Every year as Hanukkah approaches, writers and others struggle to find the right word. Menorah or hanukiah? Are the two terms the same? Is one more proper than the other when describing the lamp lit on Hanukkah? Read on as we bring light to this subject.

In Hebrew the word menorah simply means “lamp,” and can refer to any number of lamps, including the seven-branched candelabra lit every day in (the traveling Tabernacle and then) the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This menorah sits at the heart of the story of Chanukah, when we celebrate how the menorah was kindled with just enough oil to last for one day but miraculously remained lit for eight days.

For much of our history, menorah has also referred to the celebratory eight- (or nine-)flame candelabra lit in Jewish homes and public spaces for the eight nights of Hanukkah.

Sometime around the turn of the 20th century in Israel, the Hanukkah menorah became known by another name. The Modern Hebrew term hanukiah is widely attributed to Hemda Ben-Yehudah (1873–1951) and refers only to the Hanukkah lamp and no other. In truth, this name is much older than that and can be found in the writings of Rabbi Avraham Meyuchas (1699-1767),1 reflective of the terminology used by the Ladino-speaking Jewish community in the Holy Land.

Which term is preferable to use when referencing the Hanukkah lamp? It depends.

When speaking Modern Hebrew, one can safely assume that the audience would be more familiar with the term hanukiah, especially since menorah can also refer to a ceiling light. However, when speaking to an English-speaking audience, menorah is more historically accurate and therefore the preferred term.