Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Festival of Lights: Hanukkah Vocabulary

In case you weren't aware, this week marks the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and nights each year (December 8th-16th this year), and commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC. In honor of this holiday (more like a holi-week!), we thought we'd look into the etymology and meanings of some important Hanukkah vocabulary.

Hanukkah / Chanukah / The Festival of Lights
Usually spelled חנוכה in Hebrew, it can be transliterated (converted into another script, in this case Latin) in a variety of ways. The most common are Hanukkah and Chanukah, but if you'd like to avoid the spelling issue altogether you can always just refer to it as The Festival of Lights! Whatever the spelling, it's derived from a Hebrew verb meaning "to dedicate".

One of the key elements of Hanukkah celebrations is the menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum that is lit each night of the holiday. When the Jews celebrated the rededication of their temple they only had enough olive oil to light the menorah for one day, but the story goes that it miraculously lasted eight days.

A menorah in Jerusalem.
If you're wondering what the ninth branch is for given that the miraculous oil lasted eight days, ponder no longer! It holds the shamash, an auxiliary candle which is used to light the other eight candles. It is always distinguished from the other eight candles... traditionally, you can find it in the center of the menorah and placed higher than the others. The first night of Hanukkah, the shamash is used to light one candle, and each subsequent night an additional candle is lit until the whole menorah is ablaze on the last night of Hanukkah.

In the past, children were traditionally given small amounts of gelt (the Yiddish word for "money") during the holidays to give as gifts to their teachers. Over the years, it has come to be a gift solely for the children... sorry teachers! In the 1920s, an American company decided to get in on the action and created chocolate gelt, which is wrapped in gold or silver foil and sold in small mesh bags. Is there any holiday that Americans haven't managed to commercialize yet?

If only all money were made of chocolate...

Hanukkah even has its own traditional game, named after the four-sided spinning top used to play it. The word dreidel comes from the Yiddish verb for "to turn", which is exactly what you do with it. Each side of the top has a letter of the Hebrew alphabet on it: נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), and either ש (Shin), or פ (Pei) depending on what country you're in. Everyone begins with the same number of game pieces, which could be anything from chocolate gelt to pennies. Everyone puts a piece in the center "pot", and then the players take turns spinning the dreidel. Each letter determines a specific outcome, so with one spin you could end up gaining half or all of the pieces in the center, having to add to the pot, or with nothing to do.

Dreidels galore!

Latkes & Sufganiyot

You might have noticed that we mentioned that the miraculous oil was in fact olive oil. There are several foods traditionally associated with Hanukkah, and almost all of them involve things being fried or baked in olive oil. Many families eat potato pancakes known as latkes in Yiddish. In Israel, it is especially popular to eat sufganiyot (derived from the Hebrew word for "sponge"), which are deep-fried doughnuts injected with jelly or custard and topped with powdered sugar. Is your mouth watering yet?


If you have any Jewish friends or family, it's not too late to say Happy Hanukkah... and if you don't, you could always whip up some latkes just to enjoy some delicious holiday food!