Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Wednesday evening at sundown, Jews around the world will begin the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah — or Chanukah, if you prefer.
The Jewish holiday, also known as the festival of lights, can be properly spelled either way. In fact, Time magazine suggests there are 14 different spelling variations that are all "technically correct." But "Hanukkah" is currently the most popular spelling, even though "Chanukah" is favored by more orthodox Jews (including Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah). In either case, both have eight letters, and eight is a symbolic number when it comes to Hanukkah.
Or Chanukah, if you prefer.
The roots of the holiday can be traced to the defeat of the Greek/Syrian army by a small but determined band of Jewish Maccabees between 175 and 164 B.C. When the temple in Jerusalem was liberated, the Jews found that there was only enough oil to keep the menorah — a lamp that was an important part of daily service in the temple — lit for one day. But according to Rabbi Zippel, "it lasted miraculously for eight days until new, pure olive oil was produced."
"Ever since, in commemoration of this event, the Jewish people celebrate Chanukah for eight days by lighting an eight-branched candelabra known as a menorah," Rabbi Zippel said.
If you're counting nine candles in most of the menorahs you've seen, the ninth candle — actually, the middle one — is used to light the others, one each day through the eight days of Hanukkah until all eight candles are lit.
Among non-Jews, Hanukkah is probably the best known Jewish holiday, likely because of its proximity to Christmas. But it is not among the Jewish "High Holy Days," which include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The holiday isn't even mentioned in the Torah, although it is referred to in the book of Maccabees, which isn't part of the Hebrew Bible.
But it is a lively, festive holiday, featuring fried foods (symbolic of the miraculous oil) including latkes (potato pancakes) and doughnuts, children playing with dreidels (square spinning tops upon which are written the Hebrew words for "a great miracle happened there") and gifts of "gelt," or small amounts of money.
Because it is based on the Jewish calendar, this year's Hannukah celebration is unusual because it overlaps Thanksgiving, the first time it has done so since 1888, and something that won't happen again for thousands of years. The unusual occurrence is being called Thanksgivukkah.
But don't expect to hear that word come out of Rabbi Zippel's mouth when he presides over the public menorah lighting ceremony at the Gallivan Center in downtown Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 1, from 3-6 p.m. Nor will he likely mention it on Monday, Dec. 2, when he participates in the private lighting of a menorah in the Governor's Mansion.
"The eternal message of the menorah lights has particular significance in light of current world events, which remind us all too starkly that the forces of oppression and darkness are still present," the rabbi said. "Chanukah reminds us that a little light can defeat an empire of darkness, human goodness can defy terror and brute force, and life and spiritual vitality can overcome destruction."
No matter how you spell it.
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