Jelly Donuts, Candles, and Tops: Understanding Chanukah

Chanukah Menorah

Some have the tradition for each family to light. The menorah is to be placed in the window

This week Jewish people are around the world are celebrating the holiday of Chanukah.  Like any holiday, there are traditions associated with the holiday. Some of those traditions might be confusing to those who don’t celebrate the holiday.

Consider this your Chanukah primer.

  1. How do you even spell it? Chanukah is the perfect holiday for those who don’t care for spelling. That’s because there is no one correct way to spell Chanukah. It’s not an English word, and the abc’s do not create the initial sound in the word. By the way, the initial sound in the word is a chuh sound – like you are gathering saliva to spit. Anyway, Channukah, Chanukah, Hannukah, Hanukah – none is more right. My computer seems to prefer Hanukah – no red line under that one.

  1. What’s up with the funky candle holder? It’s called a menorah and has room for eight candles plus one that stands a bit apart and above (no, it’s not called The Donald) which is known as the shamash (a Hebrew word). The shamash is lit first and after uttering two prayers (three on the first night) the menorah is lit. The number of candles lit (some use oil rather than candles) corresponds to the day of the holiday. For example, on the fifth day, five candles are lit. The candles are lit from right to left with the new day first.
  1. What’s the holiday about?Chanukah commemorates two aspects of Jewish history. The first is a military victory led by the undermanned Macabees over the Syrian Greeks. You read that right – Jews with the name of Macabee and not Stein, Rosen, Cohen, or Silver. After the military victory, the Jews regained access to the Temple which had been ransacked. They wanted to relight the Temple menorah, which required the finest olive oil. There was one cruz of olive oil left, which should have lasted for a single day. The menorah was lit and stayed illuminated for eight days, till more of the special olive oil could be produced.
  1. Do you have to get eight presents? Nope! Presents are not officially part of the holiday. The only “have to’s” when it comes to Channukah are lighting the menorah and saying some special prayers. A tradition began of giving gelt (A Yiddish word that means money). Often the gelt was chocolate. That turned into real money. These days many people give their children presents. This is most likely the influence of the greater society and the gift giving that is part of Christmas. By the way, Chanukah Harry, a Chanukah bush, and blue and silver tinsel are also Christmas influenced.
  1. Why do you spin that top thing? The top thing is called a dreidel (another Yiddish word). It has four sides. There’s a Hebrew letter on each side. The letters are an acronym which can be translated to “A great miracle happened there.” The dreidel can be used to play a game. Each player takes a turn spinning the dreidel. Each letter of the dreidel dictates a certain action. And yes, trust me, it could very easily be turned into a gambling or drinking game.
  1. You said something about donuts? Ahh, it always comes back to food. There are some traditional foods that are eaten on Chanukah. These foods include jelly donuts, potato latkes (main ingredients: potatoes and oil), and fried chicken.  The common denominator in these foods is oil. As mentioned earlier, the miracle of oil fueled the holiday. So, it’s no holds barred when it comes to oily foods.
  1. A few parting thoughts.  Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song is funny – laugh away – even if it’s not so kosher. It’s fine to wish Jews Happy Holidays – we know Chanukah can be challenging for some to say. You are not crazy if you think Chanukah seems to have a different date every year – it does, because the Jewish holidays are determined by a lunar calendar.  There’s no Chanukah eve or preholiday moment of anticipation  unless you count the moment you silently pray your child will like the present you bought for him/her.

So, that’s Chanukah. It’s a fun holiday – especially for children.

Any questions?

Chanukah Menorah in action

6 thoughts on “Jelly Donuts, Candles, and Tops: Understanding Chanukah

  1. Nicely done, I always find myself cringing when people put up Christmas trees and call them a Chanukah bush.

    Got lots of cool stuff about Chanukah without it, fortunately Festivus came along so I unleash my irritation upon them during the Feats of Strength.

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