1. Myth: The Bad Guys Were the Assyrians

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the identity of the foreign forces routed by the Maccabees. Some have even erroneously identified them as Assyrians, the ancient kingdom that invaded Jerusalem during the reign of King Hezekiah.

Fact: They Were Syrian-Greeks

After the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek Empire was divided. Located along the way from Asia to Africa, the Land of Israel was in the thick of the action between warring Greek factions stationed in Alexandria (Egypt) and Syria. The wicked King Antiochus was the ruler of the Syrian Greeks. To be clear: Assyrians are not Syrians.

Read: The Story of Chanukah

2. Myth: Chanukah Is the Primary Jewish Holiday

Perhaps due to the time of year, many in the West believe Chanukah to be the main Jewish holiday.

Fact: Chanukah Is the Only Jewish Holiday Not Mentioned in the Bible

The Torah tells us to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. Purim came later, as recorded in the Book of Esther. Chanukah, which celebrates a miraculous series of events that took place after the closing of the Biblical canon, is a rabbinic holiday. Yet, neither would it be fair to refer to Chanukah as a “minor” holiday. The fact that the Maccabees placed their trust in G‑d even when all the cards were stacked against them and were then rewarded with a miracle was major, and the echoes of their brave faith have major implications for us today. Miracles happen!

Read: Is Chanukah a Minor Holiday?

3. Myth: The Maccabees Lit a Chanukah Menorah in the Temple

The commonly told, oversimplified version of the story is that the Maccabees (heroes of the Chanukah events) lit the same type of menorah in the Temple that we light on Chanukah, and they lit it in the same manner that we do. This confusion comes, in part, because the word menorah just means “lamp,” which can refer to several kinds of lamps.

Fact: The Temple Menorah Was Not a Chanukah Menorah

A seven-branched candelabra, called the Menorah, was lit daily in the Temple before the Chanukah story ever took place. When the Maccabees retook the Holy Temple from the Greeks, they only had enough pure oil to fuel the Menorah for one day. So they lit all seven lamps and trusted in G‑d. G‑d made a miracle, and the oil lasted for 8 days until new oil could be found.

To commemorate this miracle, we kindle flames every night for eight nights, adding another light each night, so that on the final night we have eight flames burning brightly. This eight-branched candelabra is also referred to as a menorah. Hence the confusion.

Read: What Is a Menorah?

4. Myth: It’s a Mitzvah to Give Chanukah Presents

Everyone from the mom-and-pop shops to the giant online retailers are trying their hardest to have you believe that you must give gifts to everyone you know on Chanukah—the bigger the better.

Fact: Chanukah Is Primarily Observed By Lighting the Menorah

It is a mitzvah to light the menorah every evening of Chanukah, adding another flame each night. Additional observances include chanting Hallel every morning, and adding special passages to the thrice-daily Silent Prayer and the Grace After Meals.

Note that gift-giving is not on the list. However, it is a time-hallowed custom to give gifts of cash (called Chanukah gelt in Yiddish) to children during Chanukah. Among other benefits, this is a great time to reward children for diligent Torah study and provides an excellent opportunity to teach them about giving maaser (10%) of their earnings to charity, which is a mitzvah.

Read: Do You Need to Give Gelt Every Night?

5. Myth: Gelt=Chocolate Discs
Illustration by Sefira Ross.
Illustration by Sefira Ross.
Wrapped in Foil

Grocery stores and Judaica shops sell little sacks of wrapped chocolate coins, universally known as gelt.

Fact: Chanukah Gelt Is Cash

As noted above, the authentic Chanukah custom is to distribute gifts of cash to children (and others). Sometime in the 1920s, American chocolatiers had the bright idea of making edible gelt, and Chanukah has never been the same since. Another important fact: Dairy gelt may not be eaten during or after a meat meal. Most (but perhaps not all) manufacturers are particular to wrap their dairy gelt in gold foil, reserving silver-colored foil for parve chocolate. Looking to serve chocolate coins after hot dogs? Look for the silver wrapping—and double-check the label just to be sure.

Read: What Is Parve?

6. Myth: The Rabbis Suppressed Chanukah

Unlike all other holidays, Chanukah is barely mentioned in the Mishnah, the foundational text of the Talmud. Why not? There is a theory that this is because the heroes of the Chanukah story (also known as the Maccabees) were from the Hasmonean clan. However, after their victory, they established a monarchy. This was a problem because the Hasmoneans were Levitical priests, and G‑d had already promised that only the descendants of David (from the tribe of Judah) may be appointed to the throne (see II Samuel 7:12–15). That being so, Rabbi Judah the Prince, a scion of the Davidic dynasty, chose not to emphasize their victory—and subsequent usurpation of power—in his compilation of the Mishnah.

Fact: There Is an Entirely Different Reason

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, categorically refutes this claim, pointing out that there are complimentary mentions of the Hasmoneans in the Mishnah and that it is preposterous to suggest that Rabbi Judah the Prince would deprive the Jewish nation of vital, practical knowledge just because of an alleged family feud.

So why is there so little in the Mishnah regarding Chanukah? Simple. The Mishnah only teaches things one would not know otherwise. The events of Chanukah, as well as the holiday’s observance, were widely known in the era of the Mishnah, which was not too long after the Chanukah miracle. There was therefore no need to record it extensively in the Mishnah. When the time would come to record that information, it would be done by the rabbis of that era—as indeed happened.

