(photo credit: Courtesy/Iris Tutnauer)
Hanukka is a holiday that is both simple and profound. It is simple in
that very little is required in order to observe it according to all the
requirements of Jewish practice. According to the Talmud, all that is required
is the lighting of one light each night.
The lighting of more than one
candle, which is standard practice today, was an addition to the requirement of
one light per household performed by those who are “particularly zealous” in
their observance. We, who follow the ruling of the school of Hillel, add one
more light each night (Shabbat 21b).
The original reason for kindling
lights each night is uncertain. The well-known story of the miraculous
jug of oil does not appear in the books of Maccabees or in the Mishna, but only
in the Talmud. It may be connected to the fact related in I Maccabees 4:50 that
“They burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the menorah and they
lighted the Temple.” Certainly the rekindling of the Menorah, the most
important symbol of God’s presence in the Temple and eventually the most
important visual symbol of Judaism, was a central feature of the Temple
rededication and one that could be easily replicated in each home by the
kindling of a light. The tale of the oil only added greater significance
to that action.
Of course it should not be forgotten that the lighting of
lights at the season of the winter solstice, the time when the hours of daylight
are the shortest, was an ancient practice of many religions. The Talmud records
a legend that as the days became progressively shorter, Adam was frightened,
thinking that eventually there would be no light at all. “Perhaps because I have
sinned,” he said, “the world is becoming dark and returning to a state of chaos
and confusion. This is the ‘death’ to which I have been sentenced by Heaven!” He
then fasted for eight days, but as the days began to become longer again he
realized that this was simply the natural way of the world and then he kept a
festival for eight days. He observed this festival every year in thankfulness to
God, but idolaters later observed it in honor of their gods (Avoda Zara 8a).
This was the Sages’ explanation of the origin of the Roman festival of Kalenda
at that time of year.
The eight-day holiday of Hanukka is actually based
on the fact recorded in II Maccabees 10:6 that they celebrated the rededication
of the Temple for eight days “like Succot, recalling that on Succot they had
been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals.” This also
explains why we recite Hallel on Hanukka each day, since Hallel is recited each
day of Succot.
Although the historical events leading to the Maccabean
revolt are quite complicated and include an inner conflict among various Jewish
groups as well as the struggle between the Jews and the Syrian Greeks who ruled
the land, the holiday has come to represent the triumph of religious freedom
over the attempt to force an alien culture upon the Jewish people. As such it is
a time to celebrate the right of a people to determine its own destiny and to
worship God according to its own beliefs.
The lights that we light, then,
do not simply represent the renewal of the physical light that has diminished at
the turn of the year and will then increase with each passing day, but they also
represent the light of the spirit, the light of religious freedom, the light of
the Divine presence in our lives. Thus the simplicity of the holiday and the
ease of its observance is balanced by the weight of the importance of that which
it celebrates: religious freedom for all.The writer, former president of
the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book
Award. His latest book is
The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).