Jewish Festivals


Hanukkah begin sundown Wednesday night (December 1st). According to the Jewish calendar, which is based on the lunar cycle, Hanukkah falls on the exact same date every year. But, the Gregorian calendar is a solar-based calendar which is why Hanukkah falls on different dates each year on the Gregorian calendar.

Hanukkah, also knows as the Festival of Lights, is an 8-day celebration which commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after its destruction in the Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century BCE. The story goes that upon rededication of the Temple the Macabees discovered there only to be enough oil to light the menorah for one day. It would take eight days to make new olive oil. But, wanting to do as the Torah (Five Books of Moses) said, they light the menorah and commenced to making more oil. Yet the next day the flame still illuminated the Temple. As it would for the next 7 days, allowing new oil to be made. It was this miracle that gives us the duration of Hanukkah.

There are several items that are significant to Hanukkah: Menorah (more specifically, Hanukkiah), food, dreidel, gelt (money, often chocolate now), prayers and songs. Each of these are significant and makes this festival celebration very unique among the Jewish people.


A menorah (me-no-rah) is a candelabra. It often has 6 branches. For Hanukkah, we use an 8-branched menorah called a Hanukkiah (ha-noo-key-uh). It is specific to Hanukkah and in addition to the 8 branches, there is a nineth spot for the helper candle which lights the others. This helper candle is called the shamash (sha-mah-sh). Hanukkah candles are not lit with matches, they must be lit with another candle, thus the importance of the shamash.

A hanukkiah may be made of any material (glass, metal, ceramic, clay, or even muffin cups!). Many families have one for each person in the family, as it is a mitzvah (meets-vah) to light the menorah at Hanukkah.

The menorah BabyGirl made for display this year
First night of Hanukkah


It’s not a party without food! Most will have latkes (lot-kuhs or some say lot-keys) which are potato pancakes. I make them in the traditional way by shredding potatoes adding some chopped onion, salt, pepper, egg and a few tablespoons of flour and mixing them to make little patties. They’re kinda like hash browns if you’re needing a reference point. They’re fried in oil — oil being the key ingredient in Hanukkah! The most traditional toppings are applesauce or sour cream

Crispy Latkes

Creative Commons License photo credit: surlygirl

There are also jelly donuts. Yes, that’s right, donuts. Popularized by Spanish and Middle Eastern Jews, Sufganiyot (soof-gahn-ee-yoat) are the main Hanukkah food you’ll find in Israel. But, they’re starting to catch on here in the US too. I didn’t grow up having these but I learned about them when I lived in Israel. Delish!

Dreidel and Gelt

A dreidel is a 4-sided top and was invented as a way to cover up studying Torah when it was forbidden. There is a letter on each side representing the phrase ‘A great miracle happened there’. In Israel, there is one letter that is different because the Israel dreidels translate to ‘A great miracle happened HERE‘. It is a fun game and often is played with gelt (money). Usually the money is chocolate coins and kids young and old enjoy playing.

Dreidels =D
Creative Commons License photo credit: juliejigsaw

Prayers and Songs

As with all Jewish holidays, Hanukkah has special prayers that are recited each night when the candles are lit. Jews are required to say the prayers for candle lighting. After candles are lit, many Jews sing traditional songs although there are modern songs that are becoming popular as well.


Hanukkah, traditionally, is not a gift-giving holiday. When I grew up my family exchanged small token gifts, but nothing significant. For me, Hanukkah was never a Christmas alternative. It has, however, grown into a more secularized celebration with extravagant gifts and many people making Hanukkah into a Christmas-like celebration.

How Do You Spell It?

OK, now that you’ve read all the way through I know this is the one question you probably want to ask. Hanukkah does not have a standard transliteration. In Hebrew there are two ways to spell it and it’s a difference of vowel placement. But when it’s transliterated into English there are a number of ways depending on where you live and how you learned it growing up. Some spell it with the ‘Ch’, others with just the ‘H’. Then of course there is the question of how many k’s and n’s to add.

