The Hebrew word menorah simply means “lamp.” The Hanukkiyah contains nine branches, whereas the menorah contains seven. Of course the eight lights represent the eight nights of the holiday and the ninth flame is called the shamash (“the servant”), for its purpose is to light the others.
Pesikta Rabbati, an early collection of midrashim, records that when the Maccabees entered the Temple, they found eight metal spears left by the Greeks, from which they fashioned the first hanukkiyah.
Today we have a nearly inexhaustible selection of beautiful hanukkyiot made from a variety of materials. The only caution about their form is that the receptacles for the lights should form a straight row and be the same height.
Unlike Shabbat candles, Chanukah candles need not be white. One of the joys of the holiday is to see the multicolored candles burning in the hanukkiyot. Electric hanukkiyah have become very popular so that the light burns for hours, truly lighting up the night; but for authenticity, most families will also have one that burns candles, or oil.
It is also customary to place the lit hanukkiyah in a window so that passersby will see it and be reminded of the holiday.
The dreidel or sevivon is perhaps the most famous custom associated with Chanukah. While many rabbis have tried to find a connection between the dreidel and the Chanukah story, it’s a bit of a stretch. One nineteenth-century rabbi maintained that Jews played with the dreidel in order to fool the Greeks if they were caught studying Torah, which had been outlawed. However, the dreidel game originally had nothing to do with Chanukah; it has been played by various people in various languages for many centuries.
In England and Ireland the game totum, especially popular at Christmastime, has four letters representing the English words: T = Take all; H = Half; P = Put down; and N = Nothing. Our Eastern European game of dreidel is directly based on the German equivalent of the totum game: N = Nichts = nothing; G = Ganz = all; H = Halb = half; and S = Stell ein = put in. In German, the spinning top was called a “torrel” or “trundl,” and in Yiddish it was called a “dreidel.”
The standard explanation is that the letters on the dreidel in the Diaspora stand for nes gadol haya sham, “a great miracle happened there,” while in Israel the dreidel says nun, gimmel, hey, pey, which means “a great miracle happened here.”
There is something rather ironic about the dreidel game. While we play it during Chanukah, which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, it is an excellent example of our cultural assimilation!
Florence L. Dann, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in L.A., has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004 and currently teaches English as Second Language to adults.