Jewish Holidays


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
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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.

Sukkot: The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles

Mara from Kosher on a Budget is sharing today, continuing on in our series about Jewish Festivals. She is a friend of Sara over at Saving For Someday and I am excited to have her guest posting today.

Two weeks ago, Sara told you about the rituals and traditions associated with the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). Today, I want to share with you the history and customs of the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, as it is called in Hebrew.

Sukkot is the third holiday in the lunar-based Jewish month of Tishrei, which coincides with September and early October. The Jewish New Year is on the 1st and  2nd of Tishrei, the Day of Atonement is on the 10th, and the week-long festival of Sukkot begins on the 15th of Tishrei. This year, Sukkot will start at sunset on Wednesday evening, September 22nd and will conclude at dusk on Friday, October 1st.

The Meaning of Sukkot

Like many Jewish holidays, the customs and traditions of Sukkot are based on a rich blend of historical, agricultural and spiritual underpinnings.

Historically, Sukkot reminds us of the 40 years that the Jews wandered in the dessert after fleeing from bondage in Egypt. The Israelites erected makeshift huts to provide shelter from the elements, but ultimately, we know that only G-d could provide them with true protection. So, too, on Sukkot, we build and dwell in an impermanent structure, called a sukkah, with temporary walls and a thatched roof, to remind us that G-d is our ultimate protector.

Agriculturally, Sukkot marks the autumn harvest. In fact, Sukkot is often referred to in Hebrew as Chag Ha’Asif – the Harvest Festival. Much of the symbolism and imagery surrounding the holiday evokes our gratitude to G-d for enabling us to complete the harvest. We decorate our sukkah with fragrant branches, autumn gourds and seasonal fruits, all reminiscent of the sights and smells of this bountiful time of year!

Building & Dwelling in a Sukkah

In anticipation of Sukkot, Jewish families build a sukkah in which they will eat their meals throughout the festival. Weather permitting, my husband and sons will even sleep in the sukkah a night or two! The basic laws of sukkah-building allow for the walls to be made out of nearly any material – from plastic tarps to cloth sheets to wooden planks. In fact, you can even incorporate one of the standing walls of your home or a hedge in your garden.

Instead of a sealed roof, the sukkah is covered on top by unfinished boards and/or branches, known in Hebrew as S’chach. Importantly, the S’chach must be dense enough to provide shade during the day, but open enough to see through to the stars at night.

Illuminated outdoor Sukkah (in Israel) (copyright Ron Almog)

In our family, my husband begins constructing the sukkah as soon as the Day of Atonement ends. Our sons enjoy hammering right along with him or collecting branches from our yard to use for the roof. The next day, I take over with interior decorating, as we want to beautify our new home – even if it is only a temporary one. I laminate artwork my children made at school and hang them on our cloth walls with safety pins; we make paper and popcorn chains to hang from the branches and string twinkling garden lights to illuminate our meals in the evenings.

Sukkah decorated from the inside

(copyright Muu-karhu)

Despite our efforts to beautify our sukkah, however, we acknowledge that ultimately this structure is intended to be a humble abode. Its simplicity is a reminder that by eschewing materialism and embracing spirituality, we grow closer to G-d and what He wants for us in this world.

Lulav & Etrog

Another tradition during Sukkot is the waving of the Four Species, known in Hebrew as Arabt Ha’Minim, or the Lulav and Etrog. The Lulav is comprised of three different species – a palm branch, two willow branches and three myrtle branches.

4 Species/Arbat Ha’Minim

(photo credit Yoni Debest )

Bundled together, these three types of plants are held in the right hand, while the etrog – or citron, in English – is held in the left hand. Then, we wave the four species together in all six directions – east, south, west, north, up and down – in acknowledgement of G-d’s omnipresence.

Etrogs (photo credit Yankelowitz)

From Creation to Repentance to Abundance

Next week, Sara will be back to wrap up this series on the Jewish holidays, by telling you about the concluding days of the Sukkot festival. As you can see, the month of Tishrei is an extremely full one within the Jewish calendar. We go from the spiritual high of Rosh Hashana – when we celebrate the beginning of a New Year – to the emotional depth of Yom Kippur – when we quite literally are on our knees, begging our Creator for forgiveness of our sins – to the emotional jubilation of Sukkot – when we rejoice in G-d’s bounty and give thanks for His abundance.

Wishing you a Chag Sukkot Sameach, a Happy Sukkot Holiday!

Mara Strom is a freelance writer, who loves talking about frugality and Jewish life at her blog, Kosher on a Budget. She and her husband of eight years have three children, two sons who were born in Israel, and a daughter who was born in Kansas. One day her family will return to the Promised Land, but in the meantime, she’s enjoying building her sukkah in America’s heartland.

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