For eight nights beginning Tuesday, Jews around the world will gather in their homes and light candles to celebrate a miracle. It’s Chanukah time, the eight days of winter during which Jews rejoice in God’s intervention on behalf of our people.
During the second century BCE, Greek forces in the Middle East tried to Hellenize the sacred Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and while some Jews wanted to acquiesce to their demands, others – led by an intrepid band of fighters called the Maccabees – staunchly refused. A war ensued, the Maccabees won, and, then the miracle happened. If you believe the age-old legend, the Jews arrived at the Temple prepared to rededicate it, only to find one small jar of oil in the war-ravaged edifice, not nearly enough to light and maintain the eternal flame as the rededication ritual demanded. But they lit the flame anyway, and, miraculously, the contents of that small jar burned not for the single day they’d expected, but for eight days, giving them enough time to replenish their stock of flame-fuel to keep it lit indefinitely.
As great a holiday as Chanukah is, it’s widely misunderstood, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share with you eight things that you should know about it – one for each night of the festival.
1. Chanukah doesn’t rhyme with Monica.
Let’s start by getting the festival’s name right. It begins with a sound that’s foreign to many English speakers – ch, like in Bach, loch, and ychh. And the “u” in the middle isn’t just a little grunt like the “i” in “president”; it’s a rounded-lipped “oo” like in “crew.” So, no, the name of this festival doesn’t rhyme with “Monica,” but rather with the oft-repeated millionaire’s lament, “Blah, new spa.”
2. Spell it however you want.
Chanukah? Hanukah? Hanukkah? Chanuka. It’s all transliteration from the Hebrew, and transliteration is often a matter of taste. So don’t worry about it. Use any of those spellings in a discussion about Jews in December, and they’ll probably know what you mean.
3. Chanukah is not a Jewish Christmas
In fact, other than their proximity on the calendar, Chanukah and Christmas are completely unrelated to one another. Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christian messiah; Chanukah celebrates God’s intervention on behalf of the Jewish people. Christmas celebrates the dawn of redemption for the world; Chanukah began as a military festival and in the coming centuries evolved into a religious holiday.
Many kind-hearted and well-meaning people turn to Chanukah as a way of including Jews in the celebrations of Christmastime, but in the process it is important to remember that these two magnificent holidays are about as similar to one another as decorated cookies and potato pancakes.
4. Chanukah has a fascinating history.
In its earliest forms, Chanukah was probably a military celebration, but we Jews hate war, we try to avoid it at all costs, and even when we can’t avoid war, we don’t like to celebrate it. As a result, over the centuries Chanukah evolved from the victory celebration it was in antiquity into the religious festival that it is today. Now, we don’t celebrate vanquishing our enemies in war, we celebrate the miraculous and redemptive power of God’s presence in our lives.
5. Chanukah is a Gelt-Trip
For centuries, Jews would only give their children a few coins (gelt, in Yiddish) to celebrate the holiday – sometimes the coins were for the children to keep; sometimes they were for the kids to give to their teachers. Gift-giving as we now know it on Chanukah is a relatively new practice in Judaism – it arose in response to…well…Christmas. And as for Chanukah gelt, nowadays the coins are often not made of metal, but of chocolate.
6. Chanukah: Great for the spirit; lousy for cholesterol
The two most commonly eaten Chanukah foods are potato pancakes (latkes in Yiddish), and jelly doughnuts. What, you might ask, do these two treats have to do with the events in the ancient Temple that Chanukah celebrates? By now, it should be obvious – oil!
7. Chanukah is beautiful!
These are the darkest days of the year, but for eight winter nights, Jewish homes will be filled with burning candles, delectable food, songs, children spinning Chanukah tops called dreidels, and the sounds of ancient prayers celebrating the miracle of these days.
8. Chanukah won’t cure everything, but a little more Chanukah spirit around sure couldn’t hurt.
Light, miracles, sweetness, and promise of a better world for us all. Even if you’re not Jewish, I hope you’ll join me in the hope that, soon, people everywhere will be able to enjoy these great blessings that have so long been a part of the celebration of Chanukah.
is at in Woodinville.