Blog posts about the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries and their author Rabbi Ilene Schneider

The Introduction to the soon-to-be-released (I hope) book WHY NINE CANDLES FOR CHANUKAH? ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS YOU NEVER THOUGHT TO ASK:

            Imagine: a foreign superpower invades an independent, sovereign nation, assumes its governance, bans the practice of its religion, desecrates its religious buildings, and subjugates its native population. A small band of guerilla fighters begins a war of attrition, terrorism, and rebellion against the much larger, more powerful, well financed, and better armed forces of the invaders. Against all odds, the rebels win, institute a new government, with the leaders of the rebellion as the rulers, and reestablish the religious rituals. As time passes, the formerly gallant saviors evolve into a dynastic, despotic monarchy, which is subsequently overthrown by a new superpower.

            What does this story describe? The plot line for the latest installment of Star Wars? Events ripped from the latest (or not so latest) headlines? A parable of how power corrupts? A morality tale warning heroes that they are not exempt from the corrosive power of ego?

            Perhaps, but what we also have are the elements contained in the holiday of Chanukah and the years following the successful revolt of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic Syrian Seleucid Kingdom and its ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes IV .

            How did we get from the refusal of Mattathias and his five sons to bow down before idols and the humans who worshiped them to a holiday replete with Chanukah bushes, eight days of presents, houses trimmed with blue and white blinking lights, electric candles, potato pancakes, donuts, and chocolate coins?

            Read on and find out!


Every time I open my Word program on my laptop, I am confronted with a directory named “Nine Candles.” In it are two files for a long-time work-in-progress, a requested outline and partial manuscript for a question-and-answer book called Why Nine Candles for Chanukah? It was requested and then unrequested by a publisher who had released a similar Q&A about Christmas. The editorial board later decided there wasn’t enough of an audience for such a book, I suspect because the Christmas one didn’t sell well.

So what to do with a WIP that was already nearing completion? At least I had asked all the questions, and knew the answers even if I hadn’t yet written them down (thus the outline part of the manuscript). Let it languish? Keep promising myself I’d finish it? Delete it? Or finally sit down, complete it, and then self-publish it as an e-book and, if there are enough requests, as a paperback?

After several years of ignored resolutions, I finally stopped procrastinating and  am in the process of finishing the manuscript. Or will, once I post this blog.

The book consists of 90 questions. Not 100. Not 101. I like the idea of 90 questions, as it’s a multiple of 18. [For those of you who don’t know, 18 is the numerical value of the letters that spell the word Hebrew word for “life,” chai (the “ch” is pronounced as a guttural, as in the German “ich” – or the Hebrew Chanukah).]

Truth in advertising time: the number 90 is just coincidental. I can’t think of any other questions. If I had come up with 91 questions, or 102, or 73, I’m sure I could have also devised a meaningful reason to make the number seem a deliberate decision.

               Here’s my request: Below are the questions. Are there any others you would like answered? Please let me know in the comments below, or, if you prefer, in an email to me at

               And I promise the answers will be accurate. Or as accurate as 65 years of celebrating Chanukah, 2 years living in Israel, 5 years of rabbinical training, and Mr. Google can make them.

Here are the questions:


Why are there so many different spellings of Chanukah?

Why does the English date of Chanukah change every year?

Why does Chanukah last eight days?

Did the oil really last eight days?

How did the story of the oil originate?

Are there other explanations for why the holiday lasts eight days?


What does menorah mean?

What is a chanukiah?

Why is there a ninth candle on the menorah?

What does shamash mean?

Why are there menorahs with eight candles?

What are the different customs for lighting the menorah?

Who were Hillel and Shammai?

When is the menorah lit?

When is the menorah lit on Friday night?

What are the prayers for lighting the menorah?

What is the difference between Ma’oz Tzur and “Rock of Ages”?

What does the word Chanukah mean?


Is there any other meaning of the word?

What is the origin of the holiday?

What is the meaning of Maccabee?

Who were the Hellenists?

Who were the Hasmoneans?

How did the Maccabean revolt begin?

Were the Maccabees fighting for religious or political freedom?


What are the different parts of the Hebrew Bible?

Is there an easy way to remember the contents?

What is the Talmud?

What is the Mishnah?

What is the Gemara?

Why is the Book of Maccabees not in the Hebrew Bible?

So then where is the Book of Maccabees?

What is the Apocrypha?

Who were Judith and Holofernes?

Who was Hannah?

What is the Scroll of the Hasmoneans?


Is there outside corroboration for the story?

Who was Josephus?

What did Josephus write about Chanukah?

Is Chanukah mentioned in the Christian Bible?

