Chanukah is often associated with being a family holiday. In fact, upon further reflection, the connection between Chanukah and the Jewish home is firmly embedded in the nature of the Chag as commanded by Chazal. The Gemara Shabbat 21b introduces the mitzvah of neirot Chanukah as “ner ish u’beiso”, “a candle for person and home”. The phraseology of the gemara is strange- what does it mean that the mitzvah is for “the home”? Aren’t mitzvot commanded to people?
Perhaps we can better understand this halachic phenomenon through a better understanding of the story of Chanukah. Many commentaries point out that in contrast to Purim, the battle of Chanukah wasn’t about the physical survival of the Jewish Nation, but rather its spiritual survival. The Greeks had so pervaded the Jewish community that Hellenization and assimilation into Greek society was rampant, even amongst the leaders of the Jewish community- to the point where the Jewish community was in danger of disappearing.
In commemorating the victory over the Greeks and the miracle/s that ensued, perhaps Chazal wanted to convey the following crucial message within the central mitzva of Chanuka: As we celebrate the festival that most clearly speaks of our ongoing battle against assimilation, we must realize that our greatest weapon against it is the Jewish home. The home and family unit is what provides the warmth and fire of Judaism. When the Jewish home is strong, we are best equipped to fight the effect of dangerous outside influences on our Jewish identity. Chazal therefore specifically rooted the mitzvah within each home- to remind us that it’s through the warmth and love of the home we can best perpetuate the ultimate message of Chanukah.
This message of the Chanukah candles can also be taken one step further if we consider an important detail within the mitzvah. In describing where to place the Chanukah candles, the Gemara commands the candles to ideally be placed “outside by the entrance to the home”. Although alternate locations are also given if the initial location isn’t practical- it’s clear from the gemara and poskim that the most ideal place for the Chanukah candles is the entrance to the home, on the left side opposite the Mezuzah.
This specific commandment also requires further clarification. We perform many mitzvot in our home over the course of a week, and yet there’s no mandate for any other mitzvah to be done at the entrance to the house, opposite the Mezuzah. Why does such a directive exist specifically by the Chanukah candles?
Perhaps we can better understand the tremendous wisdom of Chazal by considering the unique role that the doorway plays within our home. The doorway represents the exit and entry point from our home into the outside world. It’s the point of both connection, and demarcation, between our private home and the public domain. This point of entry/exit is critical as we consider two important questions- what are the things would we like to bring from the outside into our home, and what aspects of our home should we share with the world? By placing both the mezuzah and the Chanukah candles at our doorway, we ensure that these mitzvot become the prisms though which we consider and make these crucial decisions.
Each day as we kiss the mezuzah and exit our home, we are reminded of our obligation to share the values and beauty of our home with those around us. And as we kiss the mezuzah upon entering our home, we remind ourselves that we are now entering our sacred space and must make sure to only bring in that which is appropriate for this makom kadosh.
Once a year, this message is heightened as we add the Chanukah candles to our doorway. These candles enable us to perform the Mitzva to publicize the Chanuka miracles to all that pass by; thereby sharing the light and beauty of our homes with the outside world. In addition, these candles serve as a reminder of the spiritual dangers the Jewish community faced during Chanukah, and of the strength of the family unit that saved us. It was the bravery of those families who fought Hellenism and assimilation and said “עד כאן”- those things are for the street, but they don’t belong in my home, my makom kadosh- that ultimately allowed the Jewish people to persevere.
Today we’re still fighting a war for Jewish survival. The numbers of Jews assimilating all over the world continue to skyrocket. Even within the frum communities, the impact of the outside culture and society on our values and religious observance continues to grow. There has been much discussion over the past few months about Modern Orthodoxy- what it means, what it represents, and how to confront some of its challenges and dangers. One of the unique characteristics of Modern Orthodoxy is our conscious involvement in the world around us. This involvement in, and appreciation of, the world and culture around us enriches our lives and enables us to impact the world in ways that no other community can.
Yet the story of Chanukah reminds us of the dangers that are fraught with that involvement in the world. When we spend so much of our time interacting with society around us, we may not realize the subtle impact it can have on our Jewish identity and our most sacred spaces. Our ability to strike the proper balance is one of the most important, and difficult, challenges that we face today.
Thankfully, through the Chanukah candles, Chazal taught us the best way to create this balance- by differentiating between our homes and the outside world, and being conscious of the impact that one has on the other. While there is much that we in our homes can learn from society, where do we draw the line? What aspects of the culture around us are in sync with our Jewish values and traditions, and what aspects are at odds with it? At what point must we also say עד כאן? What can we do to protect our homes from those outside influences that we believe endanger the sanctity of our home?
The answers to these questions are not simple- and require a tremendous amount of thought, nuance, and reflection. For each of us, the specific answers to these questions may differ as we each work to strike this balance. Though the questions may be difficult and uncomfortable- as Jews who strive for continued spiritual growth, and particularly as parents of the next generation, we cannot afford not to ask these questions. The holiday of Chanukah is a perfect time for us to do so.