Happy Hanukkah: 8 things to know

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Happy Hanukkah: 8 things to know

Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights, begins Tuesday night. “Hanukkah” means “dedication” in Hebrew, and there are many traditions associated with the holiday.

Here are eight fun facts:

When is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah begins on the eve of the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev.

What is the history of Hanukkah?

Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem that had been defiled after the Maccabean Revolt. The Maccabees defeated the Syrians around 165 B.C. During that time, the area now known as Israel and Palestine was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who tried to force their beliefs on the Hebrews. A small band of Hebrews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated the Greeks and reclaimed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. When the Hebrews went to light the temple’s menorah, they found only one tube of olive oil that was supposed to last one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days.

What is a menorah?

Menorah is a Hebrew word for lamp. It has seven branches and was originally used in the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem. Menorahs were lit daily, using pure olive oil. A hanukkiyah is a menorah used to light the candles and has nine branches. It is lit each night to celebrate the miracle of oil, which lasted eight days.

A shamash, which means “helper” or “attendant,” is lit first and then is used to light the other candles. It is placed higher than the other candles.

How do you light a menorah?

It sounds simple but you have to know your left from your right. Candles are put on a menorah from right to left, matching the way a person reads Hebrew. The lighting of the menorah, however, must be done from left to right.

Children spin a dreidel for fun during Hanukkah, but the toy has a long history. Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

What is a dreidel?

A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top that is now used as part of a game to win chocolate coins called gelt. Originally, it was used as a decoy by the Jewish people. When the armies of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed many Jewish religious customs -- including the reading of the Torah -- the people went underground to study their holy texts. They would use the dreidels to confuse the Greek soldiers during raids. Each side of the dreidel has a different Hebrew letter, forming the acronym “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” which means “a great miracle happened there.” That’s a reference to the oil lasting for eight days in Israel.

What’s the proper spelling of Hanukkah?

Several spelling versions have been used, including Hanukkah, Hanukah, Hannukah, Chanukah and Chanukkah. Confused? The word was originally written in Hebrew -- a character based language -- and when it was translated into the alphabet-based English language some variations occurred. So, there really is no “right” or “wrong” way to spell it.

Latkes are a traditional food at Hanukkah. Neilson Barnard

What are traditional foods served at Hanukkah?

Foods served to commemorative Hanukkah are fried in oil. They include latkes (which are potato pancakes) and sufganiyou (jam-filled doughnuts). 

So, is Hanukkah the Jewish version of Christmas?

No. However, because of commercialism and the holiday’s proximity to Christmas, children of the Hebrew faith often receive gifts. Usually it is money, and parents encourage their children to give some of their Hanukkah money to tzedakah (charity).

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