By Maressa Brown
Where does the name of the holiday—Hanukkah, traditionally spelled Chanukah—come from?
Answer: It means “dedication”
The word Chanukah stems from the Hebrew word for “inauguration,” “consecration,” or “dedication.” To understand this meaning, it helps to know a brief history of Hanukkah. In the second century B.C.E., Hellenistic Greeks of Syria gained control of Judea (the Land of Israel). They imposed pagan beliefs on the Jewish people, and they also desecrated the holy Second Temple. A group known as the Maccabees eventually defeated the Greek-Syrian oppressors. Hanukkah celebrates the Jews’ rededication of the Second Temple.
Why do we celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights?
Answer: To commemorate the miracle of the oil—and perhaps as a nod to Sukkot
The history commonly taught to Jewish children in Hebrew and Sunday schools stems from the Talmud, a central text of Judaism. According to the Talmud, the Maccabees returned to the Second Temple after defeating their Greek-Syrian oppressors. As they cleansed the holy building for rededication, they found only one jug of oil blessed and sealed by the high priest, the Kohen Gadol. The oil seemed to be enough to light the menorah for just one night, but miraculously, it burned for eight total nights.
However, the Second Book of the Maccabees (c. 124 BCE), written in Egypt, notes that Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days because it was actually a belated celebration of Sukkot. This is an important fall harvest holiday that the Jews weren’t able to celebrate while they fought their oppressors.
Why do we light just one candle of the menorah per night?
Answer: To mirror our increasing happiness over the course of the holiday
Back in the first century, two Jewish scholars (Shammai and Hillel) disagreed on how to light the menorah over the eight-night holiday. Followers of Shammai suggested that all eight candles be lit on the first night, and we should decrease by one each consecutive night to count down the days. But those who followed Hillel thought the number of candles lit should increase by one each night—and our happiness would increase along with it. That upbeat take informs the practice Jews follow worldwide to this day.
What’s the name of the ninth candle on the menorah?
Although there are just eight nights of the Jewish holiday, and therefore one candle per night, Hanukkah menorahs accommodate nine candles. The one in the middle is referred to as the “shamash,” which means “helper” or “attendant” in Hebrew. It’s lit first and used to light the other candles on the menorah, and its purpose is to “serve” and relight any candles that should get extinguished.
Its symbolism is also meant to teach us to support others who could, in turn, perform mitzvahs (good deeds). As Rabbi David Wolpe said in 1948, “The Shamash lights the other candles. Be the Shamash.”
True or false: Hanukkah falls on a different date every calendar year.
Hanukkah begins on the evening of the 25th day of the Hebrew lunar month of Kislev every year. But the corresponding date on the Gregorian calendar changes each year, so sometimes, Hanukkah falls right after Thanksgiving. Other times it kicks off right around Christmas.
What are the Hebrew letters on a dreidel?
Answer: Nun, Gimel, Hey or Chai, and Shin
The Hebrew letters stand for “nes gadol haya sham,” which means “a great miracle happened there.” In Israel, dreidels actually say “nun,” “gimmel,” “hey,” and “pey,” which means “a great miracle happened here.”
Under what president did the lighting of the National Menorah begin?
Answer: President Jimmy Carter
The National Menorah, located near the White House in Washington, D.C., was first lit by President Carter in 1979 and has been erected and lit every year since. It stands 30 feet high.
Why are traditional Hanukkah foods—like latkes and sufganiyot—fried?
Answer: To commemorate the miracle of the oil
As a nod to the miracle of the oil that lasted eight nights, traditional Hanukkah foods are fried. Kosher.com points out that in the 12th century, Rabbi Maimon ben Yosef, wrote, “We must make every effort to prepare celebrations and foods that will publicize the miracle that God performed for us in those days. The accepted practice is to make ‘sufganin‘…This is an ancient custom, because they are fried in oil, to commemorate God’s blessing.”