Hanukkah Word Origins

More than 2,000 years ago, when the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus IV occupied Jerusalem, he forced the Jews to worship the Greek gods. For three years, Judah the Maccabee (also Judas Maccabeus) led a rebellion against the Syrians, and when he finally defeated them in 165 BCE, the Jews could worship freely again. To rededicate the temple, they cleaned it up from top to bottom and then relit the menorah, their special branched candelabrum. They could only find enough consecrated (pure) oil for one day, and it would take eight days to prepare more oil. They managed to make the oil in the bottle last eight days and Hanukkah celebrates both this and the rededication of the temple. Today, families gather around a menorah and light one candle on the first night of Hanukkah, two on the second, and so on for all eight nights of the festival. There are songs, stories, presents, food fried in oil (latkes, jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot) and prayers. Children play games of chance with the spinning tops called dreidels.

Hanukkah (also spelled Hanukka, Chanukah, Chanukkah), is from Hebrew and means "consecration, dedication." It was first recorded in English in 1891. Hanukkah is observed somewhere between November 25 and December 26, from 25 Kislev to 2 Tevet, because the original rededication was on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. The celebration is also called the Festival of Lights, Feast of Lights, Feast of Dedication, or Feast of the Maccabees.

The ancient gambling game called dreidel is actually a Yiddish word coming from German drehen, "to turn." (It is known as sevivon in Hebrew.) The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, he/hay, and sh'in on its faces. These letters stand for the sentence Nes Gadol Haya Sham, "A great miracle happened there!" (In modern Israel, the letters of the dreidel were changed to reflect the translation, "A great miracle happened here.") In the game, players gamble with pennies or pieces of candy. Depending on which letter comes up when the top is spun, the player adds to or takes out of the pot: N take nothing, G take all the pot, H take half the pot, SH add to the pot. The letters also have numeric values which can be used in the game.

A latke is a potato pancake and it is usually served with sour cream and applesauce. The word latke is Yiddish, from Russian l´tka, "pastry." The word first appeared in English in 1927. Latkes are served at Hanukkah in memory of the Maccabee women who cooked latkes for the Jewish soldiers when they were fighting the Syrians. Because latkes are fried in oil, they also symbolize the oil that miraculously lasted for eight days in the original menorah.

A menorah is a nine-branch candelabrum designed to commemorate the eight days that the oil in the temple lamp burned. One holder anchors the shamas or shamash or shammash, the "worker" candle that is used to light the others. The candles are inserted in the menorah incrementally each night of the festival from right to left but are lit from left to right - one for the first night, two for the second, and so on. A blessing is also offered while the candles are lit each night. Menorah is Hebrew for "candlestick, candelabrum," or "lamp stand." The original menorah in the ancient temple in Jerusalem had seven branches; it now has eight branches and a holder for the shamas to celebrate Hanukkah. The seven-branched menorah is still a symbol of Judaism and also the nation of Israel. Shamas(h) is Hebrew for "attendant," from a base word meaning "to serve." The Hanukkah menorah is also called the hanukkiyyah. The first candle is lit at sundown on the 24th day of Kislev.







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