Whichever way you spell it, Chanucah is early this year

By Manny Robinson, November 9, 2013
Follow The JC on Twitter

I HAVE to date received four cards so far for the forthcoming Festival of Lights. One wishes me a Happy Chanucah, the second a happy Chanukkah, the third a happy Hanukkah and the fourth a happy Hanuka.

Indeed, if you type the word “Chanucah” on Wikipedia, it tells you that the page doesn’t exist. If you try again with the word “Hanukah” you get the same reply and the site redirects you to the word “Hanukkah”.

I know that some people spell Pesach as Pessach or even Pessah, but those differences are minimal compared to the Chanucah-Chanukah-Channukah-Hanukah-Hannukka-Hanuka compilation.

And don’t bother to ask a rabbi: they don’t know if there is a correct way to spell the word, either.

So what’s in a name? Liza Minelli used to sing “It’s Liza With A Zee, not Lisa With An S”. So is it Chanucah with a “c” or Chanukah with a “k”? Or maybe it’s Chanukkah or Hannukkah or Hannuka?

As a matter of interest, NEROS, the North East Region of Orthodox Synagogues refers to the festival as Chanukah in its list of forthcoming events.

The Jewish Chronicle calls the festival Chanucah but different synagogues and organisations all over the world refer to the festival with some or all of the other spellings.

Chabad, for example, lists its greetings cards for Chanukah and put Hanukkah in brackets (just to play safe); Amazon lists its cards as Chanukah — and you can get Hanukkah cards on eBay.

According to my sources (or is it sauces?), Chanucah originates from the Hebrew word “to dedicate”, a significance that makes sense since the festival celebrates the rededication of the Temple when the Jews regained control of Jerusalem from the Seleucid empire in the second century BCE.

Apparently, a disagreement broke out between two religious groups as to how to light the candles — lighting all on the first night and blowing one out every subsequent day (Shammai) or lighting one candle a night (Hillel). Today, Hillel’s view is the official position.

Eight years ago, American journalist Robert Siegel reported that 2.8 million Google hits were for Chanukah whereas Hanukkah was logged 691,000 times.

A year later, however, the number of hits for Chanukah dropped to 3,070,000 while the hits for Hanukkah jumped to 10,200,000. This change, it was suggested, could be accounted for by the use of Hanukkah as the official Wikipedia entry.

The electronic greetings card site BlueMountain.com, and others, go with Hannukah. A website called Judaism 101 announces it is selling cards at its Chanukkah shop, but lists them as Chanukah cards, while American folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a couple of songs for the holidays and, at woodyguthrie.org, they use the spelling Hanukkah.

That spelling produced 143,000 hits on Google while the Jewish Learning Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania and jewishmag.com had 110,000 hits on Google with the spelling Chanukah..

One blogger wrote: “I’m partial to Chanuka or even Hanuka, but my wife quotes her fourth-grade teacher as saying: ‘The one rule about spelling Hanuka – it must have eight letters’. And since shalom bayit (domestic peace) comes before the mitzvah of publicising the miracle of lighting Chanukah candles, I’ll stick with Chanukah.’’

According to Google Insights, a tool that analyses worldwide Google web searches from all Google domains, most people search for the spelling Hanukkah.

So here’s the science bit. In Hebrew, Chanucah is pronounced with the letter chaf, the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The “ch” sound is actually guttural and throaty as in Rachmaninoff or Bach — and this sound has no English equivalent.
Hanukkah, with the letter “h”, is the closest thing in English to the sound of chaf so the word has adapted these different spellings. Clear now?

Personally, I am no wiser at the end of this column than I was when I started to write it. George and Ira Gershwin wrote a song with the lyrics “You Say Tomato And I Say Tomato...You Say Potato And I Say Potato...Tomato, Tomato, Potato, Potato, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.”

Yes, let’s!

Last updated: 5:46pm, November 9 2013