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Candles, Gifts, and Latkes

Chanukah? Hanukkah? Hannukka? Channukkah? Bellevue Temple B'nai Torah's Interim Senior Rabbi on the history and traditions of the Festival of Lights.

For many people, it is so confusing as to how to spell this holiday, celebrated by Jewish families sometime in December! The truth: There is no “correct” English spelling! They are ALL acceptable. The Hebrew is simple: hnkh.

So, what is this holiday with unclear spelling? It is a celebration of historical events that occurred in 164 BCE (Before the Common Era, equivalent to BC). At that time, the Jewish people were religiously oppressed by Syrian Greeks. The Jewish people revolted, recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, and rededicated it. That rededication ceremony lasted eight days. In remembrance, Jewish families light a “chanukiah,” an eight-branched candelabra, adding one candle for each of the eight days.

With tongue-in-cheek, it is the manifestation of every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us. They didn’t succeed. Let’s eat!” 

And that is what Chanukah is all about. It is a celebration of the first recorded fight for religious freedom. It is observed with three major traditions: lighting the chanukiah each night, giving gifts, and eating latkes (potato pancakes).

Why light the chanukiah? Besides the explanation above, there is a “myth” that when the Jewish people went to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem, there was only enough sanctified oil to keep the Eternal Light burning for one day. A miracle occurred that kept the light burning for eight days until more oil could be found. 

Why give gifts? One of the first things the Jewish people did, after establishing an independent Jewish country in 166 BCE was to mint coins – to establish a currency. In memory of that, gifts (in earlier days, coins) were given to children.

Why latkes? They are cooked in oil, reminding Jewish people of the “miracle” of the oil lasting for eight days. In Israel, the tradition is to eat jelly donuts instead of potato pancakes, also cooked in oil!

So…no matter how it is spelled, Chanukah is a celebration we can all embrace: That each of us should be able to observe our religious beliefs however we wish. That is definitely worth celebrating!

Rabbi Nemitoff has a Bachelor's from Washington University; Master's and ordination, and Doctor of Divinity degree from Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion. He's spent his 42-year career nurturing Jewish meaning, connection, and continuity.

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