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Hanukkah or Chanukah?

Sundown on Dec. 8 marks the first of night of the Jewish Festival of Lights.

Jewish families across Suffolk County will be spinning dreidels, lighting menorahs and opening presents as the first night of Hanukkah is celebrated Saturday evening. So what is the Festival of Lights all about, and how exactly do you spell it? We're answering these and a few other questions about the holiday here.

• Hanukkah or Chanukah? A quick Google search will come up with about 15 different spellings for the holiday. Why so many? To transliterate the Hebrew word to English, Americans have come up with several variations, mostly depending on whether a person chooses to start with an "H" or "Ch," or use a singular or plural "N" or "K." Many American Jews (including this editor) have grown up spelling it with the "Ch" form, which is not pronouced the same way one would say "Chinese food," but actually said with a very throaty sounding "Ha." The Library of Congress and Associated Press spell it "Hanukkah," which is what most news outlets follow as well. Of course, there is only one way to spell it in Hebrew: חנוכה

• What is Hanukkah (Chanukah)? "We fought, we won, let's eat" is the joke that tends to sum up many Jewish holidays. Hanukkah is one of them. The holiday actually celebrates two miracles; According to Jewish theology, the first miracle is that in the second century BCE, a small and greatly outnumbered army of Jews, known as the Maccabees, overpowered the mighty Greeks, who occupied the Holy Land and attempted to forcibly covert the Israelites to Hellenistic beliefs and polytheism. The second miracle is that after the war, the Maccabees found a candelabra (known as a menorah in Hebrew) within in the Holy Temple. The Maccabees only had enough oil to last one night, but the menorah burned for eight days and nights, allowing the Jews to continue their daily worship until new oil was produced. This is why Hanukkah is also called the "Festival of Lights." See? We fought, we won, let's eat.

• How is Hanukkah celebrated? On the first night of Hanukkah, Jewish families will begin by lighting the menorah, a nine-branched candelabra. Two candles are lit on the first night: the shamash (the helper candle, which is usually the tallest) and one other. On the second night, the shamash and two other candles are lit, on the third, the shamash and three others are lit, etc. This continues for eight nights. To pay homage to the miracle which kept the oil burning, it is typical to eat fried foods such as latkas (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts. Children play dreidels (spinning tops), open gifts, eat gelt (chocolate coins) and families say prayers together. It is also customary to increase the amount given to charity during the holiday.

• Why does Hanukkah sometimes fall before, on or after Christmas? Like most Jewish holidays, Hanukkah follows the lunar calendar. Hanukkah always begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, but since dates fluctuate on the lunar calendar, the first night of the holiday can fall anywhere between Nov. 28 and Dec. 26. This year, it begins at sundown on Dec. 8.

*Some information in this article is from Chabad.org

Joan Perrin December 08, 2012 at 07:28 AM
Great article, Amanda. As a Judaic studies teacher, I try to explain to my students that in English there are really no wrong way to spell Chanukah as it is a phonetic rendition of Hebrew letters. There is just a slight correction to your article. I have seen Chanukah writtern in Hebrew with both forms of th oo vowel with the Nun, either with the vav and middle dot following the Nun or with three dots slanting down undernerath the Nun. Chag Sameach (happy holiday.)
Lori Ames December 08, 2012 at 12:23 PM
Everybody is invited to the Menorah Lighting and Chanukah Celebration at Congregation Beth Sholom this evening at 6 PM, 441 Deer Park Avenue, Babylon Village.
Nancy J. Berg December 08, 2012 at 01:04 PM
My understanding of Chanukah is that it was a fight for religious freedon and as such, is a minor but very important holidaty.
Carol December 08, 2012 at 01:08 PM
Very informative, Amanda! I really enjoyed learning more about Chanukah. Thanks. Hope everyone enjoys the holiday.
Arthur Christopher Schaper December 09, 2012 at 12:13 AM
Who cares how you spell it? Some Rabbis even fight over the order for lighting the candles. Oy vey! I say: Light the Candles, Give thanks to God, and Open the Presents!

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