HANNUKAH TERMS, BY RABBI RUZ GULKO
In Hebrew Hanukah means “dedication.” In the years prior to 164 BCE, the Seleucid Empire (Syrian-Greeks) took over the Temple in Jerusalem, defiling it with pagan worship. When the Maccabees recaptured the Temple in 164 BCE , they ritually cleansed and rededicated it for Jewish worship once again. To mark this triumph, Hannukah was established as an 8-day national holiday, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev. The word Hannukah is also related to the Hebrew word for “education.” It is transliterated in many ways, including Hanukkah, Chanukkah, Hannukah and Channukah.
A 7-branched candelabrum, literally: “lamp”. The Torah gives specific instructions for how the Menorah was to be made and tended, and its light was to come from the purest olive oil. It is the oldest surviving symbol of Judaism. The golden Menorah that was made in the Desert stood inside the ancient Temple in Jerusalem . After the Maccabean victory, the Menorah was rekindled and rededicated. After the Second Temple’s destruction, and the seizure of the golden Menorah by the Romans in 70 CE, the menorah became a symbol of Jewish survival and continuity. The State of Israel has it as its emblem, and today it is a symbol often found in Jewish art and synagogue décor around the world.
This is a special kind of menorah used only during Hannukah, with branches or spaces for 9 candles -one for each of the 8 nights plus one for the “shammash” (see below). Hanuki’yot (plural) can be found today in a wide variety of designs, shapes, colors & materials. Traditionally, there are eight individual places for candles or flames all on the same level, far enough apart so as not to merge into a single flame. Jewish law stipulates that the 8 candles are not to be used for any practical purposes. They are not meant to be a light source for us to work by, but rather they are to be enjoyed for their beauty and as a reminder of the Hannukah miracles. The flames must last at least 30 minutes. While olive oil and wicks were used for centuries, today candles are typically used, though many Jews use oil and wicks to honor past traditions.
A “service” or utilitarian candle, called the “shammash,” is used to light the other candles on each of the 8 nights of Hannukah. It is lit first, then the brachot (blessings) are said or chanted, and then it’s used to light each of the other candles. The space for the shammash candle is set apart, above or below the other flames, to distinguish its status.
In 167 BCE, after the Seleucid king Antiochus issued decrees in Judea forbidding Jewish religious practice, a rural Jewish priest from Modi’in – Mattithias the Hasmonean – sparked the revolt against the Seleucid Empire by refusing to worship the Greek Gods. His son Judah, along with Judah’s 4 brothers, led an army of Jewish dissidents using guerrilla tactics to defeat the Seleucids in a military victory of the few over the many. Judah’s famous nickname was “Maccabee,” which means “hammer,” likely a reference to his military prowess. It may also be an acronym for the Torah verse attributed to Mattithias at the beginning of the revolt: “Mi Hamokha Ba’elim Adonai?” “Who is like You, Eternal, among the mighty? (lit: other gods)”
Dreidel (Yiddish) / Se’vivon (Hebrew)
A 4-sided spinning top. Both terms are related to the word “spin”. The dreidel or sevivon has a letter on each of its 4 sides: Nuhn, Gimmel, Hay, Sheen. These letters stand for “Nes Gadol Hayah Shahm” – A great miracle occurred there. This is a reference to the Talmudic legend describing the miracle of consecrated oil burning for 8 days when there was only enough to last for one. In Israel the sevivon has a different 4th letter, Peh, corresponding to the phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah POH” – A great miracle occurred HERE! The dreidel is used in low-stakes gambling games during Hannukah, involving pennies, M & M’s, nuts or raisins as tokens. It’s traditional to play for at least as long as the Hannukah flames are burning.
Latke (Yiddish) / Le’vivah (Hebrew)
The Ashkenazic (Eastern European) holiday treat is a savory potato pancake fried in oil. It is traditionally served with sour cream and/or apple sauce. Some people prefer them plump and golden, others insist that the thin, crispy variety is superior. In addition, we have the Sephardic (Spanish) treat: Sufganiot, donuts fried in oil with sweet fillings. These are especially popular today in Israel.
Yiddish for “gold “or “money.” Traditionally small coins were given to kids by grandparents or other relatives, as a token gift or to use while playing dreidel. Today, candy companies make a foil-covered chocolate version.
An important note here is that Hannukah is a minor holiday, and not a main gift-giving occasion. The Jewish festivals of Rosh HaShanah and Purim were the traditional times for gifts.
Hug Ureem Sa’me’ah – A Joyous Festival of Lights!
The traditional greeting/blessing we say to each other during Hannukah.