There are two types of Jews at Hanukkah time. There are those who believe that Israelis eat jelly donuts on Hanukkah because the oil in which the donuts are fried is connected to the miracle commemorated on Hanukkah. Others hold that Israelis eat jelly donuts because somehow the sweetness of the jelly inside is related to the festival. Etymologically, if not historically, "Others" have a good case.

Some readers may remember having learned that (hannuka) is so called because (hanu khaf heh), "They [the Maccabees] rested on the 25th [of Kislev]." Quaint idea; wrong shoresh (root-word). Scripture records many types of (hanukkah) before the clash of Antiochus Epiphanes and Judah Maccabee. None of them speaks of "resting," from the root (het, nun, heh); all of them are related to inauguration, from (het, nun, khaf). Deuteronomy teaches, for example, that a man who has built a new house (ve-lo hanakho), "and has not dedicated it," is exempt from military service.

A second verbal form derived from our root has to do with the initiating the young into the Jewish community via education. The Book of Proverbs tells us (hanokh la-na'ar), "educate the youth" in a way appropriate for him and he will continue to behave properly into old age. It may fairly be said of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the Hebrew (mehanekh), educator, par excellence, that he almost single-handedly (hanakh tekufa hadasha), inaugurated a new era, for the Jewish people

And what does all this have to do with jelly donuts? If we remember that the letter (nun) has a habit of slipping in and out of words, we come to the two-letter root-word (hekh), palate. This word is found in a whole range of idiomatic expressions, from the phrase in the Jewish pledge of allegiance to Jerusalem, (tidbak leshoni le-hiki), "may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth" to the expression for "a really fine orator," (hiko mamtakim), literally "his palate is [like] sweets."

More to our point, and sweeter yet, is an ancient initiatory ceremony in which the (hekh), palate, of a young pupil was rubbed with date honey, so that the child would associate learning with sweetness (there is a similar ceremony using honey.) In Arabic, this palate-rubbing ceremony of initiation is called hanakka. Both the meaning and the sound of this Arabic word make the connection between (hekh), palate, and (hinnukh), education, on the one hand, and the ceremonial aspect of Hannuka , on the other, more readily apparent.

author Dr. Joseph Lowin is Executive Director of the National Center for the Hebrew Language (NY). He has written extensively (in both popular and scholarly formats) on Jewish narrative, modern Jewish literature, and Hebrew language. His most recent book is Hebrewspeak: An Insider's Guide to the Way Jews Think (Jason Aronson, 1995).
You can visit his site at

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