People have plenty of misconceptions about the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which this year starts Saturday at sundown. Here, according to a pair of Providence rabbis, are seven places to set the record straight.
It’s not that big a deal
The top myth about Hanukkah has to be its importance, said Rabbi Rachel Zerin of Temple Emanu-El in Providence. About half a dozen other holidays, such as Yom Kippur and Passover, she said, are much more important than Hanukkah for Jews. “In the scheme of Jewish holidays, it’s not a very significant one,” she said. Zerin said she thinks this became a popular idea because the eight-day holiday usually falls around Christmas.
Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas”
Some people think Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas celebration, especially this year, because it begins on Christmas Eve. But the holiday changes every year, as it does not follow the solar Gregorian calendar used in the United States, but the lunar Jewish calendar. “Very often, Hanukkah can be well over by the time Christmas comes around,” Zerin said.
There are two story lines to Hanukkah, Zerin said. The first celebrates the Maccabean revolt, when the Jews overthrew the Greeks who had taken over the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and outlawed Judaism. The other story is of a miracle, she said. When the Jews entered the Temple after the revolt, it had been destroyed, and the menorah that is always supposed to be burning was no longer lit. Only one jar of purified olive oil was left to light the menorah. It should have only lasted one day, but it burned for eight days, until more oil could be purified, Zerin said. “That’s where we got the tradition of lighting the Hanukkah menorah,” she said, for eight days.
Latkes? Try jelly doughnuts
Potato latkes, or oil-fried potato pancakes, are an important treat on the Jewish holiday. That’s in part to celebrate the importance of oil on Hanukkah. But it’s not the only treat Jews have on the holiday. “In Israel, it’s actually more common to have doughnuts, especially jelly-filled doughnuts,” Zerin said. They’ve started to make their way to the United States, she said, and are sometimes seen here on holiday tables.
Dreidel is just a game after all
The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with Hebrew letters on each side, and is used to play games on Hanukkah. The letters are taken from the sentence in Hebrew, “Nes gadol hayah sham” — “a great miracle happened there.” The story goes that when the Jews were not allowed to practice their religion, they would meet and read Jewish texts secretly. If soldiers came along, they hid the texts and would take out the spinning tops to play, telling soldiers they were just gambling. “It’s not historically accurate, but that’s the myth,” Zerin said. The game was actually invented later, she said, and taken from a German gambling game that used a spinning top.
Presents aren’t a key to the holiday
On Hanukkah, many children today receive presents over the eight nights of the holiday, said Senior Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman of Temple Beth-El. “Giving presents is just a lovely thing to do,” he said. “It is, in part, so that our children don’t feel deprived of getting presents.” But another big part of the holiday is to give presents or charitable contribution to others, he said. Charity is central to Judaism, and “Hanukkah should be no different,” he added.
It’s not a menorah, it’s a Hanukkiyah
A menorah has seven branches with candles and it symbolizes creation, Voss-Altman said. It is often lit on the Sabbath, he added. But a Hanukkiyah, or Hanukkah menorah, is lit on the eight days of Hanukkah, and has nine branches. One of the candles helps light the others over the eight days, Voss-Altman said.
And finally …; the Hanukkah bush?
“There’s no such thing as a Hanukkah bush,” said Voss-Altman. People with “Christmas-tree envy,” came up with the Hanukkah bush, he said, but there is no religious tradition for a bush to celebrate the holiday. “That’s sort of a comedy thing,” he said, laughing. “There’s no bush for Hanukkah.”