Chanukah has always been great fun at my house. We light candles, sing as many Chanukah songs as we can think of, dance around the room, have dreidel wars and eat ‘ponchkas’ (as my Yiddish speaking grandchildren insist on calling ‘sufganiyot’) or latkes. For many years we’ve seemed to run an open house for the whole of Chanukah — people known to us and many unknown involved in cooking, eating, lighting… Because everything is informal, Chanukah has been an easy time for building an inclusive community of people entranced and inspired by the light. Among our guests there are frequently people with intellectual disabilities, psycho-social disabilities or people using mobility aids. There are new babies and alter kakas — some religious and others religiously secular.
Coming from a traditional orthodox background, the rules about the lighting of candles have been unproblematic. We recall the children’s song:
You put them in starting from the right,
you add one more on every night;
but don’t forget when you start to light,
you do it from the left to right.
Adding one candle a night, until on 8th night when we have 8 candles plus the shamash, is simply de rigueur. We light as many chanukiot as there are people – until we simply run out of room and people share the lighting with each other. If a person can’t light on their own – whether to do with fragility, age or disability – someone simply includes them in lighting by holding their hand, or touching their shoulder or simply by agreeing that they are lighting together.
But it turns out there is more to the fact that we begin lighting one candle for first night and add another each night. I had not known until recently that in adopting this custom we are following Beit Hillel — and that there was not always just one way of lighting Chanukah candles. Hillel had many disputes with his friend Shammai, and their respective followers did as their leader declaimed. Shammai argued that we should begin with a full chanukiah, lighting one less candle each night.
According to Shammai, one begins with the “days remaining;” that is, with the “maximum potential” of the commandment. This makes sense as we are celebrating a little jug of oil that’s flame diminished with every day until the last – when further purifying oil could be brought to the Temple. Shammai’s opinion has been explained by bulls at the Temple and various other mathematical calculations. The details of his disagreement with Hillel on this is, for our purposes, less important than the very fact of the dispute. For this poses a challenge to reflect on the meaning of the tradition we follow.
The argument that we are gradually bringing more light in the world is persuasive. But further analysis can give us a quite different understanding. Candles and light are such deeply ingrained aspects of Judaism that we cannot imagine a world without them. We bring in every festival with candles and divide the holy from the profane at Havdalah. Leonard Cohen wrote of the “1 million candles burning for the help that never came”; at Yad Vashem candles are lit for the 6 million murdered Jews; we light Yarzeit candles for our departed loved ones; and candles are lit at Bar- & Bat mitzvahs to represent important people in the life of the new adults. But the joy of the light is never more profound than the light of Chanukah candles.
Taking Hillel’s ideas of each candle adding value to the light in the world, we can also think of Chanukah candles as a way of building from an individual to an inclusive community. The candles could represent everything we already believe them to represent, but I’d like to add a way of the lights bringing us full circle to an inclusive community.
1st night: a candle for oneself
2nd night: a candle for one’s parents
3rd night: a candle for one’s partner
4th night: a candle for one’s children
5th night: a candle for one’s extended family
6th night: a candle for one’s friends
7th night: a candle for one’s facebook friends
8th night: a candle for the ‘other’ –
… someone who isn’t currently in your network but should be considered as part of your community and should be included in every aspect of the community. This provides you with the opportunity to reflect on who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ and why; gives you an excuse to reach out; and allows you to fulfil the mitzvah of inviting others to your home.
So this Chanukah, bring light to your heart, extend it to those in your circle and make a leap into the unknown by inviting someone who has no family, or has no money for celebration, or is simply lonely. But go further and invite people with disabilities in your community, who never quite make it on to the invitation list. You might be surprised and find that these are people who add value to your life, and leave you asking yourself why it has been so long, and why you have found it so difficult and confronting to open your door in the past.