8 Misconceptions About Hanukkah

    Hanukkah starts Sunday December 18th this year (2022) and lasts until Monday the 26th. Non-Jews  have many misconceptions about Hanukkah. One of them is that it is the Jewish Christmas. Nope. Not even close.


    Let's start with how to pronounce the Jewish holiday. Hanukkah in English is 3 syllables, HAHN nuh kah. In Hebrew it is closer to 2, khan newKAH, with the accent at the end of the word. If you want to wish someone a Happy Hanukkah, Hanukkah Sameach, but you don't do the Hebrew kh sound well, just say it in English. Totally acceptable.


    Now for those misconceptions.


    1. Hanukkah is a major Jewish holiday.

    Contrary to what you may think, Hanukkah is not a major religious day in Judaism. The most important feasts are Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.


    But as Christmas celebrations in the United States grew over time, so did the celebrations of Hanukkah. Singing songs, candy, gift giving, decorations, tableware, parties began to be included during the 1950s and beyond. It was a way to hold on to their Jewish culture and yet give their children similar experiences to that of the Christmas traditions in America. It helped Jewish children not feel alienated and not to appear different from their non-Jewish friends.


    2. The Hanukkah "candleholder" is called a menorah.

    Yes and no. The important part of Hanukkah is the lighting of what we call the menorah. Menorah in Hebrew is menorhAH, with almost a silent r. Here in Michigan we don't do silent Rs, so I won't be trying this one. But the menorah is the candelabra type holder that holds seven lights originally used in the Temple. Seven is the number of completeness in the Bible.


    The holder with nine spaces for candles or oil is the official Hanukkah light. It is called the hanukkiah (khan newkeeYAH) and like the menorah has one candle in the middle bigger than the others called shamash (shaMAHSH). The shamash is used to light the other candles. There are rules to observe in lighting the hanukkiah for Hanukkah and there are blessings to be recited. Jimmy Carter is noted for lighting the first national menorah in the United States in 1979. But actually it was the hanukkiah.


    3. Hanukkah is always in December.

    You may have noticed the day Hanukkah begins changes every year.  For example next year it will start December 7th and in 2024 it will start December 25th. But it is always on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew lunar calendar. On the Gregorian calendar that day shifts but usually falls in December. It can begin as early as our Thanksgiving, however, like it did in 2013 and will in 2070.


    4. All Jews celebrate Hanukkah the same.

    Depending on where Jewish roots originate, Ashkenazi (Germany or Eastern Europe), Sephardic (North Africa and Iberian Peninsula) or Mizrahi (Middle East, North Africa, Iraq, Iran, Yemen), how one celebrates Hanukkah may differ. Here in the United States latkes and donuts are popular foods to eat. Latkes are like potato pancakes or hashbrown cakes. Latkes can be made with beets or sweet potatoes too. They are called levivah (lehveeVOGHT) in Hebrew. Jelly filled donuts in Hebrew are called sufganiyot (sewfgahNEEYOHT 3 syllables). 


    A dreidel (DRAYdell) is a spinning toy used to play a game during Hanukkah. In Hebrew a dreidel is called sehveeVOHN. Letters on the sides of the dreidel are the first letters from each word of the Hebrew sentence meaning A great miracle happened here." The letters are nun, gimmel, he, pe for nes gadol haya poh. But if you are playing the game outside of Israel, you would say A great miracle happened there." The game is a type of gambling game with chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.


    So what was the miracle?


    First we need to know what Hanukkah is celebrating. In the years between the Old and New Testaments it is said there are 400 years of silence. But there is history happening and God's plans were moving forward. In these years Alexander the Great marched into the Middle East and changed it. His generals parceled out his holdings after his death and Greeks ruled in the Middle East.


    The Greek Selucid Empire (Syrian) began to govern what used to be Israel in 174BC. In an effort to unify the empire under Greek control and culture, their rulers–with the help of corrupt Jewish priests and traitors– persecuted Jews, limited the practice of Jewish religion and offered pagan sacrifices in the Jewish Temple. This last act desecrated the Temple and infuriated the Jews. The Maccabee family led a rebellion against the Empire. The Maccabees and their armies succeeded in freeing Judea and the surrounding region around 134BC and held their victory for the next hundred years as the Hasmonean Dynasty. 


    5. Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas.

    It was Judah Maccabee and his soldiers who regained control of the Temple about 164BC. The Temple was cleansed on the 25th day of the month of  Kislev. Judah along with other Jewish leaders decided that a rededication of the Temple should happen every year starting on the 25th of Kislev and last eight days. This is recorded in 1Maccabees 4:59 and this day became what we know as Hanukkah.


    6. Jesus did not celebrate Hanukkah.

    The Jewish historian Josephus called it the festival of lights. But in John 10:22 it is called the Feast of Dedication. Jesus attended the feast. "And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch."


    Jewish leaders confronted Jesus there. He told them they were not His sheep. He too was dealing with traitors on the 25th of Kislev and promising deliverance.


    Then the Jews came round him, saying, how long are you going to keep us in doubt? If you are the Christ, say so clearly. Jesus said in answer, I have said it and you have no belief: the works which I do in my Father's name, these give witness about me. But you have no belief because you are not of my sheep. My sheep give ear to my voice, and I have knowledge of them, and they come after me: And I give them eternal life; they will never come to destruction, and no one will ever take them out of my hand.

                                                                                                           John 10:24-28 BBE 


    It may be safe to say, however, Jesus' Hanukkah didn't include jelly donuts and chocolate money.


    Now about that miracle–


    7. Hanukkah is really a celebration of a military victory.

     Yes, but there is more. Legend says that after winning their victory Judah Maccabees and his men returned to the Temple to purify it, but they found only enough oil to light the menorah for a day. The rest of the oil had been desecrated. Purification had to be performed for eight days. But the flask of pure oil never ran out. It miraculously lasted the entire eight day period. This legend is written in the Talmud.


    8. Hannukah is not in the Bible.

    Actually it is in the Christian Bible. It is mentioned, as we said earlier, in John 10:22. But Hanukkah is not found in the Torah because the Torah ends its narrative around the time of the Persian Empire. Most of the information comes from the Books of Maccabees.Not everything is known about Hanukkah even by Jews. For instance, why is it celebrated for eight days? There are several theories given. The eight days of purification is one popular theory, but another is the delayed celebration of Sukkot which is also an eight day feast.


    I do not doubt that God would make a flask of oil last eight days. Maybe there is truth to that legend. But to be honest, the miracle of Hanukkah that is speaking to me right now is how a small band of patriotic and religious believers expelled an oppressive ruling system and regained dignity for their country and their faith. 


    Want to read more about Christmas myths and legends? You can find another article here.



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