Happy Hanukkah! That winter religious holiday begins at sunset tonight, and if you’re confused about what it’s all about, you’ve come to the right place! Here’s everything (well, a lot, anyway) you need to know about the Festival of Lights.
What’s With The Spelling?
There are any number of ways to spell “Hanukkah.” There are two reasons for the variety of spellings. The first is that the word comes from Hebrew, which, as you know, is not the same [Roman] alphabet that English speakers use. Linguists call the process of rending words from one alphabet to another “transliteration,” and it’s an inexact science, to say the least.
Second, the first sound in the word doesn’t exist in English. Although you most likely pronounce the first syllable the same way you would say “hot,” the sound actually comes from the back of your tongue, as if you were clearing your throat. That’s why some versions transliterate it as “Chanukkah.”
It Starts At Sundown. What’s Up With That?
It’s simple: in Judaism, a new day begins at sundown, which makes perfect sense when you think about it. When the sun goes down, the previous day ends, and the new one begins, metaphorically at least. It may seem silly, but it’s no more silly than the Roman custom of beginning a new day in the middle of the night, like we do now.
And for the record, all Jewish holidays, and all Muslim ones, begin at sundown (Islam, like Judaism, considers sunset the beginning of a new day).
OK, Enough With The Technicalities. What’s Hanukkah About?
Travel back in time with me to the second century BCE (or BC). The land that was then known as Judea – roughly equivalent to modern-day Israel – was under the tyrannical rule of Greek-Syrian oppressors, according to The History Channel. In 168 BCE, ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the practice of Judaism. What’s worse, he befouled the Temple in Jerusalem by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificed pigs inside the temple – a hideous and profane act of sacrilege to the Jews.
It took about four years, but an army of Jews, led by Judah Maccabee (“the Hammer”), drove out their oppressors against overwhelming odds (historians call this period the Maccabean Revolt).
Judah instructed his followers to cleanse the Temple and re-dedicate it to God.
But there was a problem: there was only enough oil to light the Temple lamps for one night. Miraculously, that little bit of oil kept burning for eight nights – long enough for a fresh supply to be secured.
Two thousand years later, Jews celebrate the event now known as both Hanukkah (Hebrew for “Dedication”) as well as the colloquial name, the Festival of Lights.
How Does The Jewish Community Celebrate Hanukkah?
Hanukkah, not unlike Christmas, is a holiday that is about spending time with family, eating food, exchanging gifts, and remembering one’s cultural and religious heritage.
The centerpiece of any Hanukkah celebration is the Menorah – the nine-pointed candelabra that represents the eight nights that the oil miraculously burned in the Temple. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation describes it as follows.
“People celebrate Hanukkah by lighting candles on a menorah, which is also called a Hanukiyah. Each night, one more candle is lit. There are nine candle spaces on the Hanukiyah. The middle one is called the Shamash. The Shamash is the first candle lit and it is used to light all of the other candles.”
Traditional Hanukkah food includes latkes – that is, potato pancakes often served with sour cream and applesauce. A traditional Hanukkah game involves spinning the dreidel, a four-sided spinning toy, similar to a top. Spin it and, depending on how it lands, you either gain something or lose something, such as coins or chocolates.
You may have heard that Hanukkah is a minor holiday that was elevated in importance to compete with Christmas. That’s not entirely true, according to Tzvi Freeman. Writing in Chabad, Freeman explains that, while Hanukkah isn’t a top-tier Jewish holiday like Rosh Hashanah or Passover, it is by no means insignificant.
“Especially when you take into account that this is what Chanukah is all about: to ‘light up the darkness’ (which is why we light it at night, at the door or window). So, even though it’s a regular workday—well, that’s really the whole idea: to light up the regular workday. And that takes a very special light. At any rate, since when do we look for excuses not to celebrate? On the contrary, in the words of wise King Solomon, ‘A good heart always celebrates.'”
Or, as Adam Sandler says in his many Hanukkah Songs (there are four, as of this writing), have a happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, HAPPY Hannukah!
[Featured Image by BrAt82/Shutterstock]