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5 things you never knew about Hanukkah

As any good Jewish boy or girl would tell you, Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of the oil – only enough to last the night – that kept a menorah at the ancient Temple of Jerusalem lighted for eight days. Like many chapters of the chosen people, Hanukkah tells a story of triumph in the face of persecution. Somewhere along the way, donuts and gelt got thrown into the mix. While you may have heard the story of the origins of Hanukkah, you probably haven’t heard these fun facts about it.

Israelis consume over 17 million donuts a year on Hanukkah

Bowl of traditional Jewish donuts sufganiyot, covered with powered sugar
Credit: Olesya Baron/ Shutterstock

It isn’t just the menorah that’s blessed with oil every Hanukkah, but also countless skillets in Jewish homes across the world. In a symbolic nod to the miracle of the oil, it’s become custom to consume oily foods on Hanukah as part of the celebrations. Latkes are a classic example of an oily Jewish food prevalent around the holidays, but it doesn’t stop there. An even more popular treat for the holiday is the “sufganiyot,” a round jelly donut, of which over 17 million are consumed every year in Israel.

The largest Menorah in the world

Hanukkah Menorah with blurry lights in background
Credit: tomertu/ Shutterstock 

It turns out that the Jewish community of New York City has no shortage of the holiday spirit, as the city is home to two of the world’s largest Menorahs. Dating back to the 70s, a friendly rivalry took place between Rabbi Shmuel Butman and Rabbi Shimon Hecht as to who could build the largest Menorah. Both stand approximately 32 feet (the maximum height according to Jewish law), but Rabbi Hecht’s central candle is 6 inches taller. The Hecht Menorah took the Guinness record and continues to light the night sky during Hanukkah right off of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Hanukkah is your secret weapon to your next game of Scrabble

Hebrew is an ancient character-based language, which makes its translation to our modern English alphabet no small task. Many words, including the name of God, are difficult or impossible to transcribe into English. “Hanukkah” falls into the former category. That’s why there are at least 16 different spellings of the word, ranging from Channukah to Xanuka to Chanuga. So, when in a pinch, see if you can get that triple word score for some variation of Hanukkah.

The original Hanukkah celebration wasn’t a Hanukkah celebration at all

Aerial view of Jerusalem at sunset
Credit: SJ Travel Photo and Video/ Shutterstock 

The story of Hanukkah and the miracle of the oil is drawn from the time of the Maccabees in ancient Jerusalem. After their victory, the Maccabees and their contemporaries were reinvigorated in their religious identities, and quickly sought to celebrate the parts of their spiritual tradition that had been done so in secrecy or not at all. The first order of business was a late Sukkot. This was the holiday celebration that commemorated the victory of the Maccabees, and the week of festivities that proceeded it became the basic time frame upon which the modern holiday has been celebrated.

Hanukkah isn’t mentioned in the Hebrew bible

Up close view of Hebrew bible with traditional script, lit by soft spotlight
Credit: Scott Rothstein/ Shutterstock

So about those Maccabees: The Book of Maccabees, which tells the story of Hanukkah, was not canonized into the Hebrew bible and survived, rather, through the Apocrypha. There is lengthy theological debate as to why the ancient rabbis deemed specific texts canon and others not, but the bottom line is that the Book of Maccabees didn’t make the cut. In fact, while Hanukkah in the modern diaspora is celebrated largely out of convenience of winter holiday schedules, it isn’t viewed as a major Jewish holiday on par with, for instance, Passover. The donuts are pretty tasty, though.

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