Sunday, December 21, 2008

CHRISTmas and CHanukah

"Put CHRIST back in Christmas and the "CH" back in Chanukah!"

My Chanukah lights, in the photo above, are a small minority among the Christmas lights that dominate the streets here in The Villages, Florida. A couple evenings ago our bicycle club staged our annual Christmas decoration night ride. Our headlights and taillights twinkled among the holiday lights as we "ooed" and "ahed" at some of the most extensive and colorful and artistic displays. Last evening a bunch of us from the neighborhood did a similar tour in our golf carts. Each event was followed by a party with food and drink and merry music.

Tonight many of us Jewish residents assembled at one of our town centers to light our Chanukah menorah that happily sits among the Christmas decorations. Then we went to TooJays Deli for a traditional Chanukah dinner.

When we first moved down here it was a bit jarring to see Christmas lights without any snow or even the possibility of snow. It just did not seem right. However, after five years, and while reading reports of blizzards of snow being endured by our relatives up north, it seems just right.

What Happened to the CHRIST in Christmas?
Some of the decorations feature a Christmas Cresh (Nativity Scene), a cross, and/or a notice that "Christ is the reason for the season". Many are tasteful riots of twinkling lights with no obvious religious connotation. A few are garish wastes of electricity, jammed with blow-up cartoon characters and large gift boxes.

Winter Solstice
Of course I know we are actually celebrating the ancient, pre-Christian "rebirth of the Sun" - the time in the northern hemisphere when the Sun reverses the gradual lengthening of the night and starts the gradual lengthening of the day. The pagans lighted fires to encourage the Sun to begin to rise higher in the sky, and reverse its descent into the coldest depths of winter. They celebrated their joy when, in response to their prayers they thought, the Sun rose higher.

The date we celebrate the birth of Jesus the Savior is probably not the actual date of His birth. It was moved to this season to co-opt the Roman holiday of the "rebirth of the Sun".

Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday now celebrated all out of proportion to its importance due to its proximity to Christmas. Another case of co-opting an existing holiday!

What Happened to the "CH" in Chanukah?
The word "Chanukah" means "dedication". I take care to pronounce the "CH" with the gutteral sound like the "ch" in the Scottish "loch" or in the German "achtung".

You have seen it spelled "Hanukkah" by (nearly) all the major media and pronouced Hon-uh-kuh (with the "Hon" as on "honk").

So, why do I and many Jewish websites spell it "Chanukah" while others spell it "Hanukkah"?

Because we are right and they are wrong! Here is the proof!

In Hebrew characters it is spelled: חֲנֻכָּה and, reading from right to left, the first letter חֲ is a "Chet" which has a gutteral, back of the throat, rumbling sound not represented by any single English character. As noted above, this has been represented in English as "Ch", based on the Scottish "loch". Unfortuantely, in English, "ch" is also sounded like the first syllable of "chime" or Christmas". In a misplaced effort to resolve the issue, some Jewish scholars spelled it "Kh" a combination not usually found in English. Others spelled it as a "Ḥ" (an "H" with a dot under it).

The "Kh" was not widely accepted and the "Ḥ" was often simplified to a plain "H", which is why you often see "Hanukkah" and hear it pronounced "Hon-uh-kuh".

Hebrew is normally written without vowels, but when vowels are provided, they take the form of marks under the letters. The line below the letter חֲ is pronounced "ah". That is represented as "a" in both "Chanukah" and "Hanukkah".

The next Hebrew letter is נֻ pronounced like "n" with a "oo" or "u" vowel under it. This is represented as "nu" in both "Chanukah" and "Hanukkah".

The letter that follows is כָּ pronounced like "k" with an "ah"vowel under it. Notice there is only a single כָּ in the Hebrew word, so there is absolutely no valid justification for the double "kk" in "Hanukkah". It is properly represented in "Chanukah". So, why do they put the extra "k" in the word? The only possible explanation is to get a total of exactly eight letters in the word so you can put one letter on each of the eight candles representing the eight days of the "miracle" in the story of this holiday. Note that "Chanukah" already has eight letters and does not "need" the extra, extraneous and disturbing "k".

