We kindle these lights

The simplest holiday tradition may be the most profound.

Menora (photo credit: Courtesy/Iris Tutnauer)
(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).