Does Modi’in still exist?


What is the difference between a Holy Day and a holiday?

What other minor holidays are celebrated in Judaism?

Why is Purim in the Hebrew Bible and Chanukah is not?

If Chanukah is a minor holiday, why is it so widely celebrated?

Are there special synagogue services during Chanukah?

Do observant Jews work on Chanukah?


How was Chanukah celebrated in the Middle Ages?

Who are Ashkenazi Jews?

Who are Sephardi Jews?

But don’t they observe the same Judaism?

How is Chanukah celebrated by Ashkenazi Jews?

How is Chanukah celebrated by Sephardi Jews?

How is Chanukah celebrated in modern Israel?

How is Chanukah celebrated in the U.S.?

How is Chanukah celebrated today in other countries?


What is a dreidel?

How is the dreidel game played?

What is gelt?

Is the game played differently in different cultures?


What is a latke?

Why do Jews eat latkes on Chanukah?

Can latkes be made from anything besides potatoes?

Recipes for potato latkes

Recipes for non-potato latkes (zucchini, etc.)

Sour cream or applesauce?

Why the differences in preferences?

Why is cheese another traditional food for Chanukah?

What do donuts have to do with Chanukah?

How did chocolate coins become traditional?


Is there a connection between Chanukah and Christmas?

Why is the 25th of the winter month important?

Why are lights important to both holidays?

Why are gifts given on Chanukah?

Are there ways to avoid the gift-giving frenzy?

Are there any other gift giving holidays in Judaism?

What kinds of Chanukah decorations are there?

What is a Chanukah bush?


Chanukah as a symbol and metaphor

Chanukah in pop culture

Traditional songs

Children’s songs

Modern songs

Yiddish fiction

Hebrew fiction

English fiction for adults

English fiction for children

Live-action movies

Animated films


Whew! Any additions?

Back to work. As they say (do they?): So many questions, so little time.


  1. Claire Kessler said:

    In part VII: Who are Romaniote Jews? Who are Mizrahi Jews?

  2. I admire you for such an ambitious and enlightening project. We’re going to be so smart after reading it!

  3. Burl Barer said:

    Is there anything more absurd than an electric menorah?

    Well, yes, many things. Here is one: The Golf Bag Menorah.

    The menorah looks like a golf bag! It has golf clubs sticking out of it, and a golf ball next to it. “This is what the Lord did for me when he brought me out to the Country Club?”
    I don’t think so. I remember visiting my Uncle Sid in Seattle years ago, and he bought a new house across the street from a fancy-shmancy golf course.
    “Gee, Uncle Sid,” I said, “do you play golf right across the street?”
    “No,” he said. “They don’t allow Jews.”
    Of course, they prompted me to meditate on what manner of mischief Jews would instigate at a golf course. Unlike Christians, we don’t have faith healers, so we’re not going to close up the holes. Then I figured it out. It’s the Exodus! After forty years in the desert, Jews have an unfair advantage in a sand trap. (rim shot)

    Wherever you go in the world, Jews are a minority. even In Israel. In the Holy Land, non-Jews are imported by the thousands. After all, how can you be distinct if you are the majority? You can’t be the salt of the earth if the entire earth is a salt-lick.
    The only two places where Jews are the majority are the Jewish Home for the Aged, and any Chinese restaurant.

    Jews actually comprise about 1/4 of 1% of the world’s population. That’s tiny. Itty-bitty. REAL SMALL. Look:

    Christianity: 2.1 billion
    Islam: 1.5 billion
    Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 1.1 billion
    Hinduism: 900 million
    Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
    Buddhism: 376 million
    primal-indigenous: 300 million
    African Traditional & Diasporic: 100 million
    Sikhism: 23 million
    Juche: 19 million
    Spiritism: 15 million
    Judaism: 14 million
    Baha’i: 7 million

    Judaism has 0% growth. This means a guaranteed end to Antisemitism. It also means that eventually there will be no one left who understands Jackie Mason.

    Did I tell you that my ex-girlfriend, Judi Faye, used to be Jackie Mason’s girlfriend? Well, she was. Why are they not still together? Don’t ask me. I don’t pry. It’s not my business. Who am I to question? But, you know…it occurs to me, maybe he knew then what I know now?
    Maybe they broke up when found out she owned an electric menorah.

    • I have a chanukiah (Chanukah menorah) that looks like a moose, with each antler being a candle holder. And there is a place for an electric chanukiah (or even Shabbat candle sticks): dorm rooms, hotel rooms, hospital rooms – anyplace that doesn’t allow open flames. In general, though, I agree. I much prefer a real flame.

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