The final letter is ה pronounced like "h" and properly represented in both "Chanukah" and "Hanukkah".

In any case, Chanukah celebrates a great victory for religious freedom that was achieved ca. 165 BCE.

Considering the long history of the Jewish people as an often-persecuted minority religion, I think it is remarkable that I feel perfectly comfortable hanging Chanukah decorations in front of our house. We have received nothing but complements from our Christian neighbors.

The top photo, from left to right, shows:

1) A Chanukah menorah. On the first night of Chanukah, the high central candle is lighted, along with the candle on the far right. On the second night, the central candle plus two on the right are lighted, and so on until all are lighted on the last evening.
2) A lighted Jewish star.
3) A second Chanukah Menorah consisting of lighted snowflakes supported by lighted candy canes. The candy canes represent the candles and the snowflakes (with six points like a Jewish star) represent the flames. The candy canes are always lighted. On the first night of Chanukah, the high central snowflake is lighted, along with the snowflake on the far right. On the second night, the central snowflake plus two on the right are lighted, and so on until all are lighted on the last evening.

I also have a lighted poster hanging outside the garage with the word "שׁלּוּﬦ" in Hebrew along with the translation "PEACE" and transliteration "Shalom".

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Ira Glickstein


joel said...

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to y'all. Ira gives me too much work with his posts. I had to check out his ideas concerning the spelling of Chanukah, which led me into long articles about transliteration of Hebrew into the Roman alphabet. Oy vay!!! This is a non-negligible subject. One thing I did find out is that there are are seven Hebrew letters called double letters that have two possible sounds ( When written in the Roman alphabet they can be represented by the single or doubled letter depending on whether they are hard or soft. This is like our soft "c" or hard "cc." The "kaf" is one of these seven "double letters." Spelled as "k" or "kh", it has a gutteral sound as in the German "ich." Since we want the hard "k" sound we write it as "kk." I can't find any reference to adding letters to make eight, though I wouldn't put it past those Cabalists. With respect -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Joel for the link to

I knew about some of the doubles but not about the ﬤ (kaf) being one of them. I thought the only Hebrew letter that stands for the gutteral "CH" sound was the ח (chet).

As your link notes, most of the Hebrew letters that have two sounds are now archaic. Indeed, one went archaic in our lifetimes.

When you and I learned Hebrew as youngsters, the תּ (tav with a dot) was sounded as "t" and the ﬨ (tav without a dot) like an "s". When our daughters went to Hebrew Sunday school we were informed that an official decree had ordered that both be sounded as a "t". Apparently someone in authority in Israel decided the Sephardic (Spanish/North African) pronunciation of Hebrew was to be used and (most) American Jewish congregations went along and abandoned the Ashkenazi (German/European) sounds.

So, what had been "Shabbos" (Sabbath) became "Shabbat" and "Bas Mitzvah" (female confirmation) became "Bat Mitzvah".

I went along and now use the new pronunciation exclusively. However, we still have some holdouts at our services who stick to the Ashkenazi sounds.

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Ira said:

"Apparently someone in authority in Israel decided the Sephardic (Spanish/North African) pronunciation of Hebrew was to be used and (most) American Jewish congregations went along and abandoned the Ashkenazi (German/European) sounds...
I went along and now use the new pronunciation exclusively. However, we still have some holdouts at our services who stick to the Ashkenazi sounds."

Joel responds:

Well Ira, I'm one of those holdouts. My wife uses the Sephardic pronounciation, while I use the Ashkenazi. When we sing the prayer to light the Chanukah candles, we clash somewhat. I'm just ornery. If they wanted to unify pronunciation, they should have done it a few hundred years ago, before I had to learn this stuff in Hebrew school. (Yeah, I know there was no state of Israel then.) I attended a Sephardic service in Los Angeles where they spoke a variation of Spanish (like Yiddish is a variation of German) for the non-prayer part of the service. If the Ashkenazim who use the Sephardic version of Hebrew want to be consistent, they should also give up Yiddish and speak Ladino. The kids would have a leg up on learning Spanish in high school. With tongue in cheek -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Interesting Joel, that you and I are probably the two most C-Minded on this Blog yet you are a holdout on the Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation we learned as kids and I went right along with the switch to Sephardic Hebrew. Must be something about our different levels of respect for "authority" (or is it that you are just plain ornery?)

