In plain language: Points of light

Here are eight “points of light” that you may use to “spark” a discussion each night, in the glow of your hanukkia.

First night of Hannuka in Jerusalem (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
First night of Hannuka in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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 denied.
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 the festival.
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.
So, 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,” education.
• 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 idea.
• 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.
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 fear.
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 that.
• 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 courage.
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.
My wife 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; [email protected];[email protected];