Hanukkah 2023: 8 things you might not know about the holiday

If everything you know about Hanukkah comes from an Adam Sandler song, you are not alone.

There are many Americans out there whose only real knowledge on the subject is that Hanukkah, which will be celebrated between the evening of Dec. 7 to the evening of Dec. 15, is a festival of lights and that, instead of one day of presents, the Jewish community gets the joy of eight nights of gifts.

There’s much more to know about Hanukkah than that, however.

Here are some interesting things you probably didn’t know about Hanukkah:

1. How to spell it

When the subject of Hanukkah comes up, do you become nervous and uncertain because you don’t know whether to go with H-A-N-U-K-K-A-H or C-H-A-N-U-K-A-H, or whether it’s two K’s or one? Here’s the deal: You probably aren’t wrong. The Hebrew word is “חֲנֻכָּה” and when people transliterate that word into something English, they sometimes go with C-H and sometimes go with just an H, both of which approximate the guttural “kh” sound that starts the Hebrew word. So, if you like keeping things easy, start with the H.

2. What did we just spell?

The word Hanukkah, by the way, translates to "dedication."

3. What the dedication was all about

A brief history lesson: In 164 BC, the land Jewish people consider the Holy Land was ruled by a group that today would comprise parts of Syria and Greece. They wanted the people of Israel to assimilate, but a small band of Jews (led by a man named Judah the Maccabee) won a battle, reclaimed their temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the God of Jewish tradition.

4. Why then are there ‘eight crazy nights,’ as Sandler puts it?

Because, as legend has it, when the temple dedication team went to light the temple's menorah, they found only enough olive oil to last one day. Miraculously, that supply lasted eight whole days. And thus, Hanukkah was born.

5. Is it really about the oil lasting eight nights?

Maybe not. Other Jewish texts suggest it wasn’t the oil burning for eight days, but rather a delay in regularly scheduled programming that brought about the modern eight-day Hanukkah tradition. Because the Jewish people of Israel were still in caves fighting during September 164 BC, they didn’t get to celebrate the eight day holiday of Sukkot. The event was postponed until after the Jewish guerrillas won back Jerusalem and reclaimed the temple. Then, the event was back on, and thus Hanukkah was born.

6. The books that describe these events aren’t in the Hebrew Bible

The books of Maccabees are the ones that describe the retaking of the Holy Land, but they aren’t even in the traditional Hebrew Bible. They are in the Catholic Bible, however. So, there’s that.

Credit: Erika Rich

Credit: Erika Rich

7. The game of dreidel was inspired by an Irish game

Besides the menorah, nothing is associated with the holiday traditions of Hanukkah quite like the dreidel. But few realize the game itself comes from Ireland. Originally, the four-sided tops were painted with Latin words. The game dates to an era before the Roman Empire. As the empire’s trade routes expanded, the game spread across Europe and eventually became synonymous with Jewish culture.

8. The next “Thanksgivukkah” (sort of), is only 47 years away

For those who don’t know better, Hanukkah can seem like a Jewish Christmas. But it isn’t that at all. Nor, despite its proximity in dates to Western holidays, is it some kind of post-Thanksgiving buffer holiday. In fact, Hanukkah moves around. The Jewish calendar relies on lunar months of either 29 or 30 days. But the rest of the world goes on the Gregorian calendar. As a result, Hannukah’s start date can fall anywhere between November 27 and December 26 in any given year. The next time we see a Thanksgivukkah? 47 years (2070).

Bonus burning fact

There is a height limit for menorahs: 20 cubits — 30 feet — and not a cubit more.

About the Author