Read: What Happened to Tractate Chanukah?

7. Myth: You Can Use an Electric Menorah

Not wanting to deal with wax drippings or purchasing extra supplies every year, people may be tempted to use an electric menorah. Light is light, after all, isn’t it?

Fact: You Need to Use Actual Flames

The sages instituted that we kindle a ner, a flame, every night of Chanukah. This is defined in Jewish law as a fire created by fuel burning on a wick.

Read: Why Can’t I Use an Electric Menorah?

8. Myth: Blue and White Candles Are Ideal

Illustration by Sefira Ross
Illustration by Sefira Ross

A quick trip to a Judaica shop would have one think that the most traditional Chanukah candles are slender blue and white tapers made in Israel (or is that China nowadays?).

Fact: Oil Lamps Are Ideal

The miracle of Chanukah celebrates how the Temple Menorah, fueled with olive oil, burned for eight days. For this reason, even though candles are perfectly acceptable, it is preferable to use olive oil, reminiscent of the original Chanukah miracle.

In fact, skinny candles can be problematic. This is because the Chanukah flames need to burn for a half-hour after nightfall. Little candles may not burn long enough, especially on Friday, when the flames must be kindled well in advance of the onset of Shabbat.

Read: What Constitutes a Kosher Menorah?

9. Myth: The Shammash Is the Most Important Candle

Illustration by Sefira Ross.
Illustration by Sefira Ross.

The ninth candle on the menorah is often taller than the others, leading people to believe that it is more important than the others.

Fact: The Shammash Is the Only Flame That’s Not Sacred

The shammash serves two purposes: a) it is often used to kindle the other flames; and b) it is there so that one does not accidentally come to “use” the light of the menorah flames, which are sacred and may not be used as a source of light.

The shammash serves as a lesson to educators and leaders everywhere. The shammash is not a mitzvah candle. Yet, it is important because it is the instrument that enables all the other candles to form a mitzvah. Following the shammash, the path to elevation is not through pushing others down, but by sharing with them and coaxing out the flame they carry within.

Read: Why the Menorah Has a 9th Candle

10. Myth: It’s Enough to Go to a Party, or Light Once

Illustration by Sefira Ross.
Illustration by Sefira Ross.

Our lazy side works overtime with this one. I was present when the host lit the menorah, I lit the menorah last night, and I really just want to settle down with a good book. But no!

Fact: You Need to Light Your Own Menorah 8 Times

Partying is great and yesterday was nice, but the primary Chanukah celebration is lighting your own menorah at home each night. Every night, we add another candle, making our universe that much brighter. Sure, a single candle was good for yesterday, but today you have the potential to light two lights, so how can you possibly settle with just one?
Read: How to Light the Menorah

11. Myth: Hanukkia Is the Proper Term for the Chanukah Lamp

It seems that every year, someone (or several someones) email us at Chabad.org to tell us that we use the wrong term for the Chanukah lamp, informing us that menorah refers only to the Temple menorah, and that we light a hanukkiah on Chanukah.

Fact: The Term is Barely 100 Years Old

In Hebrew, the word menorah simply means “lamp” and can refer to any number of lamps, including both the Temple menorah and the Chanukah menorah. In the Talmud, the Chanukah light is simply referred to as a ner, but it is widely referred to as a menorah in rabbinic literature. The word hanukkiah is a modern invention, attributed to Hemda Ben Yehudah (1873-1951).

Read: 16 Menorah Facts Everyone Should Know

12. Myth: Latkes are More Traditional Than Doughnuts

The two foods commonly consumed on Chanukah, doughnuts and potato latkes (pancakes), are both fried in oil, reminding us of the miracle of Chanukah, which featured oil burning for 8 days instead of one.

Many Ashkenazi Jews believe that latkes must be the original custom since that is what their bubby made, while doughnuts are a Johnny-come-lately iteration.

Fact: We Have Been Eating Doughnuts on Chanukah Since the 12th Century

Rabbi Maimon, the Spanish-born scholar who is most famous as the father of Rabbi Moses Maimonides, records the custom of eating sufganin, dough fried in oil, to commemorate the Chanukah miracle. Potatoes, on the other hand, were unknown in Eurasia until the late 16th century. Score for doughnuts!

Read: History of Potato (and Cheese!) Latkes

13. Myth: We Play Dreidel Because Kids Did So While Hiding From the Greeks

On Chanukah, it is customary for children to play with dreidels, spinning tops emblazoned with the letters nun, gimmel, hey and shin on its four sides. The top is a reminder that “a great miracle happened there [in Israel],” during the events of Chanukah.

The commonly told story is that children used these tops as a decoy when they would be secretly learning Torah during the Greek occupation. Whenever Greeks would discover their hideouts, they would hide their Torah scrolls and pretend to be playing an innocuous game of dreidel.

Fact: Dreidels Have Other Sources

While this reason is indeed brought in several works, the game is laden with inner significance, much of it mystical. Here is one beautiful insight (from among many others):

On Chanukah, we spin a dreidel from the top. On Purim, we swing a gragger from the bottom. On Purim, the miracle came about from “below”—the Jews fasted and prayed, while the miracle itself seemed to be hidden in events that unfolded within nature. On Chanukah, it was out of G‑d’s great mercy that He intervened from above with openly revealed miracles. Thus, on Purim, we swing the gragger from below and on Chanukah we spin the dreidel from above.

Read: Why Do We Play Dreidel on Chanukah