Light Up Your Language for the Festival of Lights

Hanukkah

In Judaism, the Hanukkah holiday is the "festival of lights." Lasting eight days, the holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem in 165 BCE. Once the Temple was won, the Jews found only enough oil to keep the eternal flame of the menorah lit for one day. According to legend, the miracle of Hanukkah occurred when that small amount sustained the menorah's light for eight days, in order for more oil to be made. Fittingly, hanukkah literally means "a dedicating" in Hebrew.

Chanukah

As is the case with many languages, there are certain sounds in Hebrew that just don't exist in English. The first letter of Chanukah, the modern Hebrew letter chet, makes a sound called a "voiceless velar fricative," a ch in the back of the throat similar to the Scottish pronunciation of loch. The classical Hebrew pronunciation had a softer ch sound, represented by the H instead of Ch in Hanukkah. The modern Hebrew pronunciation has a harder Ch sound represented by the Ch instead of H in Chanukah. Today, both spellings exist side by side.

Menorah

The Hanukkah Menorah (also called the hanukiah) is a candelabrum with nine branches. Eight of the candles represent each night of Hanukkah, while the ninth (the shammes) is used to light the others. The original menorah in the biblical Temple of Jerusalem had only seven branches, representing the seven branches of human knowledge and the seven days of biblical creation. The Hanukkah Menorah has a more specific purpose, representing the eight nights of the holiday. Translated from the Hebrew, menorah means "candlestick."

Shammes

Originally from the Aramaic shemash, meaning "to serve," shammes means "attendant" in modern Hebrew. The shammes is the ninth candle on the Hanukkah Menorah, used to light the candles representing each night. The Hanukkah candles are traditionally placed in the menorah from right to left, though they're lit using the shammes from left to right. On the first night of Hanukkah, the menorah will have only two candles, the shammes and the right-most candle. On the last night, a menorah will display all nine.

Maccabees

In Jewish history, Hanukkah and the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem is the work of the Maccabees, an ancient family of Jewish leaders who rebelled against their colonizers. After years of oppression under King Antiochus Epiphanes, Judas Maccabaeus led a rebel army against Antiochus and reclaimed not only the Temple but Jewish freedom. The name Maccabee is derived from the Hebrew maqqabh meaning "hammer" and was given to Judas and the rebels in honor of their fortitude.

Dreidel

So, you've lit the menorah, retold the story of Hanukkah, and now dinner is in the oven. What happens now? It's time to play dreidel!

The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top bearing the Hebrew letters (nun, gimel, hei, shin). The letters on the faces of the dreidel form an acronym for the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham meaning "a great miracle happened there," referring to Israel and the Temple of Jerusalem. Children spin the dreidel and win or lose based on the letter facing up when the top stops spinning.

Gelt

So, playing dreidel sounds fun, but what are you playing for? Hanukkah gelt, of course! A piece of Hanukkah gelt is a chocolate coin usually wrapped in gold foil, designed for children to gamble with during a game of dreidel. Gelt is Yiddish, derived from the Old High German, for "money."

Latke

If you don't have a sweet tooth, you might think latkes are the most delicious part of Hanukkah. A latke is a potato pancake made from shredded potato and fried in oil, often served with applesauce or sour cream. Like gelt, latke is a Yiddish word derived from the Russian latka meaning "pastry." The oil in which latkes are fried represents the oil that kept the menorah burning in the story of Hanukkah.

Sign up for our Newsletter!
Start your day with weird words, fun quizzes, and language stories.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The Dictionary Is More Than The Word Of The Day

Enter your email for quizzes, quotes, and word facts in your inbox every day.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.