The first day of Hanukkah starts tonight at sundown. Many people are under the impression The Festival of Lights falls on a different date each year, but they are mistaken in that belief.  Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the same date every year. However, the Hebrew calendar was developed by a tribe of ancient nomadic pastoralists and is based on the cycles of the moon. The lunar month about 29 days, which does not divide neatly into the 365-day Gregorian calendar, hence all the confusion every year among Jews as to when our holidays take place. And in keeping with the Jewish penchant for making everything a bit more complicated, no one agrees on whether the holiday should be spelled “Hanukkah” or “Chanukah”.  The first letter of Hanukkah, a Hebrew "Het" (or "Khet") contains a phoneme not found in English and similar to the sound of a person with congestion vigorously clearing their throat. A similar sound occurs in Dutch, which perhaps made learning that language a bit easier for me.  The famous artist who cut off his ear is not, in his native tongue, “Van Go”, but rather Van Ghaaagh” (not only hard to say, but hard on the ear as well and one of the reasons French is preferred for romantic encounters). Why the phonetic version of the Hebrew word loses a “k” when you put a “c” in front, however, is a mystery. Is there an eight-letter quota on how many letters can be used? Don’t be surprised if there is. The Jewish Bible is filled with all kinds of rules, some obviously fundamental to a civilized society (don’t steal, lie or murder), some out of touch with modernity (sacrifice animals upon an altar; stone adulterers to death) and some seemingly arbitrary (don’t wear clothing made from two different materials).

The custom of giving gifts for Hanukkah appears to be a relatively recent development (relative, that is, in regard to a faith over three thousand years old).  Apparently the commercial impulse arose from a desire to keep up with goyishe Joneses, so to speak, who receive a lavish amount of gifts from Santa (provided they haven’t been naughty).

I hope to receive the greatest gift of all tonight, time with family. That, plus delicious fried potato pancakes, or latkes, which sink to the pit of your stomach and stay there until the moon finishes its predictable cycle. The Gregorian’s may have had monks with memorable chants, but we Jews got the heavy, unhealthy food. Happy Chanukah, er, Hanukkah. Like most developments over the past two thousand years, we seem to always get the shorter end of the stick. Oh well, make sure a bottle of Maalox is handy and you'll be fine.


 


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