The Little-known Meaning of the Word Hanukkah

It's not just Americans who have trouble pronouncing the name of this winter holiday. Israelis get it wrong too.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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A menorah depicting Judean warriors bearing torches, made in around 1950. In exhibit at the Eretz Israel Museum.
A menorah depicting Judean warriors bearing torches, made in around 1950. In exhibit at the Eretz Israel Museum.
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

This article was originally published on December 6, 2018.

Hanukkah is the holiday probably best known in the English-speaking world as the hard-to-pronounce, impossible-to-spell Jewish alternative to a certain winter festival that involves a fat bearded man, the Middle Eastern birth of a deity and, sometimes, snow.

Sure, the English spelling differs from greeting card to greeting card. But that’s just because Chanukah/Channuka/Hanukkah is a transliteration of the Hebrew, and the world hasn’t quite reached unanimous agreement on how or when to add an “h” at the end of a Hebrew word, double up on certain consonants or, most importantly, express the guttural “kh” sound often described as the kind you might make if you had a fish bone stuck in the back of your throat.

Here’s Hanukkah’s dirty little secret: As long as everyone knows what you’re talking about, it doesn’t actually matter how you spell the name of the Festival of Lights in English (though many publications, including this one, go with the Associated Press spelling for consistency’s sake). So let’s set aside the English spelling conundrum and take a look at the Hebrew word.

Desecration of the temple

A model of ancient Jerusalem with the Second Temple: The name of 'Hanukkah' is from its rededication.Credit: Orel Cohen

Americans can take comfort in the fact that they're not the only ones who have trouble pronouncing the name of this holiday. Israelis get it wrong too, typically pronouncing it KHA-noo-ka, though the formal (albeit widely ignored) pronunciation is supposed to be kha-noo-KA. Either way, that fish-bone sound at the beginning is all-important, followed by a “noo” that rhymes with “moo” (rather than one that, as in the common Anglicized pronunciation, resembles the vowel sound in “nook” or “book”).

The name of the holiday, Hanukkah, comes from the Hebrew word for “dedication,” “consecration” or “inauguration.” It refers to the Jews’ rededication of the Second Temple in the second century B.C.E., after the Hellenistic Greeks of Syria had desecrated it by using it for the worship of Greek gods and the sacrifice of (famously non-kosher) pigs.

A popular children’s song for the holiday begins with the words: “The days of Hanukkah, hanukkat mikdasheinu [the dedication of our Temple], fill our hearts with joy and gladness.”

Some sources are specific when describing what exactly was rededicated. The non-canonized book I Maccabees, which tells the story of Hanukkah, relates: “And they celebrated hanukkat hamizbe’ah [the dedication of the altar] for eight days, and they brought sacrifices with joy in their hearts.”

The term hanukkat hamizbe’ach is also used in the Bible, to refer to King Solomon’s dedication of the First Temple (2 Chronicles 7:9) and in the traditional Hebrew song “Maoz Tzur,” often sung right after lighting Hanukkah candles.

A spiritual victory

The story of Hanukkah is one of a Maccabean military victory and - at least as significantly - a spiritual victory over Hellenistic attempts to prohibit Jewish practices.

This spiritual victory is symbolized by the Jews’ discovery of a single sealed, pure vial of olive oil to light the seven-branched menorah (pronounced in Hebrew as me-no-RA), one of the primary ritual objects in the Temple. According to the Hanukkah story, though the oil was enough for just one day, it miraculously lasted for eight, and we commemorate this by lighting Hanukkah candles or oil lamps for (as Adam Sandler would have it) eight crazy nights.

The Hebrew spelling of Hanukkah also serves as a mnemonic device, reminding us that the date of the holiday is the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, as represented by the last two Hebrew letters of the holiday, which are equivalent to 25 in the Hebrew alphanumeric system.

A rabbinical dispute

If the Hebrew word is broken down a different way, it can remind us of one of the key religious rulings regarding the method of candle lighting – and an argument between two schools of rabbinical thought about the order in which the candles should be lit.

In this breakdown, the first two letters stand for “eight candles,” since het is eight in the alphanumeric system and nun is the first letter of nerot, the Hebrew for “candles.” The rest of the word (the letters vav, kaf, heh) is an acronym for vehalakha k’veit Hillel, “and the religious ruling follows Beit Hillel.”

This refers to a dispute between two groups of scholars over whether one should light eight candles on the first night and dwindle down to one or, as members of Hillel’s school of thought argued, light one candle first and an additional one every night of the holiday, since we should strive to increase sanctity rather than diminish it. The Hillel school won out

As for what exactly to call the eight-branched Hanukkah candelabra (plus a separate branch for the extra shamash candle): it is popularly known by many English speakers as a menorah, and before the revivification of the Hebrew language it was known as a Hanukkah menorah in Hebrew as well. But in modern-day Israel, if you’re looking for the holiday candelabra, you should call it a hanukkiah (derived, naturally, from the name of the festival).

The State of Israel may have chosen the menorah of Temple times to represent the country on the state emblem, but ask an Israeli shopkeeper for one and you may find yourself wondering why he's offering you a night light (menorat layla), a desk lamp (menorat shulhan) or perhaps a wall fixture (menorat kir). Hanukkah may last only eight days, but get thee to a light fixtures store like a house on fire, and you’ll find that in Israel we use menorahs all year long.

This article was originally published in December 2014

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