Of all the Jewish holidays, Hanukka is arguably the most popular.
At eight days, it is the longest holiday (tied with Succot, if you add Shmini Atzeret/Simhat Torah); carries no restrictions of movement or diet; is accompanied by scrumptious – albeit fattening! – foods like sufganiyot, which now come in more than a dozen flavors, and latkes; and, at least in the Diaspora, provides a worthy competitor to the “winter holidays” celebrated by the general community.
But for all its frivolity and lightheartedness, Hanukka is also a deep and profound event with layers of meaning. In fact, the very name “Hanukka” has the root hinuch, which means education or teaching.
Hanukka has much to teach us, and so I offer the following Eight Points of Light: 1. Oil’s well that ends well: Though wax candles may be used in the hanukkia, oil is preferred for several reasons.
The Menorah in the Temple, which we rededicated – another meaning of “Hanukka” – on 25 Kislev, after liberating it from the Syrian-Greeks, used olive oil.
Its light is pure and clear in color; it must be crushed before it yields its product, symbolizing the oppression we Jews have suffered throughout our history; and the indelible quality of oil, which refuses to mix with other liquids when combined, represents the determined stance of the Maccabees, who fought against the Hellenization or dilution of the Jewish community in Israel.
But I have another thought about oil. For many years, we lamented the fact that Moses took a wrong turn and ended up in one of the few countries in our region devoid of oil. We watched while our antagonistic neighbors piled up the petro-dollars, enabling them to buy unlimited arms and votes in the UN. But this was another divine blessing in disguise. For while they based their entire economies on oil, we found other avenues for building our economy – which today it is one of the most vibrant and creative in the world.
And now, as the price of oil plummets, OPEC members are starting to panic and tighten their fiscal belts.
We remain fully solvent and only now, after we have built a solid financial base, do we discover oil and gas in Israel, adding them to our portfolio! 2. Ode to the unknown kohen: The battle against the forces of Antiochus the Greek was not going well. The Temple was under siege, and its capture was imminent; soon it would be overrun and defiled, and the center of Jewish spirituality would be placed under foreign, idolatrous occupation. It would be years until the Hasmoneans would repel the invader, and win back our independence.
In those final, desperate moments before the Temple Mount fell, one wise and visionary kohen, or priest, took a cruse of pure oil and secreted it deep beneath the floor of the sanctuary. He was probably slain soon after, but had an unshakable faith in Jewish destiny. He knew that no matter how dark the moment, the day would come when we would reclaim our sacred space, and rekindle the Eternal Flame, the Menorah – and to do that, we would need at least one jar of uncontaminated, pure oil. His faith was confirmed when the Jewish soldiers discovered the oil he had hidden away.
We will never know the name of that kohen, but he is very much an Everyman, or at least an Every Jew.
For we too have hung on to our tradition throughout the gloomiest periods in history. We never let go; not during the Inquisition, nor at times of our dispersion, nor even at the gates of Auschwitz. We assured our children that however impossible the present seemed, the future would be ours. And that is why we have what we have today.
3. The partnership between Man and God: Speaking of faith, there is some debate over what exactly constituted the miracle of the oil. All agree the one pure cruse of oil was found, with sufficient fuel for one day’s burning of the Menorah, and that it would take eight days to get new oil. But what happened next? Some maintain that the entire jar of oil was placed in the Menorah, and it burned continuously for eight days. Others say it was decided that only one-eighth of the oil would be used each day, and that oil – which should have burned for three hours – burned for a full 24.
I heartily subscribe to the latter opinion, for one simple reason: Had we placed all the oil in the Menorah on the first day, we would have contributed nothing at all on the subsequent days. But by placing a small amount in the Menorah each day, we were doing our share, and letting God do His. It is the partnership between Man and God which gives humanity its sense of purpose and meaning in the universe, and it is that “duet” which effects miracles then – and now.
4. The nature of miracles: This analysis of how we lit the Menorah provides one answer to an oft-asked question regarding Hanukka: Why – if it took eight days to get more oil, but one pure jar of oil was found – do we light for eight nights rather than seven? Numerous other answers are given: The first light commemorates the military victory while the other lights celebrate the miracle of the oil, the fact that we found any oil at all was a miracle, etc.
But of all the possibilities, I love the suggestion that one of the miracles celebrated here is the fact that oil burns! Yes, we take it for granted that certain liquids are flammable, but nothing in nature should ever be assumed, or taken for granted – it all comes from God.
