Hanukkah? Chanukah? And Why Does the Date Keep Changing?
Hanukkah — or Chanukah as it’s sometimes spelled, typically falls sometime in December. I had heard of it, but didn’t actually know what it celebrated. So one day I decided to look into it. If you’re at that point, I can save you some time.
It turns out, it’s really not the Jewish version of Christmas. It’s not even the most important Jewish holiday. It just happens to usually fall between America’s biggest holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas — so we end up throwing it in with the majors. Not to say that what’s celebrated is not a big deal. Here’s what I found out…
Hanukkah begins at sundown and is celebrated for eight successive days. This annual festival goes back even further than the beginning of Christmas. In the year 165 BCE the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (the only Jewish Temple in the world) was defiled by the Syrian King Antiochus, who removed the Temple treasures, and forbade the Jews to celebrate their holy days. He further desecrated the Temple by making pagan sacrifices and dedicating the altar to the worship of Zeus.
A small group of Hasmoneans led by Judas Maccabee mounted an attack on the Syrians, and drove them out. The altar to Zeus was destroyed, a new Holy Altar was erected, and the Temple was rededicated to the God of Israel. The word Chanukah means dedication. Due to the fighting, the Israelites were unable to celebrate Sukkot that year (another holy festival). So after the battle was won, they established the festival of Chanukah to commemorate the victory of regaining the temple.
Hanukkah is celebrated to honor the restoration of worship in the Temple and the re-dedication of the Holy Altar. Each evening as the sun sets, the “chanukiah,” a nine-branched menorah, is lit — the ninth candle is used to light the rest, adding one candle each night until the eighth night, when the entire chanukiah is ablaze. The celebration is also sometimes called The Festival of Lights.
Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of Christmas celebrations going on around them, however gifts are mainly for young children. The only traditional gift of the holiday is “gelt,” small amounts of money.
So what’s the deal with the name and date always changing? What’s the right name and when is it exactly?
The dates of the holy days and festivals are determined by the ancient Jewish calendar, which was standardized in the 4th century. It is based on a lunar month, which begins on the first day after a new moon. There are 12.4 lunar months a year, each consisting of 29.5 days. So the Jewish calendar has 12 months, with 29 or 30 days each, plus a leap month every two to three years. So on the Jewish calendar the holidays always fall on the same day. It’s just when you transfer them to a Gregorian calendar that the dates seem to change every year. Hanukkah, for example, always begins on the 25th of the ninth Jewish month, called Kislev.
And the name? Actually both are correct, as are Hannukah, Hannukkah, Chanukah, Channukkah and other variations. The spelling differences are due to transliterations into English from the original Hebrew, which is a language of symbols representing sounds vs. exact letters. But in the end, the spelling is irrelevant, because the pronunciation is the same. In Hebrew, one of the pronunciations of our letter H is the “ch” sound, as in the German “Bach,” or the Scottish “loch.” So whether you see Hanukkah, Chanukah, Hannukkah or Channukkah — just clear your throat at the beginning and you’ll be correct.
Sending a Hanukkah card at Christmas? Well, now you know, that’s like sending a birthday card to someone renewing their wedding vows. If you’re sending Happy Hanukkah greetings to your Jewish friends, to be meaningful, they should arrive before the end of the festival.