Most goyim (non-Jews) don’t know much about Hanukkah. It takes place every year in the month of December, so many assume it is a Jewish version of Christmas. But that isn’t the case. In Israel and around the world, Hanukkah is celebrated in much the same way. Here are seven things you probably didn’t know about the holiday.
1. The first American White House Hanukkah party was held on December 10, 2001. President George W. Bush borrowed an antique hanukkiyah (9-branched menorah) from the Jewish Museum in New York to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Light. The White House Hanukkah party has become an annual event for the last 14 years, and this year Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will join President Obama for the reception on December 9th.
2. The traditional foods of Hanukkah are all reminders of the original Hanukkah miracle, when God supernaturally allowed the oil in the Temple lamps to burn for eight days instead of one. These favorite traditional foods are fried in oil: levivot (potato pancakes also called latkes), sufganiyot (jelly donuts dusted with powdered sugar), and bimuelos (honey puff pastries).
3. Hanukkah is a Hebrew word meaning “dedication.” It comes from the story of the Maccabees, a small group of Jewish rebels who fought the Greeks and won a miraculous victory. The Greek pagan king had outlawed Jewish worship in Jerusalem, and actually desecrated the Temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar. The Maccabees fought back, and won control of Jerusalem. Their first act was to cleanse and rededicate the Temple, and that is why Hanukkah is also known as the “Feast of Dedication.” It is mentioned in the New Testament as one of the times Jesus went to Jerusalem (John 10:22).
4. Because Hanukkah is a Hebrew word (חנוכה) it has different spellings in English, all of which are correct. It is also often spelled Chanukah or Hannuka. All that matters is the phonetic pronunciation.
5. The menorah used to celebrate Hanukkah is different from the ordinary menorah used in Jewish homes and synagogues. Instead of seven branches, the hanukkiyah is a nine-branched candelabra. The center candle is called the shamash, and is used to light the other candles – one for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. The eight nights of Hanukkah reflect the eight-day miracle of extending the Temple oil.
(This is similar to the custom of lighting Advent candles by Christians in the weeks leading up to Christmas.)
6. Jewish children traditionally receive money from parents and relatives on Hanukkah. It is not customary to give gifts, although this has become more common. The money, called gelt in the Yiddish dialect, is meant as an incentive to learn Torah. Children often also receive chocolate coins in gold foil wrapping as part of this tradition.
7. The largest hanukkiyah ever created premiered in Tel Aviv in December 2013. The Israel Electric Company used nine trucks with mechanical extension platforms to shine bright lights from 92 feet in the air. The previous world record for a hanukkiyah was the 32-foot silver menorah lit every year in New York City. The same year, Hebrew University in Jerusalem created the world’s smallest hanukkiyah with nanotechnology. Using a special 3D microprinter, they created a detailed menorah the size of a speck of dust.