One of the Jewish calendar’s best-known holidays has started. People in Costa Rica and around the world have begun observing Hanukkah, sometimes referred to as the Festival of Lights.
Hanukkah lasts for eight days, beginning on the 25th day of the month of Kislev in the lunar Jewish calendar. As happens this year, that almost always translates into a solidly December holiday in the secular calendar. Rare spills back into November or forward into January occur during some years.
The holiday commemorates events that grew out of the Jewish Maccabean army’s victory over Greek occupiers in 165 B.C., and the subsequent rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following its desecration by the invaders. Just a scant amount of clean oil was found to illuminate the menorah, the temple candelabrum, but the lights burned for eight days.
Hanukkah is an occasion to illuminate menorahs, adding an additional light each of the eight nights. The eight-candled menorah is patterned after the seven-candled temple lamp and is the holiday’s most recognizable symbol.
Among the decorations around Costa Rica for that other December holiday, you’ll see menorahs this time of year, courtesy of the Jewish outreach organization Chabad Lubavitch of Costa Rica, at four metro-area shopping malls: Mall San Pedro, Multiplaza del Este in Curridabat and Terramall in Tres Ríos on the east side, and Multiplaza Escazú to the west.
Holidays mean special foods, of course, and Hanukkah is no exception. The eight days are an excuse to consume oily foods in honor of the miracle of the oil. Latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are signature favorites. Pita Rica (Plaza Los Laureles, Escazú, 2228-9775) and Kosher Center (Pavas, 2232-2991) prepare both foods this time of year. Pita Rica also sells Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins), menorahs, dreidels (small, four-sided tops embossed with Hebrew letters that makes a favorite holiday game) and decorations for the home.
For more on the holiday, we turned to a resident group of experts, the kindergarten and first-grade students at Hebrew Day School in the western San José district of Rohrmoser. They have been learning about Hanukkah and had this to tell us during a visit last week by The Tico Times. In an impressive display of language skills, students conversed in Hebrew, with a translation provided for the TT’s non-Hebrew-speaking photographer and writer:
“Yehuda was the leader of the Maccabees. My name is Yehuda.”
“‘Maccabee’ comes from [the first letters of] four words: Mi kamo-cha ba-ei-lim hashem (Who among the gods is like you, o Lord?).”
“The Maccabees were small in number but still they won the war because they prayed to God.”
“The Temple menorah had seven branches.”
“They found a small bottle of pure oil.”
“And they lit the menorah.”
–Isaac Moseh Ergas
Thanks to Miriam Orimland and Chana Spalter at the Hebrew Day School in Rohrmoser.
Hanukkah? Chanukah? Hanuka?
Why so many spelling variations on the name of one holiday?
“I’ve seen everything imaginable,” Chana Spalter, co-director of Chabad Lubavitch of Costa Rica, told The Tico Times. “‘Hannukah,’ ‘Chanuka,’ ‘Hanukah,’ …”
The discrepancies stem from the difficulty of rendering an English equivalent of a language written in a different alphabet. (Chanukah means “dedication” in Hebrew, in memory of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.) The biggest problem is the guttural sound of the Hebrew letter chet, the first letter in the name of the holiday, Spalter explained. The final -ch in the name of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach approximates the sound.
“It’s much easier in Spanish,” Spalter says. “The letter J (jota) gives exactly the same sound, so, in Spanish, we can write Januká.”