Tuesday, December 12, 2006


It's widely known that there is major disagreement as to the proper spelling of חנוכה in English. Andy Carvin has an interesting article about the different spellings and how Wikipedia has made Hanukkah more popular than Chanukah. And of course Wikipedia deals with the spelling issue in the main article and in the discussion page as well.

A book I picked up a number of years ago - How Do You Spell Chanukah?: A General-Purpose Romanization of Hebrew for Speakers of English by Werner Weinberg recommends Chanukah. Rabbi Josh Waxman in Parshablog suggests Chanukka. I'm partial to Chanuka or even Hanuka, but my wife quotes her fourth grade teacher as saying "The one rule about spelling חנוכה - it must have eight letters." And since shalom bayit (lighting Shabbat candles) comes before the mitzva of publicizing the miracle (lighting חנוכה candles) - see the last Rambam in Sefer Zmanim - I'll stick with Chanukah.

What I didn't realize is just how complicated the etymology of Chanukah is. The complication arises from the multiple meanings of the root חנך. While I am aware that חנך in modern Hebrew can mean "to educate" - as in chinuch חינוך , I always thought that חנך for chanukah meant "dedication". However, this article by Prof. Stefan Reif shows how the basic meaning of the root חנך is "to begin, initiate". Dedicate, on the other hand means "to consecrate to sacred uses" - קדש in Hebrew. He writes that this translation was based on the Latin translation of the Bible - the Vulgate.

One of Reif's proofs is Devarim 20:5, where it says:

מִי-הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בָּנָה בַיִת-חָדָשׁ וְלֹא חֲנָכוֹ

While the JPS translates it as "Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it?", Reif would translate it (as does Tigay in his JPS commentary, based on Reif) as "initiated it" or "started to live in it". Reif quotes an earlier article by Oliver Rankin as saying it means "not removing from the realm of the profane ... to that of the sacred, but the putting to common use." He also points out that no dedication of a private house is found in the Bible or "subsequent Jewish custom" and that "house dedication" is a modern Jewish custom.

He writes that the places where the verb חנך is used in regards to the Mishkan or Beit HaMikdash (Bamidbar 7:10, Divrei HaYamim II 7:5-9) a good translation would be "initation" or "starting upon their course of beneficial service". If "dedication" was intended, the verb should have been קדש or משח.

According to Reif, the reading of חנך as "to train, instruct" comes from a mistranslation of Mishlei 22:6 - חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר, עַל-פִּי דַרְכּוֹ

While the JPS has "Train a lad in the way he ought to go", Reif prefers "Start a boy on the right road."

A number of Rishonim support Reif's approach. Rashi on Bereshit 14:14 writes that "the word חנך signifies introducing a person or a thing, for the first time, to some particular occupation in which it is intended that he should remain". Radak in Sefer HaShorashim follows the same approach.

He concludes with the following:

the later development of the noun חינוך chinuch in the sense of "education" also demonstrates that the rendering "dedication" is inimical to the essential meaning of the stem.

This all seems very convincing. However, Reif does not discuss a very important aspect to the etymology of חנך. Klein writes in that entry:

Denominated from chekh חך ( = palate) and originally meaning 'to rub the palate of a child with chewed dates'. compare Arabic hanak (= palate), hence hannaka (= he rubbed the palate of a child), hanaka ( = he taught, instructed).

So according to Klein, the development is palate -> rubbing the palate -> instruction. It is unclear how we get from there to "dedicate" (as Klein has it) or "initiate" (as Kaddari writes). As Reif wrote, the connection between "education" to "initiation" is stronger than that of "education" to "dedication", but in light of the linguistic evidence, perhaps the order needs to be reversed (i.e. education -> initiation.)

I'm also not sure where the "rubbing dates on the palate" theory first shows up. Jastrow, in his entry for חניכה (surname) writes:

[rubbing the infant's palate with a chewed fig, v. Fl. to Levy Talm. Dict II 206] the name given to the child by the person rubbing his palate

Jastrow is referring to Fleischer's addenda to Levy's dictionary. Fleischer was an expert in Arabic - so it is likely that he based his assumptions on the connection between Hebrew and Arabic. But I haven't seen his entry (and I can't read German in any case) - so I don't know just how convincing it is.

I did find this quote from the Islamic Hadith:

A son was born to me and I brought him to the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, He named him Ibrāhīm, and he chewed a date and rubbed thereby his palate, and prayed for blessings for him and gave him back to me.

with the following note:

The Arabic word is hannaka-hū. The word tahnīk is derived from hanak which means the interior of the upper part of the inside of the mouth, or the palate. The new-born baby is made to taste either a chewed date as in this case, or honey, by some elderly member of the family.
Was this a Jewish custom going all the way back to Biblical times (as it would need to be to be the root of the verb חנך)? I can't say.

However, there is certainly a connection between chekh and chanikhayim חניכיים - gums. As we've seen many times before the nun has a tendency to drop out of Hebrew words, so חך originally must have been חנך.

One interesting point is that the word chanich חניך - which today means "pupil, apprentice, member of youth group" might not be related to the root חנך at all. It appears only once in the Bible, in Genesis 14:14:

וַיָּרֶק אֶת-חֲנִיכָיו

Kaddari, apparently following Albright, claims that it comes from an Egyptian word ha-na ku-u-ka meaning "armed retainers". Others claim that the Egyptian word was borrowed from the Semitic.

Two more articles discussing חנך and Chanukah:

From the Jewish Agency (I'm not sure who the author is - does anyone know?)

By Dr. Joseph Lowin

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