How Do You Spell Hannukkah (Or Chanukkah Or Chanukah Or…) And What Is It Anyway?

Hanukkah candles burning. Courtesy photo

Los Alamos Jewish Center

For millennia, the Jewish people have been celebrating a minor holiday which we call Hanukkah (from the Hebrew word meaning dedication) as a way to remember a historic event that occurred in Jerusalem nearly 2200 years ago.  Though the Temple in Jerusalem was initially overrun and defiled by a numerically superior Greek/Syrian army following the collapse of the Alexandrian empire, a small band of rebel Jews recaptured the Temple and subsequently rededicated it for Jewish worship.

The guttural sound at the start of the name of the holiday has no obvious English analogue, but if you try clearing your throat while saying the word, you’ll come close!  The absence of a Latin character to capture that sound results in the many different spellings of Hanukkah; there really is no correct spelling of the holiday in English.

Yet another challenge associated with this holiday is its timing.  The Jewish calendar is quite complicated and involves both leap days and an occasional leap month, all designed to synchronize holidays with both the lunar and solar cycles.  Hanukkah always begins a handful of days before a new moon and always occurs a few months after the autumnal equinox.  This year, Hanukkah begins on Sunday evening, December 18, and ends on Monday night, December 26; all Jewish holidays begin at sundown.

Hanukkah is observed with the lighting of lights–usually candles but also oil lamps–one to mark each night of the eight-night long holiday.  The public display of these lights commemorates the miracle of that small rebel group overcoming the odds and retaking Jerusalem.  Since oil is associated with the Temple activities of two thousand years ago, we often eat foods fried in oil as a reminder of that Temple dedication which became Hanukkah.  Potato pancakes (called latkes) and fried doughnuts (called sufganiot) are popular dishes during the holiday (though perhaps not with cardiologists!)

Games of chance also are popular during Hanukkah, most notably a gambling game using a four-sided top called a dreidel.  More recently and as a result of that Christmas timing alignment, gift-giving has become associated with Hanukkah, but that is perhaps more a sign of American commercialism than Jewish tradition.

In its gift-giving guise, Hanukkah may appear to be the “Jewish Christmas,” but I find this both an inaccurate description and an ironic one as well.  As mentioned at the outset, Hanukkah is considered a minor Jewish holiday; it is far from the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar (major Jewish holidays include Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover). Further, I believe Hanukkah is intended to celebrate the legitimacy of a minority culture and its practices, not to mimic those of the dominant group in a society. 

For me, one of the most amazing and wonderful strengths of this great country of America is that we are NOT a Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or atheist or …) country – we are an American country, one which not just tolerates but respects the traditions of all its people.

I wish all of you who celebrate Christmas a most joyous holiday in a few weeks.  The Jewish community in Los Alamos greatly appreciates the efforts of those individuals (most notably police, firefighters and hospital employees) who work on their holiday on behalf of all of us. As in years past, Los Alamos Jewish Center congregants will be delivering goodies to those dedicated first responders on Christmas eve as an expression of our thanks.  And we’ll try not to elevate anyone’s cholesterol levels in the process!!