People love to joke about the many ways to pronounce and spell Chanukah (or Hanukkah), the holiday of lights that begins on 25 Kislev and lasts for 8 days. But what does chanukah actually mean?

Dedication of the Altar

On a basic level, the word chanukah means “inauguration.” Indeed, Chanukah celebrates the inauguration of a newly built altar in the Temple in Jerusalem.

After the Maccabees defeated the Greek interlopers and drove them from Judea, they found that much of the Temple, including the altar, had been defiled and used for idolatry. The Maccabees buried the stones of the altar and built a new one. Thus, Chanukah celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple and the altar. The word can be traced to chanukat hamizbeach,1 “the dedication of the altar,” a term used in reference to the inauguration of the Tabernacle in the desert.2

There is a fascinating Midrash that tells us that the construction of the Tabernacle was actually completed on the 25th of Kislev. However, G‑d commanded Moses to wait until the auspicious day of 1 Nissan to dedicate the Tabernacle. To “appease” 25 Kislev, the rededication of the second Temple in the days of the Maccabees took place on that day.3

Learn more about the Tabernacle

Resting From Battle

Another explanation is that the word Chanukah is a conjugation of chanu-kah (חנו-כ”ה), “they rested on 25 Kislev.” Chanukah alludes to the day the Maccabees rested from their war with the Greeks once they entered Jerusalem and the Temple: the 25th of Kislev.4

In a similar vein, some explain it to be a conjugation of the word chein kah (חנ כ”ה), “they found grace on 25 Kislev.”5

Hidden Meanings

● Some see the word chanukah as an acronym for חשמונאים נתגברו והרגו כל האויבים, “the Hasmoneans prevailed and killed all the enemies.”6

● We find divergent traditions in the Talmud regarding how many candles to light each night of Chanukah. According to Beit Shammai, we start the first night with eight candles and decrease by one candle each night thereafter. According to Beit Hillel, we start the first night with one candle, and each night we add a candle. The accepted halachah follows the teachings of Beit Hillel.

Thus, Chanukah can be read as an acronym for "ח' נרות והלכה כבית הלל" — “Eight candles, and the halachah is according to Beit Hillel.7

Read more: To Make the Darkness Itself Shine

Chanukah: Education

Some point out that chanukah is related to the word chinuch (חינוך), “education.” The Greeks issued decrees against Jewish education and forbade circumcision, the mitzvah that begins a Jewish boy’s education. On Chanukah, we celebrate our freedom to provide our children with a proper Jewish education.8

Indeed, the Lubavitcher Rebbe often stressed the unique connection between Chanukah and education. Chanukah is a special time to inspire children to connect to their heritage, as can be seen by the many Chanukah customs that specifically involve children, like the giving of Chanukah gelt.

Chanukah is an opportune time to reflect on our children's Jewish education and continued spiritual growth. As we learn from the Chanukah candles, the way to fight darkness is not by maintaining the same amount of light we had in the past, but by always increasing the light.9