The five boys and girls sitting at the table waited eagerly for the last question. This was the final round of the citywide spelling contest. These five boys and girls had spelled their way through almost an hour of increasingly difficult words. In the previous round they had all successfully spelled antidisestablishmentarianism. They couldn’t imagine any harder words than the ones they already had successfully spelled.
The five of them were the best spellers in the city. They knew all the spelling rules, and all of them read a great many books. What word could the judges ask that would be so hard to spell, that only one of the five would come up as the winner?
One of the four judges stood up, looked at each one of the children very carefully, and said, “How do you spell the name of the Jewish holiday that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees in their fight for religious freedom and Jewish independence?”
Each one of the children wrote a different spelling: Chanukah, Channukah, Hanukah, Hannukkah, and Hanuka
The judges looked puzzled. First, they began to whisper to one another. Then they began to argue. After a few minutes they started shouting at one another.
Finally, one of them stood up and said, “If we can’t agree among ourselves, we will have to call an expert. The best person to get would be a rabbi. Which rabbi shall we ask?”
One of the five boys called out, “I’ll get my rabbi.” The girl next to him jumped up and said, “Oh, no, I’ll get my rabbi. I’m sure he will come.”
Two of the other children who were also Jewish ran off to call their rabbis, and the remaining boy, who was Catholic, decided to go and call his priest.
An hour later, four rabbis and a priest had gathered together with the judges. “Why are there so many different ways to spell Chanukah?” asked one of the judges.
The first rabbi replied, “The Jewish religion does not have a list of specific things that every Jew has to believe about God. Jews believe that there are several different ways of thinking about God.
If we have more than one way to think about God, who is very important, why should we have only one way to spell Hanukkah, which is much less important than God?
However, in my opinion, the best spelling would be one that has eight letters in it, since there are eight days to Hannukah.”
The judges looked very puzzled. “Can a Jew do anything he wants to do?” asked one of the judges. “Doesn’t Judaism stand for anything?”
The second rabbi answered, “Of course Judaism has principles and standards. We believe in freedom, but that doesn’t mean that everybody can do anything they want. Every Jew should pay attention to the teachings of our Torah and our tradition; to the teachings of your rabbi; and to what the majority of the people in your community are doing.
But within the teachings of Torah and tradition, there are many honest differences and opinions.
For example, 2,000 years ago there was a debate between two learned rabbis. Hillel said that you should light the Hanukah candles starting with one candle on the first day, and adding an additional candle each day until all eight candles are lit.
Shamai, however, taught that Jews should light eight candles on the first night of Channuka, and then one candle less each night until there was only one left on the eighth night.
Shamai believed that just as the Temple’s oil (Torah study and Mitsvot) diminished from day to day (if not performed daily) so too would the total light of the candles become smaller each day as Jews become more like non-Jews.
Hillel, on the other hand, felt that the Jewish struggle to survive, in spite of the many attempts of our enemies to destroy us, was in itself the miracle, and that the longer we survive, the greater the miracle becomes. Therefore, the light should increase each day, as the miracle of Jewish survival becomes greater.”
At this point the third rabbi spoke up, “Actually, there are many different ways of doing things, and many different reasons for what we do. Sometimes the differences are due to a different way of thinking about things, as in the case of Hillel and Shamai. Sometimes the differences are due to local custom.
For example, in the United States, Jews eat bagels and lox, while in Israel Jews eat falafel in pita bread. Jews from Europe do not eat rice during Passover, but Jews from North Africa and the Middle East do eat rice. So how you spell Hanuka is just a matter of custom. I think all the spellings are correct, and the contest is a tie.”
Suddenly the priest spoke up, “The story of the Maccabees is not found in the Jewish Bible because their fight for freedom occurred after the Jewish Bible was written. The Book of Maccabees can be found in the Catholic Bible. So, although I am not a scholar of Hebrew, I think I’m entitled to an opinion on the spelling of Chanukkah.”
“If the story of Hanukah is found in the Catholic Bible,” asked the head judge, “why don’t Catholics celebrate Hanuka in your church? After all, if the Maccabees had not won their fight for freedom against those who wanted to force the Jews to copy everybody else and stop being different, the Jews would all have disappeared.
If the Jews had disappeared, then Christianity’s leader would not have been born as a Jew. And without him, there wouldn’t be any Christian religion at all. In fact, without Hanukah, no matter how you spell it, there wouldn’t be any Christmas!”
“That’s true,” said the priest. “There wouldn’t be any Christmas if there wasn’t any Chanukah, but we do not celebrate Channukkah because it’s not a Christian Holiday.
Indeed, we don’t even celebrate Shabbat, and that’s one of the Ten Commandments. Ours is a different religion, with its own holidays and beliefs.”
“All this is very interesting,” said the head judge. “I have learned that Jews have more than one way of thinking about God, that Jews have different interpretations and customs, and that the Book of Maccabees is to be found in the Catholic Bible.
What I haven’t learned is HOW DO YOU SPELL CHANUKKAH? Isn’t there any answer that is correct?”
“Yes there is,” said the fourth rabbi. “There is one correct spelling, and that is spelling it the Hebrew way. All attempts to translate, or transliterate Hebrew words into English letters lose something in the transition. It is sort of like kissing a girl through a handkerchief. You can do it, but it doesn’t feel the same.”
“O.K.,” said the judges, “we will give first prize to whoever of the boys and girls can spell Hannukkah in Hebrew.”
As it turned out only one boy and one girl could spell it correctly in Hebrew, so they were declared the winners.
But everyone, including the judges, had learned a little bit about why there are so many different ways to spell Hanukkah, and why Hebrew is the best way.
For more stories for Jewish children see Rabbi Maller’s web site: rabbimaller.com