Chanukah: Shedding Light on Human Dignity

If you ask someone to cite the top 5 Jewish texts related to poverty, inevitably Moses Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charity will make the list.

This oft-cited 12th Century source opens with a call to “be more careful with the mitzvah of charity than all other positive commandments.”[i] It proceeds to outline 8 levels of charitable giving, the highest of which is offering a poor person a job or a loan and, thereby, enabling him or her to become economically self-sufficient. Throughout, it insists on the unassailable dignity of those living in poverty and simultaneously seeks to bring an end to poverty.

It is, therefore, surprising that Maimonides seems to contradict himself by prioritizing another mitzvah – lighting Chanukah candles – over a poor person’s dignity. In a different section of the very same compendium that contains Eight Levels of Charity, Maimonides declares: “Even if a person has nothing to eat except what he receives from charity, he should pawn or sell his garments and purchase oil and [Chanukah] lamps to light.”[ii]

As a general rule, Jewish tradition does not take parting with a poor person’s coat lightly. The Book of Exodus mandates that someone who took a poor person’s coat as collateral must return it every evening, so that the person has something to wear to keep warm at night.[iii]

This makes Maimonides’ prioritization of Chanukah candles – which, according to Jewish law, must be purely symbolic and cannot be used to fulfill basic needs, such as warmth and light – over the indignity of selling one’s clothes or going into debt even more perplexing.

What, then, might explain this apparent contradiction?

Perhaps, a hint can be found in the only other instance where Maimonides maintains a poor person must undertake extreme measures to fulfill a ritual commandment: the mitzvah of drinking four cups of wine at the Passover Seder.

While Chanukah candles and the four cups of wine mark two very different historical events, they are both celebrations of the miraculous.  They commemorate ancient wonders and remind us that, even in the darkest and most oppressive of times, light and redemption are possible. 

These two rituals also share the fact that they are performed in community, with and/or in the presence of others. Chanukah candles must be lit while there are passersby in the street. The Passover Seder opens with an invitation to celebrate in the company of others – “All who are needy let them come and celebrate the Passover with us.” Ideally, neither of these rituals are to be performed in isolation.

It is possible, then, that Maimonides’ insistence that a poor person literally sell the shirt off his back to light Chanukah candles is his way of expanding the definition of dignity, rather than infringing on it. He seems to be saying that some things – a spark of hope, the sweet taste of freedom, the feeling of connection – are just as important, if not more so, than our physical needs.  Only when we account for these loftier human needs do we truly uphold the dignity of others.

When tackling large and complex issues like extreme poverty, it is tempting to adopt an approach loosely based on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We are inclined to prioritize physiological needs – e.g., food, water, clothing, shelter, etc. – and only afterward address other concerns, such as love, belonging, esteem and self-actualization.

Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in the patterns of philanthropic giving to vulnerable communities in the developing world. When are the most funds raised? After a disaster strikes that strips people of their basic essentials.  It is much harder, however, to raise money for ongoing and perceived higher-order needs, such as quality education, gender equality and strong communal and civic institutions.

But, this Maslow-inspired approach has several pitfalls.

For example, in today’s world, basic needs are so immense and intractable that we run the risk of never getting to other needs. It is estimated that a staggering $22.5 billion is required to meet the basic needs of 90.1 million people that will be affected by humanitarian crises in 2018. This figure does not include the billions more necessary to move us closer this year to meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, a set of targets focused on ending poverty by the year 2030.

Moreover, it is exceptionally difficult to disentangle basic needs from other needs. In an article entitled “Social Networks: What Maslow Misses” (Psychology Today, November 2011), psychologist Pamela Rutledge eloquently argues: “Needs are not hierarchical. Life is messier than that. Needs are, like most other things in nature, an interactive, dynamic system, but they are anchored in our ability to make social connections … Belongingness is the driving force of human behavior, not a third tier activity.”

How can we avoid such philanthropic pitfalls?

First, we can ensure that an expansive understanding of human dignity is integral to how we go about providing for basic needs during disaster relief. (See, for example, Joe Gindi of American Jewish World Service’s beautiful exposition and practical suggestions in “Dignity First: Wisdom on Disaster Response in the Torah and Today.”) Second, we can intensify our support for ongoing international development efforts in addition to disaster relief. (Listen to OLAM’s Global Torah podcast episode “Disaster Relief and Beyond,” which asks: “How can we not only respond to emergencies, but help prevent disasters by fostering resilience?”)

This Chanukah – a holiday that, in contemporary society, has become so closely associated with giving – let us re-evaluate our own giving patterns. Let us draw inspiration from Maimonides’ understanding of human dignity, which insists that celebratory candlelight on a dark winter’s night – with its intrinsic hope, promise and a sense of belonging – is no less important than the shirt on one’s back.

Want to learn more about the field of global Jewish service? Check out the OLAM website and OLAM’s 50 coalition partners for more ways to get involved this holiday season. 


[i] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Charity, 10:1

[ii] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Megillah and Chanukah 4:12

[iii] Exodus 22:25-26

About the Author
Dyonna Ginsburg is the Executive Director of OLAM, a collaborative venture and joint platform for promoting global Jewish service. Prior to OLAM, Dyonna served as Director of Education and Service Learning at The Jewish Agency; Executive Director of Bema'aglei Tzedek, an Israeli social change NGO; and co-founder of Siach, a global network of Jewish social justice and environmental professionals. A frequent lecturer, she was named "one of Israel's 50 most inspiring women" by Nashim magazine in 2015.
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