Jewish holidays are more than just a “break in the action” or a time to get away
from it all. They are more than simply historical reminders of what once was,
but is not now. In fact, and in deed, they are opportunities to reinject our
lives with timeless lessons that the festivals represent, literally restaging
the events and reliving the message.
Thus, on Shavuot we stay up late
into the night studying the Torah that we are about to receive anew; on
Passover, we constrict our diet to identify with the meager fare of the less
fortunate, while also enjoying the year’s most lavish meal as only free people
can; and on Tisha Be’av we bring ourselves low in a state of semi-mourning, so
as to sample the despair that comes when national independence is
Hanukka is a multi-dimensional event. On the one hand, it is the
longest holiday of the Jewish year, filled with light, gifts and gelt, and food
that is as fabulous as it is fattening. On the other hand, Hanukka revolves
around a war that lasted at least 30 years, and included a frightening “battle
of brothers” over the issue of Hellenism and Jewish particularism. As such, it
is complex, despite its commercialism; and it contains ideas and inspirations
far beyond the legend of the “little cod that could.”
Here are eight
“points of light” that you may use to “spark” a discussion each night, in the
glow of your hanukkia.
• COUNTDOWN OR COUNT-UP? The schools of Beit
Shammai and Beit Hillel debated the proper way to light one’s hanukkia during
Beit Shammai suggested we start with eight lights and work
our way down to a single flame, much the same way as NASA approaches liftoff.
Beit Hillel begged to differ; preferring a gradual build-up from one to eight,
adding light continually as we go along. This was “reflective” of Hillel’s
general attitude in life, as exemplified by the famous story of the convert who
sought to understand the entire Torah “while on one foot.” Hillel accepted the
challenge, and began the man’s education with just one law – “that which is
hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” – and going on from there.
too, he believed that the proper approach to Hanukka was to start off small, in
the belief that you will grow brighter in the days to come. Optimism won out,
and Hillel’s “way to glow” became the accepted practice.
• SHOW ME THE
GELT! Various opinions attempt to explain the ancient custom of handing out
money, or gelt, to children during Hanukka. Some say it was to enable them to
play the dreidel game, in commemoration of the Jews fooling their Greek
overlords – who had banned the study of Torah – by hiding their holy books when
guards approached, and pretending to play a simple betting game. Others link the
practice to the coins that were specially minted by the victorious Hasmoneans
after the defeat of Antiochus’s forces.
But the best explanation, I
believe, is that coins were given out as a reward to students who had excelled
in their Jewish studies. Hanukka occurs four months after the start of classes -
which traditionally begin on the first of Elul - and so this is a good point in
the school year to stop and gauge the students’ progress. This approach is
suggested by the very name of the holiday, “Hanukka,” whose root is “hinuch,”
• LIGHT MAKES RIGHT. Hanukka, alone among the holidays, has no
Talmudic tractate to accompany it. It also has but one single, solitary
commandment associated with it – that of lighting lights, and that seems to
carry it forward. It comes during the time of year when the days are shorter and
the nights longer, a time when ancient peoples feared the preponderance of
darkness and the dangers that lurked therein. In the Jewish calendar, there is a
long spell – from Succot to Purim – when no major holidays occur, and so Hanukka
provides a kind of “light in the wilderness” that gives us something significant
to celebrate during that time.
Historically speaking, the events of
Hanukka are also the last official days of national joy, coming as they do
shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple and our descent into the
long night of exile.
The Hanukka lights, then, provided a kind of torch
that we carried through all those centuries, lighting our way until our
miraculous rebirth as a state.
The special prayer of Hanukka, “Al
Hanissim” (Concerning the Miracles), seems to have present- day Israel in mind
when it speaks of wonders that occurred “in those days, in our times. Israel’s
national symbol, the menorah, takes on added significance “in light” of this
• RELIGION AND POLITICS. Despite the remarkable victory of the
Maccabees, the monarchy they established did not last very long. The rabbis
ascribe this to the fact that they were kohanim, priests from the tribe of Levi,
and kings of Israel, by God’s command, are to come from the tribe of Judah and
the lineage of David.