As you point out. Yiddish, the nearly universal home language of Northern and Eastern European Jews up until a generation or two ago, is a variant of German, written in Hebrew characters. Ladino was the universal home language of Spanish and North African Jews and it is a variant of Spanish, also written in Hebrew characters.

Coincidentally, at last Sunday's lighting of the first Chanukah candle in the Town Square here in The Villages, one of our members with an Italian Jewish background started the festivities by singing a Ladino Chanukah song, "Ocho Kandelikas" (Eight Little Candles).

I know only a few words in Spanish and her song sounded like normal Spanish and the counting was "uno, dos, tres, ... ocho", but the singer warned that those who speak Spanish would find some of the pronunciation and words unfamiliar.

My slight knowledge of Yiddish helped me a bit in German class in college, but screwed me up on the proper pronunciation of "ich" ("I", the personal pronoun). I went overboard on the gutteral "CH" and could not satisfy the teacher who insisted on the proper, softer "ch" sound.

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

Today's sad story from the AP/NBC New York illustrates what happens when the major media stylebook "Hanukkah" runs into a group celebrating what they specifically call "Chanukah Wonderland".

The story is headlined "14 Hurt When Car Crashes Chanukah Wonderland". But the first sentence reverts to the stylebook and reads "... were having a Hanukkah party."

They go describe the "Chanukah Wonderland, an all-day celebration with events geared for children, including a funhouse and a Chanukah theater" and then get totally confused in a link to a video where a witness tells "his version of what happened when a BMW came crashing through the window of a Hannukah celebration."

So there you have it, "Chanukah", "Hanukkah", and "Hannukah" all in the same short media report. OY!

Ira Glickstein

PS: Of course the tragedy of this story is the injury of 14 innocent victims, some children. The driver who lost control of the BMW was 78 years old.

joel said...

Christians are not without their own problems of orthography. In recent years, there has been much protest about "Xmas." Some regard this spelling as an modern affront by taking the Christ out of Christmas. In fact, although there is no doubt that Christmas has become more and more secular, the spelling is very old in English. The "X" is the letter "Chi" of the Greek alphabet and appears in artwork and literature as a symbol for the Messiah along with the letter "Rho" (see with respect -Joel

Steve Ruberg said...

I'm about 3 weeks late but Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas to all! A busy last several weeks - personally and professionally. Ira taught me the "correct" pronunciation of Chanukah many years ago, including the back-of-the-throat Ch sound. And now I get to explain to all my secular and Christian friends why they are "wrong" when they say Hanukah! But I have a question. I recently read "My name is Asher Lev" by Chaim Potok - an excellent book. Is the Ch in Chaim pronounced the same as in Chanukah?

Ira Glickstein said...

Welcome back Steve. Your Comment is a great start to what I suspect will be a Happy New Year (and let me add "L'Chaim" - a Hebrew toast meaning "to life").

Indeed Chaim as in Chaim Potok, and L'Chaim the toast to life, and Chai the lucky number 18, are all pronounced with the gutteral, back of the throat "CH" just as in Chanukah!

If you have been pronouncing Chaim Potok's first name as "Chime" (like the sound made by a clock) or "High-im" you have missed the mark.

(On the other hand, the word used for a beverage made from spiced black tea, honey, and milk and served in Indian restaurants is spelled the same way, "Chai" but is pronounced with the "ch" as in "chime" - but that is not derived fom Hebrew.)

Ira Glickstein

PS: I hope you have been looking into the issue of possible bias in global warming data using your inside access to the government agency responsible for GISS data. I know there are a number of irresponsible skeptic websites but I believe the two I linked to are responsible. While correlation is not necessarily causation, there seems to be correlation between the number of sunspots and surface temperatures and an inverse relation between the length of the sunspot cycle and surface temperature. As you may know, the number of sunspots in recent months has hovered around zero and the most recent cycle is overly long. This has caused some to predict a slowing of global warming or even an immanent cooling cycle.