How Do You Spell That Jewish Holiday in December?

How do you spell Hanukkah?

At InterfaithFamily.com, we spell it H-A-N-U-K-K-A-H. But search our site and you’ll find references to CHANUKAH (157 search results), HANNUKAH (72), HANUKAH (46), CHANUKKAH (13) and HANUKA (5).

HANUKKAH is the spelling of choice at non-Jewish websites like Wikipedia and Blue Mountain and tends to be the preferred spelling of transdenominational or progressive Jewish organizations, like My Jewish Learning, the Conservative movement and the Reconstructionist movement. Meanwhile, more traditional organizations–like Chabad, Aish HaTorah and the Orthodox Union–go with CHANUKAH. But there is one big exception to this division between traditional and progressive: the progressive Reform movement prefers CHANUKAH. Meanwhile, Judaism 101, one of the oldest and most frequently cited Jewish reference sites, goes with CHANUKKAH.

A few years ago, Robert Siegel of NPR interviewed Rabbi Danny Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., to get to the bottom of the spelling mystery. They didn’t.

While you can find just about any spelling you can imagine online (including XANUKAH, with 162 references on Google, and HANNNUKAH, with 154), two spellings have separated themselves from the pack: HANUKKAH and CHANUKAH. HANUKKAH produces 11 million search results, while CHANUKAH produces 2.6 million. No other spelling produces more than 600,000 results.

This is a marked change from three years ago, when Siegel said CHANUKAH was the leader with 2.8 million references, followed by HANUKAH with 691,000.

It’s surprising that CHANUKAH has become the spelling of choice of traditional organizations, which tend to be sticklers for correct pronunciation. The CH- opening makes sense, because, for those in the know, it differentiates between the standard soft H- sound in the English language and the gutteral H of the Hebrew letter het/chet. But the single K is surprising because, as Rabbi Zemel suggests, the double K in HANUKKAH may be used as a way of distinguishing between the Hebrew letters kaf and kuf, both of which produce the K sound.

Starting with an H, rather than a CH, makes sense for non-Jewish and more progressive organizations, which are more concerned with accessibility than exact linguistic accuracy. Really, who beyond the small minority of Jews in this country knows that the CH- in CHANUKAH isn’t supposed to sound like the CH in “cheetah”? English’s soft H is good enough for government work.

It’s surprising, though, that the double-K has stuck, since there’s no need to distinguish between two Hebrew letters for the vast majority of people who don’t know their alef from their bet.

While the Jewish world may not be able to agree on how to spell, um, that December holiday with the candles and the latkes (or is it latkas?), at least we can all agree that the following song and video by the LeeVees kicks ass:

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2 thoughts on “How Do You Spell That Jewish Holiday in December?

  1. Oh, cool, your video mentions the Spanish spelling, Januca, which I learned from the rabbi of the Jewish community of Guadalajara Joshua Kullock. (All that Jewish knowledge and I turned to him for a spelling question!) Xanuka would work too, if you pronounce your het like the X in Oaxaca.

  2. “X” works for us Sefardim, too. In fact, we use it alot in Judezmo (ladino) phrases, i.e. braxas i salud (blessings and health), Ke Xaber (What’s the news?) and hundreds of others. This was actually the way “X” was supposed to be pronounced – we just borrowed the symbol from the Castillians while we sojourned in Spain.

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