According to tradition, the oil used in the Temple's re-dedication was only supposed to last one day, but miraculously lasted for eight days instead. From this miracle, holiday customs and traditions developed celebrating both the festive lights and the oil itself.
Unlike the regular Jewish menorah, the hanukkiyah of Hanukkah has room for nine candles. One candle is called the shamash, and it is used to light the other candles. An additional candle is added each evening, until there is a total of nine candles lit on the last night of the holiday.
In Hebrew, there is only one spelling for the holiday, but in English there are various spellings used. Hanukkah, Chanukkah and Hanuka - they are all the same. If you search for alternative spellings, you may even come across the phonetic Xanuka. The varied English spellings are due to the fact that the name of the holiday is pronounced not with a soft 'c' or 'h,' but rather with the rough, guttural het, a difficult mouthful for all but the practiced Hebrew speaker.
What is a Sufganiya?
Many think that the food that best symbolizes the holiday of Hanukkah is latkes - potato pancakes. In Israel this is not so. For Israelis, Hanukkah is the time to eat sufganiyot. Israelis begin eating sufganiyot over a month before the holiday begins, and usually have had enough of them by the first night of Hanukkah.
What is a sufganiya? A sufganiya is a fried jelly doughnut, without the hole, and if you're lucky you will be able to find the jelly inside. The doughy concoction is fried in oil, which connects it to the oil of the festivities. If eaten fresh, covered with powdered sugar, it can be tasty. But, if allowed to sit for too long, a sufganiya can become nothing more than a lump of hardened fat - and would probably best be avoided.
On the first night of Hanukkah in 1997, a 12-foot high pyramid made of 6,400 sufganiyot was erected near Afula. The blob was dismantled later, and the sufganiyot were distributed to Israeli soldiers serving along the border with Lebanon. The attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records was sponsored by a food store chain.
Another Hanukkah tradition that is not such a Hanukkah tradition in Israel is that of spinning the dreidel, or sivivon in Hebrew. Four letters signifying "A Great Miracle Happened There" mark this four-sided top, a favorite toy of Jewish children throughout the generations. The miracle referred to is the Maccabees' triumph in far-off Jerusalem. If you could find such a sivivon in Israel it would say "A Great Miracle Happened Here." Israeli children, if they spin anything at all at holiday time, play with plastic, colorful tops, lighting up in flashes and wreaking loud noises as they spin.
World's largest menorah
In an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, a hanukkiyah was built in 1997 at Latrun, near the main Jerusalem - Tel Aviv highway. This massive construction is more than 20 meters tall, takes up an area of 600 square meters, and weighs 17 metric tons. Chabad members built this large menorah, and have rabbis lifted in a crane each night of the holiday to light the candles. But, one rabbi has declared that the largest menorah may not be kosher. According to the Halacha, a hanukkiyah taller than 20 biblical ama (12 meters) is not allowed.
Originally published on Israel Insider, December 2001.
Photo by user Shoshanah, posted on Flickr.