Thanks to comedian Adam Sandler, many people know that the Jewish festival of lights lasts eight nights. However, there’s a bit of confusion among Jews and Gentiles alike as to how to spell the winter holiday.
Is it Chanukah? Hanukkah? Hannukah? It’s not easy to figure out how many n’s and k’s there are and if there’s a c before the h. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, there’s no definitive right answer.
Unlike Christmas, which has one spelling in the English language, Hanukkah’s story is a bit more complicated because it has to do with transliteration. A transliteration gives a person an idea of how a word in a foreign language is pronounced. It changes the letters of the word’s original alphabet into similar-sounding letters of a different language’s alphabet.
Written in Hebrew, the holiday is spelled, חנוכה. Pronounced with the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, chet, a guttural, throaty sound similar to the “ch” in Johann Brach, according to Chabad. This led to the spelling of the holiday with a “ch” as Chanukah. However, the closest sounding letter in the English alphabet is “h,” which prompted the spelling of the holiday as “Hanukkah.”
As far as the number of n’s and k’s in the word, Rabbi Daniel Zemel of the Temple Micah in Washington, D.C. told NPR he has no idea why it would be spelled with two n’s.
“But the double K can have an explanation. Hebrew has two different ways of making the K sound,” he said.
There are two Hebrew letters that are similar, but one has a dot in it. He reasoned that people possibly spelled the word with two K’s to show that the letter is the one with the dot in it.
“That’s the only possible explanation I could have, which seems like it is some explanation,” Zemel
Merriam-Webster identifies Hanukkah as the primary spelling of the holiday and Chanukah as a secondary way of writing the holiday. Hanukkah is the most widely used spelling choice, although TIME pointed out that Chanukah is a favorite of traditionalists and five years ago, it was the favorite spelling choice. Other spellings identified by the Oxford Dictionaries were:
Zemel told NPR that to be safe, he spells it in Hebrew. In 2005, his temple had a meeting to decide how they would spell the holiday on flyers and marketing materials in an effort to keep it uniform. They decided to spell it Chanukkah, which NPR host Robert Siegel found was the fourth most popular spelling on Google in 2005.
Hanukkah, also called the festival of lights, begins on Sunday evening and ends on Monday, December 10. It marks an event that occurred around 168 B.C. After Antiochus IV Epiphanes’s outlawed the Jewish religion, his soldiers marched into Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple. Following the desecration of the temple, Judah Maccabee led a revolt and successfully drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem. He called for the temple to be rebuilt and the menorah to be lit.
However, there was only enough oil that hadn’t been tainted to light the menorah for one night. They lit the menorah anyway and it miraculously burned for eight nights, giving them enough time to find more oil.
To honor what happened at that time, each year, followers of the Jewish religion light their menorah for eight nights, burning candles from left to right, although they’re placed right to left.
Hanukkah means “dedication” and is pronounced Ha· nuk· kah, according to Merriam-Webster, no matter how you spell it. Whether you’re Chanukah, Hanukkah, or any other variation of the holiday, burning the candles for eight nights serves as a reminder of the miracles God performs.