Must-Know Hanukkah Words and Phrases

Key vocabulary for the Jewish Festival of Lights.

Al Hanisim — Pronounced ahl hah-nee-SEEM. Literally “on the miracles,” the prayer added to the Amidah prayer and Birkat Hamazon (blessing said after meals) during Hanukkah.

Dreidel (also commonly spelled dreydel) — Pronounced DRAY-dull. A spinning top with four sides, each marked with a different Hebrew letter and each indicating a different play in this game.

Hanukkah Gelt — Gelt is the Yiddish word for money. Today, Hanukkah gelt is more often used to identify the foil-covered chocolate coins, which are a popular part of many Hanukkah celebrations.

Hanukkah gelt. (Wikimedia Commons)
Hanukkah gelt. (Wikimedia)

Hanukkah (also commonly spelled Chanukah) — Pronounced HAH-nuh-kuh. Literally “rededication,” an eight-day holiday commemorating the Maccabees recapturing the Temple from the Greeks.

Hanukkiyah — Pronounced hah-noo-kee-YAH or hah-noo-KEE-yuh (oo as in boot). Literally “Hanukkah lamp,” it is more commonly referred to as a menorah (see below). It contains nine candle-holders, one for each night of Hanukkah and one to hold the Shamash (see below).

hand with latkes

Latkes — Pronounced LAHT-kuhs, sometimes LAHT-kees. Pancakes, usually potato ones, fried in oil and eaten on Hanukkah.

Maccabees — Pronounced MACK-uh-bees. The family of religious zealots who triumphed over the Syrian Greeks and liberated the Temple.


Menorah— Pronounced muh-NOHR-uh. Literally “lamp,” it originally was used only to describe the seven-branched candelabrum that was used in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. However, the hanukkiyah used on Hanukkah is commonly referred to as a menorah.

Nes Gadol Hayah Sham —Pronounced ness gah-DOHL high-YAH shahm. Literally “a great miracle happened there,” the letters on the dreidel (nun, gimmel, hey, shin) represent these words. In Israel, the shin is replaced with a peh, so the letters spell out Nes Gadol Hayah Po, or “a great miracle happened here.”

Choose Hannuka donut

Sevivon — Pronounced suh-vee-VOHN. The Hebrew word for dreidel.

Shamash (also often spelled shammash) — Pronounced shah-MAHSH. Literally “the helper,” the candle on the Hanukkiyah that is used to light the other candles.

Sufganiyot — Pronounced soof-gahn-ee-YOHT. Doughnuts, usually jelly-filled ones, fried in oil and eaten on Hanukkah

Discover More

What You Need to Know About the Hanukkah Story

The Maccabean revolt and the miracle of the oil.

9 Things You Didn’t Know About Hanukkah

Lesser-known facts about the Festival of Lights.

Hanukkah Song and Music Guide

Where to find recordings and lyrics for classic (and modern) Hanukkah songs.