What is Hanukkah?

Niki Foster

Hanukkah or Chanukah, also known as the "Festival of Lights" or the "Festival of Rededication," is a Jewish holiday celebrated from the 25th day of the Jewish month Kislev to the 2nd or 3rd day of Tevet. It lasts for eight days during the Gregorian months of November, December, or, less often, early January. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem as described in the Bible in 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees.

The lighting of nine menorah candles is a tradition on Hanukkah.
The lighting of nine menorah candles is a tradition on Hanukkah.

In 175 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes became the leader of Syria, which governed the Jewish territory of Israel or Judea. Antiochus gradually began to persecute the Jews throughout his reign, while under previous rulers, they had been free to follow their customs. The Temple in Jerusalem was sacked, Jews were killed in large numbers, and in 167 BCE, an altar to Zeus was built in the Temple. A Jewish priest named Mattathias and his five sons, including Judah Maccabee, led a revolt against Antiochus. They were successful by the year 165 BCE, when they were able to rededicate the Temple to the Hebrew God.

Dreidel, a gambling game, is often played during Hanukkah.
Dreidel, a gambling game, is often played during Hanukkah.

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When Judah Maccabee and his brothers wanted to rededicate the Temple, they discovered that there was only one day's supply of oil, while the Temple menorah, a candelabrum used in Jewish religious ceremonies, was supposed to burn all night, every night. Miraculously, the single day's supply of oil burned for eight days, enough time for more oil to be prepared. Hanukkah commemorates this miracle with the lighting of candles on eight successive nights. A Hanukkah menorah, with nine branches instead of the usual seven, is used for this purpose. Eight of the candles are lit one by one on each night of the holiday, and the ninth candle, known as the shamash, is lit every night and used to kindle the other candles.

Jerusalem, Israel.
Jerusalem, Israel.

In addition to the lighting of the candles, the festival is celebrated with traditional prayers and hymns. Other traditions include the game of dreidel, a gambling game using a spinning top; eating potato pancakes or doughnuts fried in oil as a reminder of the miraculous oil in the Temple; and giving gelt, real or chocolate money, as a gift. In recent decades, Jews have begun to exchange additional presents so that their children do not feel left out during the Christian winter holiday of Christmas, which has become quite commercialized. Some Jews choose to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday and Hanukkah as a religious one.

Man praying at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.
Man praying at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.
The city of Jaffa in Israel.
The city of Jaffa in Israel.

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Discussion Comments


Very nice article and Hanukkah reminds us that this holiday commemorates the re-dedication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 B.C.E.


It's spelled different ways because it's a Hebrew word, and there are different ways of representing Hebrew with Roman letters.

Words from other languages that do not use the Roman alphabet, such as Chinese, often have alternative spellings in English in well. Hanukkah is the most common spelling, but dictionaries and Jewish publications display a variety of spellings, none of which are strictly wrong or right, so it is pretty much a matter of preference.

Also, Jewish people are very diverse, so specific communities may prefer one spelling over the other. My impression is that it's not a big deal how one chooses to spell it, though. In Israel, of course, people spell Hanukkah with Hebrew letters.


Why is it spelled two different ways? Which one is actually used by Jewish people? It can't just be a matter of preference, at least I wouldn't think so considering that it is a very important celebration in the religion.

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