So, really, it doesn’t matter if you see Hanukkah or Chanukkah or Hannukah or Channukkah, it’s all the same. Just as long as there is a menorah, some latkes and maybe some jelly donuts it’s all good!


Before I go, I’ll leave with with one of my current favorite popular songs. One is from a pop group called The LeeVees and it is called, fittingly, How Do You Spell ……

LeeVees – How Do You Spell Channukkahh? from The LeeVees on Vimeo.

Sara Hawkins
Saving For Someday
Follow me on Twitter
[email protected]

Editor’s Apology: Sara has been awesome at contributing these posts about the Jewish Festivals this year and I want to acknowledge that effort and apologize for not getting this post up on Wednesday. Thank you Sara for another excellent post.

Simchat Torah

Simchat Torah (pronounce Sim-hot Tor-ah) is one of the wonderfully joyous Jewish festivals. Simchat Torah is at the end of the month that began with Rosh Hashana, bringing to a close a very important and spiritual month with joy, laughter, excitement, dancing and singing.

Simchat Torah translates to mean ‘Rejoice with the Torah’ and signifies the end and beginning of a cycle. As Rosh Hashana marked the beginning of the Jewish year, the birthday of the world, Simchat Torah marks both the ending and beginning of another Jewish milestone – public reading of the Torah.

One might think that Rosh Hashana, the new year, would mean that we begin reading the torah from the beginning once again. However, it is actually 3-weeks later on Simchat Torah that Jews mark the transition from the end of the torah and return to the beginning.

The Sefer Torah (pronounce safe-air Tor-ah) literally means ‘Book of Torah’. And the Torah is the first five books of Moses, most often referred to as the Old Testament. A Sefer Torah is handwritten on parchment paper by a trained scribe. They are one of the most holy relics of the Jewish people and are held in such high regard that they are dressed in ornate coverings and treated with such care that special pointers have been made so that hands and fingers do not touch it for reading purposes.

Simchat Torah is a family celebration and is very lively. At my synagogue, we make special floral wreaths for each torah. Last year, my daughter and I joined several other women to create beautiful purple and white wreaths. You can see our handiwork here, just scroll down to Simchat Torah! There is dancing and singing and plenty of torah reading. Seeing a torah scroll fully unrolled is quite a site. Because each Torah is hand created, they come in different sizes so it’s hard to tell you how long it is when unrolled. To give you an idea of how large it can be, check out this picture.

For my congregation, Simchat Torah is another way to get closer to G-D and celebrate the many wonders of Judaism. Everyone who is capable gets to carry the Torah and dance around. Children are given plush, stuffed torah so they can participate too. It truly is a wonderful way to mark the end of the Old Testament and the renewal and beginning of the new cycle of learning and study that comes with reading the Torah.

My daughter especially likes Simchat Torah because it is so much fun. Who doesn’t like singing and dancing and, of course, eating! And, like me as a child, she is overtaken with the enormity of the Torah when it is fully unrolled. At my synagogue a fully unrolled Torah scroll requires over 100 people to hold it. It truly is a marvelous sight. One that brings such pride, that even writing this I have a lump in my throat.

And just hearing those words – In the Beginning – make me so proud to be Jewish.

Photo Credit: Sara for Congregation Or Chadash

We Are Studying Ancients This Year

I am so excited.

Have I told you yet that we are studying ancients yet?

Oh, wait. I just did that.

You can read all about our homeschool plans for this year. When you are done reading, you will know that we are using Mystery of History, Volume 1 for our social studies, history, and geography this year.

We have not started yet because we are still getting used to all of our other subjects, but we will be starting very soon.  I can’t wait to dig in with the kids and have fun.

But wait…

I have a surprise.

I have asked my friend Sara, from over at Saving For Someday, to do a series this year on the Jewish feasts and festivals. I am so happy that she said yes. I can’t wait to learn from her.

Her first post goes up this Wednesday (September 1, 2010).

It is really good! (Yes, I got to have a sneak peak.)

Make sure you come back and read it.

PS – You can read more about the Mystery of History if you are interested.

What are you studying for social studies, history, and geography for this year?

Scroll to Top