Tradition Today: The lights of Hannuka

The Books of Maccabees provide the answers concerning Hanukka itself and the connection to lights.

Gold Menorah 311 (photo credit: courtesy/itraveljerusalem)
Gold Menorah 311
(photo credit: courtesy/itraveljerusalem)
Why do we kindle lights on Hanukka? A simple question, almost as simple as the one asked in the Talmud: What is Hanukka? (Shabbat 21b). Surely the sages knew what Hanukka was and how to observe it. Yet somehow they wanted a better answer than was commonly known.
The Books of Maccabees provide the answers concerning Hanukka itself and the connection to lights. In both I and II Maccabees, we are told that when the figures for whom the books are named rededicated the Temple, they lit lights and kindled the lamps of the menorah, a central feature of the sanctuary, celebrating for eight days. So light and fire were always a part of the rededication ceremony, which was then celebrated year after year. The official prayer of Hanukka, “Al Hanissim” (For the Miracles), also mentions that fact: “Then Your children came into Your shrine, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your sanctuary and kindled lights in Your sacred courts.”
But the question, “Why do we kindle lights on Hanukka?” is still relevant because they did many things at that rededication – including carrying a lulav and etrog, since they were celebrating Succot again, the last holiday they had not been able to observe properly. The pattern of Succot also accounts for the eight days and for the full Hallel prayer we recite on Hanukka.
Why single out lights and make them the central mitzva of the holiday, as both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai did (though they disagreed as to how it should be done)? On one level, it might be said that lighting lights specifically at this time of the year, when the daylight hours are diminishing, is a common practice among human beings. The rabbis themselves noticed this when commenting on the holidays that the Romans celebrated at that time. In an insightful midrashic legend, they ascribed this practice to Adam. When he first saw the days getting shorter near the time of the winter solstice, he thought this meant that the light would be eliminated altogether and that this was the death he was incurring because of eating the forbidden fruit. He then fasted for eight days. But when the days began to get longer again, he realized that this was simply the natural way of the world and celebrated for eight days. From then on, every year, he turned that time into a celebration: “He fixed those days for the sake of Heaven, but they [Romans and pagans] appointed them for the sake of idolatry” (Avoda Zara 8a).
Perhaps our Hanukka practice, too, was influenced by these ancient customs, and while Romans and other pagans dedicated it to their gods, we, like Adam, dedicated it to our God, the one God, connecting it specifically to the Temple menorah, itself a symbol of God’s presence.
On another level, then, Hanukka is clearly influenced by the symbolism of light that appears constantly in the Torah and other biblical books. It is not accidental that the Torah begins with God’s proclamation “Let there be light,” even before there is a sun that can generate it.
And when God appears to Moses in the bush, it is in flames, as is Mount Sinai when God appears there to all Israel. Small wonder that the kindling of a menorah nightly in the Temple should be such an important element of the Temple worship, symbolic of the light that comes from God and from God’s Torah. As it is written, “For the commandment is a flame and the Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23).
A midrash (Exodus Raba 36:2) also suggests that just as God gave light to us, we in turn kindle lights before Him. Thus we share God’s power of creation and can make our contribution to bringing light to the world as well. After all, didn’t the prophet say that we were to be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6)? The menorah, which has become the symbol of the State of Israel, is a meaningful symbol. As Zechariah wrote in his magnificent vision of a heavenly menorah, which we read on Shabbat Hanukka, its meaning is: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts” (4:6). Our Hanukka lights are our way of conveying that most powerful message.

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).