10 surprising facts you might not know about Hannukah

New York Life | December 16, 2020

Image of items at Hanukkah celebration

Every year there is much to celebrate on Hannukah. Hopefully despite all the turmoil in the world, this year may serve as a time for reflection and solidarity for many, as well as a reminder that “Hanukkah is the moment when light is born from darkness, hope from despair,” as Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes in his book Seasons of Joy.

  1.  Lighting a special, nine-branched candelabrum is the main ritual on Hanukkah. However, most people — including Jews — incorrectly refer to this as a menorah, when in fact the correct name for the candleholder is Hanukkiah or Hanukkah menorah. A menorah, which has only seven candleholders, was the lamp used in the ancient holy temple in Jerusalem — now a symbol of Judaism and an emblem of Israel.
  2. Since 1998, the world's largest Hanukkiah — a 32-ft.-high, gold-colored steel structure — can be found during the Festival of Lights in New York City's Central Park.
  3. Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Old Testament. This is because the events leading up to the holiday took place after the Hebrew Bible was compiled. The story can be found in Books 1 and 2 of Maccabees, but these are not considered part of the canon. Even the discussion of Hanukkah in the Talmud, the rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew Bible, begins by asking, "What is Hanukkah?"
  4. The dreidel — a four-sided spinning top — has different Hebrew letters on each side: nun, gimel, hay and shin. In Hebrew, the letters form the initials of the message, "A great miracle happened there" (referring Hanukkah's everlasting oil).
  5. Jews around the world light Hanukkah menorahs during Hanukkah, but in Israel the festival's flame takes an interesting path. Embracing a custom long associated with the Olympics, runners race a burning torch from the Israeli city of Modiin to Jerusalem, a distance of about 20 miles (32 km), where the chief rabbi lights a giant menorah at the Western Wall.
  6.  There's only one way to spell Hanukkah. Unfortunately, it's in Hebrew. When translated to English, the word becomes trickier to express. There's actually no way to spell the guttural "hecht" sound used in the traditional Hebrew pronunciation; Ch and H are the closest we can get. And then there's the issue with the double k's, seemingly added to give the final syllable a little more oomph. Thus the phrase can be spelled Hanukkah, Chanukah, Chanukkah or Hanukah.
  7. The gift of small Jewish coins first emerged as a Hanukkah tradition during the Middle Ages, when gelt (a Yiddish word for money) was given to teachers. The practice gradually extended to children as well, who were expected to donate some of it to charity.
  8. The most popular way to prepare Hanukkah dishes is to fry them in oil — an homage to the miracle that inspired the annual celebration. The holiday's culinary mainstays are potato pancakes (latkes) served with applesauce and sour cream, and jelly doughnuts known as sufganiyot. But regional differences have introduced a variety of deliciously fried foods: Jews in Greece eat deep-fried dough soaked in honey, known as loukoumades; Russian revelers cook buckwheat flapjacks; and in Spain the observant fry up fritters called bunuelos in schmaltz (goose fat)
  9. Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah does not fall on the same dates each year because Jewish holidays are based on a lunisolar calendar. Unlike the traditional Gregorian calendar, which is based on the earth's movement around the sun, a lunisolar calendar is regulated by both the sun and moon. Hanukkah always starts on the 25th of Kislev — the month on the Hebrew calendar that generally coincides with November or December. A year on the Hebrew calendar varies from 353 to 385 days, so the timing of the Festival of Lights is always a bit of a guessing game
  10. Hanukkah commemorates the 165 B.C. victory of the Maccabees, a Jewish rebel army, over the Syrians and the subsequent rededication of the holy temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees found enough consecrated oil inside the temple to light its eternal flame for a single day, but miraculously the lamp burned for eight. This is not only why Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday, but also why there is always talk of a Hanukkah miracle.

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Kevin Maher
New York Life Insurance Company
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