8 Chanukah Mysteries Revealed

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Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, begins at sundown on December 11 with the lighting of one candle on the eight-candle menorah. Every night an additional candle burns, until the eighth night, when eight candles are lighted.

To celebrate, we've answered eight questions about the mysteries of Chanukah "“ one for each night. And yes, one of the mysteries involves the proper spelling.

1. What is Chanukah?

To put yourself in the right frame of mind, think 2,000 years ago. Better yet, think 2,200ish years ago.

Thanks to Alexander the Great, Hellenistic kings rule in the Middle East, and Hellenistic culture has been embraced by the region's elites.

Now focus on Judea "“ at the time, the area immediately surrounding and including Jerusalem. It was from the mountains and caves of Judea that a rebellion of traditionalist Jews, known as the Maccabees, broke out against the rule of Antiochus, the Damascus-based Hellenistic king, and those Jews who had abandoned their traditions in favor of Hellenistic ways.

King Antiochus tried to root out local religions in his empire. In Judea, that meant outlawing circumcision, kosher food and the Jewish Sabbath and, in 169 BCE, introducing pagan sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Maccabees fought a guerrilla war against Antiochus's forces for three years, before recapturing Jerusalem in 166 BCE. They immediately began to cleanse the Temple of its ritual impurities. And on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev (roughly corresponding to December), they made the first burnt offering in the rededicated Temple.

That was the first Chanukah, which means "dedication" in Hebrew. And it has been celebrated beginning on the 25th of Kislev every year since.

2. So why is Chanukah 8 days (nights) long?

The first Chanukah celebration lasted eight days, in imitation of the eight-day fall harvest holiday called Sukkot (the festival of Huts), which the Maccabees had not been able to celebrate in their mountain redoubts. Jewish holidays begin at sundown because that's when the new day begins, according to the Jewish calendar.

3. What about the miraculous oil?

You're referring to the wonderful story that, when the Temple had been purified and there was nothing left to do but light the eternal lamp, they found only enough pure oil to burn for a single day. By a miracle, the oil lasted for eight days "“ long enough to process more kosher oil and rush it to the Temple.

The story of the oil offers an alternate reason for why the festival is eight-days long. It comes from the Talmud, which contains the law and lore of the early rabbis. And while the earliest rabbis lived long after the pious, honorable Maccabees, they were contemporaries of the Maccabees' despotic descendants, who ruled Judea by combining the offices of king and high priest, corrupting both.

The miracle of the oil was the rabbis' spin on Chanukah, which enhanced the holiday's religious meaning while de-emphasizing the political role of the Maccabees.

4. Speaking of spin, what's the deal with that top?

dreidel.jpgThat's the dreidel in Yiddish; sevivon in Hebrew. It has four sides, marked with the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hey and shin. (They make the sounds "n," "g," "h," and "sh.")

The dreidel found itself connected to Chanukah because the four letters form the abbreviation of the phrase "Nes gadol hayah sham" "“ "A great miracle happened there" "“ "there" being long-ago Judea, and the miracle being that high-mileage oil.

(In Israel, the sevivon is marked nun, gimel, hey, pey, for "Nes gadol hayah po" "“ "A great miracle happened here.")

But the Israeli version is a relatively recent adaptation. It seems the dreidel is based on a German top. The four letters also stand for four words in Yiddish, a European Jewish language based on German. Nun stands for nitz (nothing), gimel for ganz (everything), hey for halb (half) and shin for shtell-arein (put in). And these are the keys to playing the dreidel game.

Traditionally dreidel is played with nuts, rather than coins or chips, which are divided between the players and a pot in the middle. Each player takes a turn spinning. The letter facing up when the dreidel stops determines whether the player can take the whole pot, half the pot, nothing, or must add nuts to the pot.

5. Why do you get a present each night?

For the same reason that people line up outside Wal-Mart at 5 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving. There aren't any set rules for gift-giving. But how can you not do something everyone else is doing? When it comes to commerce, Chanukah has been absorbed into the larger Christmas gift parade.

It wasn't always that way. Once upon a time, children might get a few coins during Chanukah. I have a book about Jewish holidays published in 1938, which put it this way:
"The children eat pancakes and count their coins, and consider themselves fortunate."

6. Is this the big Jewish holiday of the year?

You'd think so. And, in fact, a 2000 survey found that 72 percent of American Jews light Chanukah candles "“ slightly fewer than the 77 percent who hold or attend a Passover seder, but a lot more than the 59 percent who fast on Yom Kippur. So Chanukah is certainly just about the most popular Jewish holiday.

But for most of the 21 centuries after that first celebration in Jerusalem, Chanukah was a low-key, minor holiday. That began to change in the 19th century when, under the secular influences of the Enlightenment and Zionism, the Maccabees and their struggle began to be seen as heroic.

Today in Israel, Chanukah is celebrated as an act of national liberation. In the United States, the holiday's subtext of religious freedom resonates.

7. What were you saying before about pancakes?

iStock_000000917969-latkes.jpgForgive me. You can't go without a nosh. Potato pancakes "“ latkes in Yiddish "“ are the traditional holiday food for Jews whose background is in Eastern or Central Europe. They're usually topped with sour cream or apple sauce. In the Middle East, sufganiyot "“ jelly donuts "“ are the holiday delicacy.

What they have in common is both are fried in oil. So there's a reminder of the miracle in every delicious bite.

8. So how do you spell it "“ Chanukah? Hanukkah? Hanuka?

The short answer is yes. We're dealing with a transliteration that "“ because English and Hebrew don't share all of the same sounds and none of the same letters "“ is inexact.

The first Hebrew letter in the holiday's name has the sound of a guttural "h." How would you prefer to render that in English "“ with an "h," which can lead people to think that the word starts with an English "h" sound? Or how about using "ch" instead "“ which could lead some to think the sound is like the "ch" in "cheese"?

Then there's the final letter hey, which does have the sound of "h" "“ except when it comes at the end of the word. Then it's silent. So, do you use an "h" to be as true to the Hebrew spelling as possible? Or do you leave it out, because the word doesn't end with an "h" sound?

The choice is yours. Chew it over while you polish off your jelly donut.

David Holzel has a little dreidel. He writes on other Jewish subjects at The Jewish Angle.

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December 8, 2009 - 10:22am
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