Could this be a hint that religion and politics
should not mix? • FROM ONE COMES MANY. The very shape of the menorah, or
hanukkia, has deep meaning. It begins as one block, or base – indeed, the
original Menorah made by Moses was hammered out of a mass of pure gold – and
then spreads into seven branches (eight on the hanukkia). This suggests that
while we Jews have a common root, we are meant to diversify in all different
directions. This may be culturally: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemenite, Ethiopian,
etc; or it may be societal: scholar, soldier, salesperson, singer,
streetsweeper. All have their place within the community, and all contribute to
the greater light.
Appropriately, Jewish law requires that all the lights
– other than the shamash helper light – be on the same exact level, each neither
higher nor lower than its neighbor.
• WONDER OF WONDER, MIRACLE OF
Most authorities hold that the victorious Maccabees, upon
finding just one jar of pure oil with the high priest’s seal still intact,
divided the oil into eight parts and lit the menorah. What should have lasted
but three hours each day burned for 24; the miracle repeating for eight days,
until new oil could be secured. But those who hold that all the oil was poured
in the menorah on the first night, and then continued to burn miraculously for
eight days, have a problem: Why celebrate Hanukka for eight days if there was
enough oil for the first day? While a host of answers are given, the simplest,
yet perhaps most profound, is that the first day celebrates the fact that we
found any oil at all! In a sense, all the many miracles that have blessed us
throughout the millennia, including those that we witness daily in Israel, are
predicated on the fact that we are here at all; that is by far the greatest
miracle! • WIN, SHOW AND PLACE. Hanukka contains a special and unique element,
the concept of pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracle. While we generally are
instructed to be humble and self-effacing, on Hanukka we “show off” the fact
that God performed these great wonders on our behalf. That is why, although one
person in the house lighting one candle each night technically fulfills the
obligation, it is our universal custom for many hanukkiot and many lights to be
lit in our homes each evening.
And it also impacts on where we place our
hanukkia; it must be somewhere where the general public can see it. The ideal
place is to actually light outside our homes (in see-through, windproof boxes),
near the street, in full view of passersby. But this is generally only done in
Israel, where Jews unabashedly perform the mitzvot without shame or
Rare is the Jewish community in the Diaspora that “lights up” in
full view, unafraid of the consequences.
It takes a real “Maccabee” to do
• WE NEED A HERO. The fact that the Maccabees stood up to the
Greeks and defied their ban on the commandments, rejecting their philosophy that
man, and not God, is supreme, is an amazing profile in
Outnumbered, outgunned, their greatest weapon was their belief
that a spiritually empty life was not worth living. Because they took matters
into their own hands, and defended the faith without being commanded to do so,
the rabbis say that of all the holidays, only Hanukka and Purim will remain in
Messianic times – for the Jewish people earned these days on their own, and so
no one can take them away from us.
But bravery, faith and love of God and
country is not a bygone virtue; we have, thank the Almighty, an impressive army
of Maccabees throughout the ages. Any Jew who stood fast, physically or
spiritually, against those who would attack us, or maintained his faith when it
was challenged, is a rightful heir to Judah and his brothers.
once asked our late son, Ari – who underwent the most grueling exercises as a
member of an elite anti-terrorist unit – what gave him the strength to go on, to
fight day after day in difficult conditions. He answered: “When things really
get rough, I think about those brave souls in the Holocaust who stayed alive in
the camps, who somehow trudged on through the death marches, who made new lives
upon liberation; that inspires me never to quit.”
And then he asked
Susie, “What do you do to have the strength to go on when times are tough, Mom?”
And she answered simply, “I think of you.”
A great miracle happened here
– and it is still happening.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach
Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; rabbistewartweiss.com