"Gee, you must be very busy preparing for the big holiday, right?"
Every year at this season, I get this or a similar question from a well-meaning non-Jewish friend. They simply assume that, just like Christmas, getting ready for Chanukah is a big deal. My answer is usually a confusing, "Well, yes and no," which begs further explanation.
The reality is, as an important Jewish holiday, Chanukah takes a back seat to Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and the less-observed "pilgrimage" festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. But the confusion lies in the fact that in 21st century America, Chanukah has become more and more visible to the non-Jewish public. It would be easy to point fingers and blame others for this misconception. Actually, it is we as a people who simply don't want to be left out at this "most wonderful time of the year." Of course, the commercial world has happily obliged.
Seriously, there are several misconceptions about Chanukah that are easy to clear up.
• Chanukah is the Jewish "Christmas." Whereas the birth of Jesus is central to Christian faith, the story of the Maccabees, who were religious zealots of the 1st century B.C.E, is an historical recounting. When seen in the larger context of the Jewish narrative, it is but an event. Its value is a message of the religious preservation and self-determination of the Jewish people, ideas that would subsequently be challenged repeatedly.
• Central to Chanukah is the story of the miracle of oil that lasted in the Temple for 8 days. This "tale" does not appear in the Book of the Maccabees; it is found in a Talmudic discussion several centuries after the actual historical occurrence.
• The Book of the Maccabees is in the Bible. It is actually not in our Hebrew Scriptures. The Book of the Maccabees which recounts the story is part of a collection of books called the "Apocrypha," and is found in some but not all Christian Bibles between the "Old Testament" and the "New Testament."
• There is one way to spell "Chanukah." In Hebrew, yes. In English transliteration, it can be written several different ways: Hanukah, Hanukkah, Chanukah, etc.
• Gifts are given on each of the eight nights of Chanukah. Although there is the custom of exchanging gifts, there is no religious mandate to do so. Gift-giving on Chanukah has come about from what is going on in the larger culture at this time.
• On Chanukah, Jews light the "menorah." The real name for what we light is "Chanukiah." The menorah was a seven branched candelabra that stood in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The Chanukiah has 9 branches.
• All Jews eat latkes on Chanukah. "Latkes," or fried potato pancakes, are actually a tradition of the Jews of Eastern Europe. Jews from other lands eat foods primarily fried in oil. Most prominent are "sufganiyot," which is an Israeli jelly donut.
Our wish to you at this season is "Chag Urim Sameach": May you find joy in this Festival of Light.
Samuel Radwine is the rabbi for Congregation Etz Chaim in Bentonville and cantor emeritus of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Email him at email@example.com.