Hanukkah, which begins at sunset with the lighting of the first candle, may be the most interesting, confusing, and confused of Jewish holidays. Let me count the ways.
1. It is the most historic of the traditional Jewish holidays. The historicity of more important holidays is somewhat shrouded in antiquity, bible stories, and faith. We have a pretty good chronicle of the events commemorated by Hanukkah: the Jewish rebellion of around 163 BCE led by the Maccabee family against the Seleucid/Syrian occupiers of Israel.
2. The best chronicle of Hanukkah is found in the Books of Maccabees. Maccabees is found in the bible, but because of textual happenstance, not in the Jewish Bible. Books of Maccabees are part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles, and are apocryphal books of the Protestant bible. But the Jewish biblical canon (the books officially included) was closed before these books were available. So if Jews want to read this particular biblical story, they have to turn to Christian bibles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
3. Hanukkah is probably not just about the Maccabees. As with other holidays, including Christmas, it is likely a melding of other seasonal celebrations at that time of year.
4. Because Hanukkah is extra-biblical, it did not achieve the stature of other holidays. You will often see it referred to as a “minor” holiday. In baseball terms, though, Hanukkah is at least AAA minor league, that is, completely ready to play in the majors. Which, as it turned out, it kind of does.
5. How Hanukkah became a much more important holiday than ever is covered by the wonderful book Hanukkah in America. For one thing, the original story of the Maccabees is about fighting not just the occupiers but the tendency of Jews in that situation toward assimilation and Hellenization. This obviously resonated in America, where secular culture and particularly Christmas became a juggernaut.
6. The candelabra used on Hanukkah for the eight nights of lights is usually referred to, by Jews and non-Jews alike, as a menorah. This is not exactly right. A menorah is a lamp, more particularly the seven-armed lamp that is an abiding symbol of Judaism and Israel. The lamp lit at Hanukkah is more properly called a hanukkiah. But hardly ever is.
7. The spelling of the word Hanukkah in English remains an unsettled mess. “Hanukkah” is now prevalent, but there is still plenty of the older “Chanukah” or, less likely, “Chanukkah” or other variations. The problem stems from trying to transliterate a Hebrew word into English—especially a word that has the guttural “ch” sound not heard in English (that is, not “ch” as in China). But as the saying goes: You can spell it Hanukkah or Chanukah, just don’t call me late for latkes. (No, that’s not an actual saying.)
8. This is from a little book that is a century old. The Hanukkah Festival: Outline of Lessons for Teachers (1914) was published by The Teachers’ Institute of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and written by Rabbi Louis Grossmann, its principal. One of the benedictions for lighting the candles goes well beyond Judaism, history, or faith. It should work for just about anyone, tonight and every night.
Eight days long the Lights burned in the homes of our Fathers, and eight days long they rejoiced. One little flask of sacred oil was enough to illumine the Temple and to keep it bright. So each one of us may gladden those with whom we are, and the Light within our heart may make bright all who are about us.