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8 things you may not know about Hanukkah

Learn more about this important Jewish holiday

Starting on Sunday, December 2 at sunset, Jews around the world will gather to celebrate the "Festival of Lights" known as Hanukkah. For eight nights, families light the traditional menorah, say special blessings and perhaps share a laugh or two while exchanging gifts.

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To give everyone a better understanding of what Hanukkah is all about St. Louis Rabbi Randy Fleisher of the Central Reform Congregation shared eight things you may not have known about this important Jewish holiday.

1. What does Hanukkah celebrate?

Hanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the victory of the Maccabees over the Greek Syrian army. The battle in the second century BCE was fought for religious freedom. The legend is that during the battle, the Jews had only enough oil to light the menorah for one night, but the oil lasted for eight.

2. What is a menorah and what does it symbolize?

A Hanukkah menorah has nine branches as opposed to a traditional menorah, which has seven branches. Eight of the branches represent a night that the Maccabees kept their menorah lit during the battle. The ninth branch holds the shamash helper candle, which is used to light the other candles, one per night, for eight nights.

3. What is the significance of the Dreidel?

Dreidel is a children's game that is part of the Hanukkah celebration. The dreidel is a four-sided top with four Hebrew letters inscribed on each side; Nun, Gimmel, Hay, and Shin. The letters stand for the "A great miracle there." The great miracle can be interpreted in several ways, the victory in the battle, the oil, or all miracles in general.

4. Are there traditional foods served on Hanukkah and what is there significance?

What would a holiday be without traditional foods? In the case of Hanukkah, the traditional foods are potato "latkes" and for many, jelly donuts. The symbolism is represented in that they are both cooked using oil.

Credit: David Silverman/Getty Images
KADIMA, ISRAEL - DECEMBER 5: Fesh oil-fried and caramel-filled doughnuts, called sufganiyot in Hebrew.

5. Why are there so many ways to spell Hanukkah?

Whenever you take a word directly from one language and attempt to translate it into another, it becomes an imperfect science. In this case, the first letter of the Hebrew word for Hanukkah doesn't have an English translation. The sound at the top of the word is sort of the equivalent of "clearing your throat." So to spell that sound, some use a CH in front of Chanukkah and some just go without it.

6. Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah isn't always on the same date. How come?

Actually, Hanukkah always falls on the same date each year. But because the date is determined by the Hebrew calendar, the date doesn't always match up with western calendars. The date of Hanukkah is always at the end of the month of Kislev, when the moon cycle is waning. This is when the nights are darkest, and it's believed that the Hanukkah "Festival of Lights" brings more light to the darkness around us.

7. What is "gelt" and why is it a part of the Hanukkah tradition?

Gelt is a candy gift designed as chocolate money. Part of the idea and spirit of Hanukkah is to give gifts that are thoughtful and sweet.

8. Why is there no mention of Hanukkah in the Hebrew bible?

Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah because the historic events happened after the Torah was written. But there was a scripture called "The Book of the Maccabees." And while it's not included in the Jewish Bible, it is actually included in some versions of the New Testament. It's believed that early Jewish scholars did not include this book in the Jewish bible because the story was about war and military victory, and less a spiritual event.

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