HANUKKAH or HANOUKAH? Five Different Ways Ashkenazim and Sephardim Celebrate

There’s no debate that the holiday of lights is one of Judaism’s all-time favorites when it comes to fun. All over the world, Jewish people commemorate the victory of the Maccabees, along with the miracle of how a one-day supply of oil to light the menorah stayed lit for eight. The narrative will be the same, but how you celebrate may depend on whether you’re Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent) or Sephardim (Jews of Spanish or Mediterranean descent).

The differences between these Judaic subcultures are represented at the Bnai Zion Foundation, a philanthropic organization that supports infrastructure projects in Israel. Bnai Zion CEO Cheryl Bier is half Sephardic and half Ashkenazi in heritage. The Bnai Zion staff began to compare notes when in conversation about Chanukah celebrations at Ahava Village, a residential center for abused or neglected children that is supported by the foundation. It quickly became apparent just how the Festival of Lights might shine if you are  Ashknazim or Sepharadim. Here are a few observations: 


You say potato, I say potahto… Everything about Chanukah is centered around the customs and rituals of light as a metaphor for spiritual freedom. We celebrate the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem after the triumph of the Maccabees, during the second century B.C. when a single cruse of oil lasted for eight days. We, of course, know our box of 44 candles will last throughout the holiday. However, when it comes to the candelabrum, an Ashkenazi will light the Menorah on Chanukah, Hanukkah or Hannukkah. But until just recently, Sephardim never even called it Menorah or Hanoukiyah. It was simply referred to as Hanoukah.


To many Ashkenazim, a Chanukah without latkes would be like a bagel without lox. But not to the Sephardim. The festive reminder of the miracle of the legendary oil still comes through the smells and tastes of oil that permeate special Chanukah foods. Yet while the food of choice is potato latkes (pancakes) for Ashkenazi Jews, it is more likely to be fried sufganiyot (jelly donuts) for Sephardic Jews. While the taste of these foods make them delicious to eat, it is the oil used to cook them that makes each a Chanukah staple. The oil also represents a flame that shines its pure light on all generations and under all conditions.


Kindling the lights on the eight-branched candelabrum is, without a doubt, the defining tradition of Chanukah. These  sentiments are enveloped in the blessings recited by Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, who recite two affirmations of the commandment to kindle the lights and recall the Chanukah miracle. The Ashkenazim include a verse that states the candles are holy, and one is not permitted to use them, only to look at them. They signify redemption from any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, the Sephardim recite Psalm 30, for the dedication of the Temple. As the Menorah is a public display of the Chanukah miracles, it is often placed in a window where its light and beauty can be seen by all who pass by.


There is a famous machlokot (disagreement) between Hillel and Shamma, two of the greatest wise men of Israel. Does the lighting begin with one flame and proceed by adding one each night to the final eight? Or does it begin with eight, and end with one? The democratic spirit of the Talmud put the question to a vote. It was Hillel’s opinion that created our practice of lighting, from one to eight. But when it comes to Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the plot thickens. The law and custom for Sephardim is that only one Hanoukah (Menorah) is used for the entire family. The Ashkenazi custom, however, is to have each member of the family light their own, personal Menorah. In most traditional Sephardic families, however, the head of the house will give each family member a chance to light a candle in order to share the love.


Believe it or not, dreidels (four-sided spinning tops used to play a gambling games) were originally used as a type of decoy. After the Greek-Syrian armies outlawed many Jewish religious practices, the Jewish people brought their Torah underground. They’d take out their dreidels to play games, just to confuse soldiers. It evolved into a fun pastime, but it was never the tradition of Sephardim to spin a dreidel (sevivon), give out presents or give Chanukah gelt (money) to the kids.  Those traditions came from Germanic lands, and from living among Christians who exchanged presents for the Christmas holiday. Over time, Ashkenazim have also begun to exchange gifts.  

Although each culture is rich with its own diverse traditions and culinary preferences, the similarity is that we are all Jews with a shared history and common ancestors. In today’s global world, inclusion is key in everything we do. Chanukah is a time for us all to rejoice, commemorate and celebrate the miracles of the Holy Land. In that way we can also see the great miracles of our lives today. Please take a moment to reflect and see just how bright your own life shines. And a Happy Chanukah to all, from Bnai Zion!

About the Author
CEO of the Bnai Zion Foundation, Cheryl Bier has spent more than 20 years working for Jewish non-profit organizations. She believes in the power of culture to bring together disparate elements of the Jewish community.
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