Israel Drazin

Misconceptions about Hanukkah

Many people have wrong ideas about the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. The following are a few examples:

The holiday name is spelled in different ways in English such as Channukah, Chanukkah, Hannukah, and Hanukkah. None are wrong.

Hanukkah does not celebrate a victory over the Greeks. Due to Alexander’s conquests, the Greeks ruled many kingdoms, such as Egypt and Greece. Judea, the name Israel had at that time, before the common era, was persecuted by the Syrians, who were Syrian Greeks, who, for political reasons, tried to force Judeans to worship Syrian gods.

The miracle of Hanukkah was not as currently taught that the Judeans lit the temple candelabrum with oil that could only last one day but lasted eight days. The miracle was that a small Judean army defeated the Syrians. The book Maccabees, written about the time the events occurred, states that the Judeans celebrated their victory for eight days because they were unable to observe the eight-day holiday of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret during the war, so they did so when they were victorious. Centuries later, during the mid-first millennium of the Common Era, the rabbis didn’t want to celebrate a military victory, so they invented the story of the miracle of the lights.

The dreidel has nothing to do with Hanukkah. In many ancient cultures, the Yiddish name dreidel, sevivon in Hebrew, the design, and the way people play with it are copies of gambling with such a toy. The several attempts to give the dreidel Jewish significance were inventions long after the Jews first played with the dreidel. The earliest mention of the ancient toy was in the early 1500s when it was called totum or teetotum, meaning “all,” referring to the chance that players could win everything during the game. By 1800, the totum had four letters: T = the spinner Takes everything in the pot. H = the player only gets Half. P = the spinner needs to Put money in the pot. N = the spinning player gains Nothing from the spin. In Germany, where the Jews copied the toy, its design, and method of play, the toy was called torrel or trundle, “spinning,” which the Jews translated into Yiddish as dreidel. Thus, while Hanukkah celebrates a victory over assimilation, one of the items many Jews use during the holiday is an example of assimilation the ancient Jews were trying to avoid.

An interesting fact about a dreidel history is that seven Jewish astronauts flew into space at different times. One, Dr. David Wolf, was in space during Hanukkah. He spun a dreidel in zero gravity and reported: “It went for an hour and a half until I lost it. It showed up a few weeks later in the air filter. I figure it went about 25,000 miles.”

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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