Hanukkah, Chanukah, Hanukah, Chanukkah, Hanukka, Chanukka. During a recent Google search for the word “Hanukkah,” I found more than 15 variations on how to spell the Festival of Lights.
Every year when we are working on the issue that includes Hanukkah, we go back and forth between spelling it Hanukkah or Chanukah. The only easy decision, once you pick a spelling, it has to be that way throughout the issue.
This year, as in most, we are going with Hanukkah. We follow the AP Stylebook and that is what is recognized by them. Also, Hanukkah is the most widely used spelling, although Chanukah is more traditional.
But why so many different ways to spell it?
The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication,” and this holiday commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
The simple answer (which is really not that simple) comes down to transliteration. Unlike translation, transliteration is when you “change (letters, words, etc.) into corresponding characters of another alphabet or language.” In Hebrew, the word for Chanukah is not easily transliterated into English. This accounts for why there are so many spelling variants.
Hebrew does not use the Latin alphabet, which is the standard script of many languages, including English. When used in an English context, the sounds of the different letters have to be converted, or transliterated, into Latin letters. Here’s the catch, the Hebrew word for the holiday uses sounds that aren’t found in the Latin alphabet.
And this is where things start to get tricky. The difficulty begins with the first letter of the word, which is the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet – chet (also spelled ches and het – are you starting to see a theme here?). It is pronounced with a guttural sound that is similar to “kh.” So, when the Hebrew word was transliterated in the 17th century, the chet became ch (Chanukah). However, when the English ch appears at the beginning of a word, it sounds quite different than the Hebrew cḥet. Thus, in the 18th century, another spelling appeared – Hanukkah – even though the h doesn’t really sound like chet either. Transliteration issues also arose over other letters – such as one or two k’s – resulting in all the different spelling variations.
No matter how you choose to spell the Festival of Lights, the holiday’s significance remains the same.
Around 200 B.C., Judea – also known as the Land of Israel – came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria, who allowed the Jews who lived there and continue practicing their religion. His son, Antiochus IV, proved less benevolent: Ancient sources recount that he outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. In 168 B.C., his soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.
Following the destruction of the Second Temple, Jewish priest Mattathias, his son Judah Maccabee and their army (The Maccabees) revolted. They successfully forced Antichos IV out of Judea. and reclaimed the Temple and rebuilt the altar, which included relighting the menorah.With only enough oil to light the menorah for one day, the flames burned for eight. This wondrous event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival, and the holiday as we know it was born.
However you spell it, may you find the wonder in the miracle of Hanukkah when you light your menorah, or do you call it a hanukkiah? Sigh.