Hanukkah is the eight-day Festival of Lights in the Jewish faith. If you’ve got questions about the holiday — such as “when does it begin?” — we’ve got some answers here for you.
When is Hanukkah this year?
As the Jewish calendar doesn’t sync up exactly with the Gregorian calendar (that’s the name of the one most of us use in day-to-day life — you know, January, February, etc.), the Jewish holidays fall on different days each year.
In 2017, Hanukkah begins at sundown on Tuesday, Dec. 12. As the festival is eight days long, some quick math can tell you that it ends at sundown on Wednesday, Dec. 20.
I’ve seen “Hanukkah” spelled different ways. Which one is correct?
As we’re translating a Hebrew word into English, there’s not just one “correct” way to spell the holiday. In particular, there’s a sound in Hebrew that is somewhere between “H” and “CH” that English can’t quite reproduce. Plus, ancient Hebrew and modern Hebrew pronunciations are slightly different.
However, the Associated Press Style Book goes by the spelling “Hanukkah,” so that’s what we’re going with as well.
What is Hanukkah celebrating?
Hanukkah is a commemoration of the success of the Hebrew forces against the Seleucid Empire in 160 BCE. The Maccabbean Revolt had successfully restored Judea to Hebrew rule.
When the Hebrews re-dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, it required lighting a lamp known as a menorah. However, according to the story of Hanukkah, there was only enough oil for the menorah to remain lit for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough for the temple to be re-supplied and the holy lamp to remain burning.
How is Hanukkah celebrated?
Over the eight nights of Hanukkah, practicing Jewish families will light candles on a menorah, symbolizing the original lamp lit at the temple. One candle is lit on each successive night until all are lit.
Each of the eight candles is lit from a separate, extra candle, called shamash in Hebrew. Special prayers are said over the candles, and they are typically left burning at least an hour after sundown. The hymn Ma’oz Tzur is also usually sung.
As oil is an integral part of the Hanukkah story, fried foods are frequently part of Hanukkah meals. One particularly popular food is latkes, which are a kind of fried potato pancake.
Prayer services and blessings after meals are also part of the Hanukkah celebration, as is the tradition of giving small gifts for children on each night. Such gifts often include toys, candy, or money, which is called Hanukkah Gelt in Yiddish. And a common toy given during Hanukkah is the dreidel, a four-sided top.
How do you play with the dreidel?
Each side of a dreidel bears one Hebrew letter: Nun, Gimel, Hey and Shim. The letters represent the words Nes Gadol Haya Sham, which translates to “A great miracle happened there,” referring to the miracle at the temple.
Playing the traditional game with the dreidel includes players taking turns spinning, with each side signifying they either take some of that Hanukkah Gelt from a central pot, or have to give some up.
Is Hanukkah a major holiday in the Jewish faith?
Hanukkah isn’t a terribly important holiday, in a religious sense, to the Jewish people. The major holy days of the Jewish calendar happen a bit earlier in the year: Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) starts the High Holy Days, which leads into Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.
But Hanukkah’s position on the calendar generally places it somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and so it becomes part of a more secular and Christian cycle of celebrations which we all generally refer to as “the holidays.”
In modern times, Hanukkah also symbolizes Jewish resilience, with obvious parallels to ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. In North America, it is also symbolic of a greater Jewish identity. So while it isn’t a major holiday in a religious sense, it’s certainly important in a cultural sense.