What is the Correct Spelling of Hanukah? by Rabbi Donni Aaron

Posted on Nov 13, 2013

What is the Correct Spelling of Hanukah?

Around this time of year a few years ago, I was listening to NPR. They had a discussion about the holiday of Hanukkah and one of the topics discussed was the spelling of the holiday in English. It was fascinating to listen to in particular for me because it is a question I get numerous times every year. “Rabbi, what is the correct spelling of Hanukkah?” Well, here’s the story about that…

There's so many different ways Hanukah is spelled in English. The interviewer said that he ran some different spellings through Google and found that the most common spelling there by far is C-H-A-N-U-K-A-H. That spelling produced 2.8 million hits. In second place, the same spelling minus the initial C: H-A-N-U-K-A-H. That turns up 691,000 Google hits.

The electronic greeting card site, BlueMountain.com and others, go with H-A-N-U-K-K-A-H. That spelling takes the Google bronze with 650,000 hits. And there are some others. A Web site called Judaism 101 goes with C-H-A-N-U-K-K-A-H. Woody Guthrie wrote a couple of songs for the holiday and, at woodyguthrie.org, they use the spelling: H-A-N-U-K-A. That spelling produces 143,000 hits on Google. But that number includes an evidently very talented illustrator named Tomer Hanuka, as well as some mentions of the Jewish holidays in Hungarian. And finally, there is the spelling used by the Jewish Learning Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania and jewishmag.com, among some 110,000 others on Google. That spelling: C-H-A-N-N-U-K-A.

First of all, he word Hanukah means dedication. It's the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem at the end of the revolt of the Maccabees. The issue with the spelling is because there's several different difficult letters in terms of the transliteration. And all translations are interpretations. The Hebrew letter at the beginning of the word is the most problematic. It makes a sound that does not exist in English. It makes a sound like someone clearing their throat. But some people put a CH there which is pronounced differently in English. Some people put H there, which is better because if you cannot pronounce the Hebrew letter correctly, the H letter is the closest in terms of accuracy. Some fancy people say H but put a dot under it to signify the Hebrew pronunciation. Double N. Now why this? There's only one Hebrew letter and it sounds like the letter N. No idea of why there would be a double N at all. But the double K can have an explanation. Hebrew has two different ways of making the K sound. So perhaps for people that know Hebrew, they go with the double K to show that this is the CAF letter with the dot in it as opposed to the other Hebrew letter (KOOF). Better than none in any case. Now at the end of Hanukah, in Hebrew there's the letter HAY which sounds like an H usually, but at the end of the word you generally do not hear it. And this raises the question of whether or not you should have an H at the end. I think there should be an H at the end, because the HAY in Hebrew closes the word. So I think the H tries to capture that. I believe the best transliteration is H-A-N-U-K-A-H. This gives people the best chance at pronouncing the holiday correctly. However, because there's no uniformity in transliteration, whatever you decide to do, I suggest being consistent.

Happy Hanukah!
Rabbi Donni