few possibilities for how to handle traveling and Hanukkah (but you should consult your own Rabbi for specific cases). The first case involved someone who is traveling. Ohr Samayach recommends appointing an agent to light the hanukkiah in the traveler's home and recite the brachot when lighting both the traveler's hanukkiah and the agent's personal hanukkiah.
But if the traveler crosses the International Dateline and skips one of the nights of Hanukkah, Ohr Somayach recommends that the agent light a hanukkiah without a corresponding bracha (the singular form of brachot).
25. WHAT'S CHRISMUKKAH?
Chrismukkah is a portmanteau of Christmas and Hanukkah introduced in 2003 on the TV show The O.C. But that wasn't the first time those two holidays were combined. In late 19th-century Germany, the term "Weihnukka" appeared, combining Hanukkah with Weihnachten, the German word for Christmas. But according to Cary Nathenson in the Journal of Jewish Identities, Weihnukka had little to do with celebrating the day, writing "The Christmas these Jews celebrated was less about the birth of Jesus Christ than it was about fitting in with neighbors. Christmas was widely seen as belonging to and defining of the German nation rather than a religious festival, and therefore celebrating the holiday was just something that 'real' Germans did, regardless of their religion."
This story was first published in 2017.