5. Onward and upward: There is a classic debate as to the proper way to light the hanukkia. The school of Beit Shammai held that we should begin on the first night by lighting all eight lights, then “count down” to just one on the final night. Beit Hillel disagreed, and ruled that we begin with just one light and work our way up, until the hanukkia is at its brightest at the end.
Hillel’s way is the accepted custom for lighting, and also forms a philosophy of life.
Begin humbly, but continually add light each and every day of our life, until all the darkness is dispelled and the room glows brightly. Lead by example, and bring light to all those around you. For a flame has an amazing quality; the smallest spark can ignite the biggest blaze, giving to others while not losing an iota of its own strength. And so the hanukkia, little by little, adds new “neighbors” to its midst. If a soul is pure, it can “ignite” countless other souls.
6. All for one and one for all: While there is a great deal of talk these days in reference to kosher food about mehadrin (stringency), the real source of this word comes from Hanukka. The essential mitzva of the holiday is to light one light each night for the entire household, no matter how large the family. But those who want to take the mitzva “up a notch” have each and every family member light one candle per night. And those who really want to go all out – to be mehadrin min hamehadrin – have each person light an additional candle on subsequent nights, until all eight lights are lit.
A rule of the hanukkia is that all the lights must be one level, rather than staggered or in a semicircle, with only the shamash “helper light” separated from the others. Both these traditions emphasize the idea of equality and inclusiveness. Everyone is represented; everyone has a “light” all his or her own, each of us shines in a special way. And no one is above – or below – anyone else.
7. Joseph and Hanukka: Interestingly enough, Hanukka always occurs during the time when the story of Joseph and his brothers is being read in the parsha. Is there a connection? For those who believe – and I am among them – that nothing ever happens by coincidence, there is indeed a shared message here.
The story of Joseph begins in a most negative manner, as the brothers battle among themselves and finally sell their brother out, casting him into a pit and then selling him as a slave into Egyptian servitude. The disunity and visceral enmity is horrendous, and almost destroys the family.
The story of Hanukka begins in an equally disturbing way, pitting Jew against Jew. The “first shot” of the war occurs not between Jew and Syrian-Greek, but when the Maccabees slay a fellow Jew who insultingly offers a pig on the altar.
Thankfully, both sagas end well, but the warning is clear: Joseph’s saga reminds us that exile is always intertwined with intra-Jewish fighting, brother vs brother.
As long as we are throwing our fellow Jew in the pit, we will suffer. Only when we learn to love and trust in one another will we escape the Diaspora’s dungeons and achieve liberation, living in the one and only land that is our natural habitat.
And only when we achieve a sense of unity, as symbolized by the menorah – many branches, yet all of them emanating from one central base, spreading light in every direction – will we reach perfection.
8. Being Jewish – inside and out: While in most homes the hanukkia is placed on a windowsill so that it is visible within and without, the ideal spot according to Jewish law is to place the Hanukka lights at the door of our house, directly opposite the mezuza. The mezuza would be at the right side, as we enter, with the hanukkia at the left. These two uniquely Jewish objects carry a special message: When we enter our homes, as well as when we exit, we have to remember exactly who we are.
There are some who feel that in public, on the street and in the workplace, where the world at large is watching, I must behave in a decent, respectful, moral way. But when I come home, within the private confines of my own house, where I can close the door and pull down the shades, I can act any way I want.
And then there are those who feel just the opposite: Out there, in the competitive, dog-eat-dog business world, or among those who have their own standards of behavior and culture, I have to conform to the majority, to be as Roman as the Romans or as German as the Germans. But when I retreat safely into the bosom of my home, I can again be the kind of person – and the kind of Jew – I know I should be.
The mezuza and the hanukkia remind us that we must be but one kind of person, inside and out.
I would add one note: Historically speaking, Hanukka would be our last major holiday for almost 2,000 years. We would go into the long night of exile with our final positive national memory being the rededication of the Temple.
The fire of the hanukkia would light our way through the twists and turns of our Diaspora experience, until that glorious moment when we would reclaim our land, and inaugurate new holidays – Independence Day and Jerusalem Day prominent among them – that would bring the light back to the Nation of Israel, never to be dimmed again.
Hanukka should never be taken “lightly.” The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]