PART II: TACHLIS (THE HEART OF THE MATTER) CHAPTER 5: COMMON QUESTIONS

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       Many people in the Western world, even if they’re not Jewish know – or think they know – about Chanukah. Here are some of the questions about the basics of the holiday that you may have wondered about.

32. Why are there so many different spellings of Chanukah?

       A: The word Chanukah is also transliterated as Hanukkah in English. (There are many other spellings, too, but they are not as common.) The word is Hebrew, a language with a guttural letter, the eighth letter of the alphabet, chet, with no equivalency in English. The letter is often transliterated into English as “h,” but it is not pronounced as in “Halloween.” When transliterated as “ch,” it is not pronounced as in “China.” The Hebrew letter is pronounced in the back of the throat, similar to “ch” in German. The scholarly transliteration is either “kh,” which looks awkward in English, or “h” with a dot under it, which doesn’t appear on everyday keyboards.

33. Why does the secular calendar date of Chanukah change every year?

      A: The Hebrew date of Chanukah never changes; it always begins on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month of Kislev. But the date seems to bounce around randomly in regard to the solar calendar we use in the western world. There is a logical system, however, to determine when all Jewish dates occur. It sounds confusing, but it does work.

            Judaism uses a lunar calendar, with each month having twenty-nine or thirty days (29.53, to be precise). The lunar calendar is approximately eleven days shorter than the solar, so after the passage of a few years, Chanukah would be in June or July, not December. To avoid celebrating spring holidays like Passover in the middle of a winter blizzard (there have been several snow falls in early April, however) or fall ones like Sukkot in the heat of the summer (again, possible in early September), there is a leap month added seven times during a nineteen year cycle. If Chanukah occurs particularly early in December one year, the following year, it will be toward the end of the month.

34. Why does Chanukah last eight days?

      A: According to the most popular story, dating from the days of the Talmud, when the Maccabees entered the Temple, they found only enough consecrated oil (olive oil in a cruse sealed with the emblem of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest) to light the sacred eternal light menorah for one day. It would take over a week for more oil to be prepared. Miraculously (a common Chanukah theme), the oil lasted for the full eight days until another batch could be produced.

An alternate version of the story relates how after the Maccabees poured the one-day supply of oil into the menorah, they found the vial had not been emptied. The same thing occurred for the entire eight days until a new supply was available.

35. Did the oil really last eight days?

      A: Traditional Jews believe the miracle did occur, as an example of God’s ability to make anything happen. Others believe that it was unseemly for Jews to celebrate a military victory, and therefore imbued the holiday with a divine rationale.

36. How did the story of the oil originate?

      A: The story of the oil is not mentioned in the Book of Maccabees. It appears first in the Mishnah, Tractate Shabbat, written down almost 365 years after the event supposedly took place.

37. Are there other explanations for why the holiday lasts eight days?

      A: In Maccabees II, it is said the celebrations following the re-dedication of the Temple lasted eight days: “They celebrated it for eight days with gladness like Sukkot and recalled how a little while before, during Sukkot they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals. So carrying lulavs [palm branches waved on Sukkot]…they offered hymns of praise to God who had brought to pass the purification of his own place” (II Maccabees 10:6-7). Sukkot is the Feast of Booths, one of the three Pilgrimage Holidays (along with Passover and Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks), when the Jews brought offerings to the Temple, as mandated in the Torah. It occurs in the fall, usually September or October. In the year preceding the Maccabees’ victory, the Jews were unable to celebrate Sukkot by bringing the usual offerings to the defiled Temple. Many scholars believe the Chanukah celebration was a delayed observance of Sukkot.

There is a more mystical explanation as well. The number eight has significance in Judaism as representing renewal and continuity. Seven is the number of completion, as in the seven days of creation, which leads to the seven days of the week, the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, the seventh year when the cultivated soil should remain fallow. When we come to the eighth day, or the eighth week, or the eighth year, we begin again. The Jewish nation was beginning again after the years of oppression under the rule of the Seleucid Empire.