Why is the eight-day holiday now being celebrated called “Chanukah?” What does “Chanukah” mean?
The word “Chanukah” recalls that the Maccabees rested – (“chanu”) – from their battles against the Greeks on the 25th of Kislev. The number 25 is spelled “Kah” in Hebrew. Hence, “Chanu-Kah” – they rested on the 25th day.
So, too, the first two letters of the word “Chanuka” spell the word “Chein,” meaning “grace.” This is to remind us that the Maccabees found grace with God on the 25thday of Kislev.
The word Chanuka literally means “dedication,” referring to the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after it was defiled by the Greeks. Not only did the Maccabees clean up the Temple and light the Menorah; they also built a new altar. That is why the festival is called Chanukah – dedication. Coincidentally (or not!), the Second Temple was also dedicated on oalmost the same calendar date – around the 25th day of Kislev.
What’s more, is that our rabbis tell us that the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert was completed on the 25th day of Kislev. However, the formal dedication was postponed to the Hebrew month of Nissan in order to combine the dedication of the Tabernacle with….a birthday party celebrating the birth of the Patriarch Isaac.
There is a dispute in the Talmud whether we should light eight candles on the first night of Chanuka, seven candles on the second night, and so on in accordance with the school of the sge Shammai, or if we should light one candle on the first night of Chanuka, two on the second night, and so on, in accordance with the school of Hillel. As you likely know, it is the latter opinion, the school of Hillel, that won the dispute. The name “Chanuka” alludes to this – the letters of the word Chanukah represents the words “Eight Lights,” and halacha (Jewish law) follows the School of Hillel. (It works well in Hebrew…honest!)
By: Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
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