Lighting candles is certainly a beautiful and inspiring act to do. We bring in and exit Shabbat and every major Holiday with candles. There is so much warmth and light that a little flame can provide. But it is deeper than this. There is a well-known verse in the Book of Proverbs “Ner Hashem Nishmat Adam,” which means “The candle of God is the soul of Man.” What does this mean? The analogy is comparing Man to a candle. A candle as we know has two components; namely the candle which holds the wick, and the flame itself. Each person as we know is comprised of both a body and a soul. The body is the physical part of us, like the candle, and the soul which is the flame. The body serves to house the soul, much like the candle serves to house the flame. The verse is saying that God has implanted into each one of us a Candle, that is, a part inside each of us to hold the Divine Essence itself. But we need to find that candle and ignite the spark, by doing deeds to bring Godliness into the world. By bringing Godliness into the world, we are in reality using the Candle God has given us, using the Soul for its true purpose.
So what does this have to do with Chanukah? With a deeper understanding of the Chanukah story, we can understand very well the connection. What was taking place at the time of the Chanukah story wasn’t only about a small group of Jews battling the mighty Greek Empire. It was much more than that, it was an ideological battle of monumental importance. The Greeks as many of us know represent “Beauty” and “Wisdom,” but only beauty and wisdom as it relates to the physical world. The Greeks were the largest culture on the world stage to celebrate worship of the body. The Body was the Greek Temple. The strong physique was the symbol of true power, which was often personified in the Gladiator. Wisdom was used primarily to further the advance of the body such as building the great coliseums for further entertainment. The Jewish People were the very antithesis of this philosophy.. The Jew represents a worship not of the body, but of the soul, the body is just the shell, or vessel to contain the Divine Light that is the Human Soul. This is the reason that the Greeks were persecuting Jewish worship so strongly, it diametrically opposed everything they stood for and believed in. In fact, the three Mitzvot that the Greeks banned were the Sabbath, Circumcision, and Sanctifying the New Moon each month. Why specifically these three? Perhaps because all three of these were ways to elevate physicality to a higher place. The Sabbath is a day of rest, but mainly a spiritual rest, a day of man relinquishing his mastery over nature. The specific Sabbath laws are all designed to allow us an opportunity to remember and reflect on God’s sovereignty over us, of our Higher Purpose. When we sanctify the New Moon, we are saying that God has given us the ability to sanctify time; that time is precious, and only man has the opportunity each month for renewal. And finally, circumcision, when we make an indelible mark on our own bodies, by saying that our own bodies can be a vessel to create holiness in the world. So the battle with the Greeks wasn’t just over sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Temple, it was an ideological battle about purpose and meaning. This is why the holiday surrounds the ritual of lighting a candle, for the candle is all what the Jew represents, and displays our triumph over Greek philosophy, indeed a triumph of the soul. It is for this reason that so much emphasis is placed on the miracle of the oil burning even though many would argue that the greater miracle was the military victory of a small group of Maccabees being able to drive the mighty Greek Empire out of Jerusalem. It is because the candles and what it represents is the real underlying miracle of the Chanukah story.
It is by therefore no coincidence that so much of the Jewish story as well as Jewish ritual is surrounded by fire. The Jewish People began when Abraham offered a sacrificial lamb to God in his son Isaac’s stead, a sacrifice made through fire. It is from a burning bush the God first spoke to Moses. The fire was a bush that was burning, but was not being consumed, hinting to the spiritual nature that fire has. The Torah was given at Mount Sinai amidst fire in the greatest Divine Revelation man has ever seen. Indeed the Torah is even compared to fire as it is written in the verse “Behold these words are like fire, says God.” And as we mentioned, each week we bring the Sabbath in with fire when we light Sabbath candles and the Sabbath leaves when the fire of the Havdalah candle is extinguished.
According to Jewish Law, one should not use the light of the Chanukah candle for any other purpose. For example, one should not use the lit Chanukah candles as light to read next to it. The only use we can have for the light is to stare at the light itself! Once again, we see the deeper meaning of the light, as we discussed above. If the Chanukah light was just there as mere commemoration, then it would not make much difference what we use the light for, once it is lit. But if we understand that the light serves a Higher Purpose, to awaken the spirit and soul within us, to remind us of the spiritual nature of light, then using that light for any profane purpose diminishes the essence of what the candles are. Furthermore, one should not, according to Jewish Law, be involved in work related activities while the candles are burning. Again, we see this theme of the holiness of these lights. The candles burning is a very sacred time and anything to diminish that is diminishing the Holiday itself.
One of the most well-known laws is that the ideal oil which should be used for the Mitzvah is olive oil, for that is what was used in the Temple at the time of the Chanukah story. But I believe it goes much deeper than that. It is a well-established fact that olive oil is the purest form of oil, the highest quality. At the time of the Chanukah story, the Jews were only able to find one small jug of oil which still was untouched and had the seal of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook says that this jug of olive oil symbolizes the purity contained deep within every Jew which cannot be broken and still has the seal on it, untarnished by the false ideologies and influences. On Chanukah we are symbolically finding that little jug within each of us, and igniting it, bringing it back to life.
It is interesting to note that the word Shemona which means “eight” has the same root letters as the word Neshama, which means “soul.” The number eight, that is, the number of the nights of Chanukah, is known in Judaism to transcend nature, just as the soul transcends the body. This is why a boy is circumcised on the eight day, for it symbolizes that the covenant of the Jewish People for which he joins transcends nature. And so, it is with the story of Chanukah and all it represents, is the story of the transcendence of the Jewish People. Even more compelling is that the Hebrew word for oil is Shemen, which also contains the root letters for Neshama. This is as Rabbi Kook explained above, that the purest form of oil, that is olive oil, represents the Jewish soul. It is by no coincidence that according to our tradition, Jewish Kings were anointed with oil, as part of the inauguration process, for it is to help instill with them a sense of purity and sincerity when they embark on the great task of ruling over Israel.
This Chanukah let us remember the messages of these great lights, and let us indeed use these lights to shatter the darkness in ourselves and in the world.
The above is an excerpt from the Chanukah chapter in Yisroel’s new book, For Every Season: Illuminating Insights into the Jewish Holidays. The book is available on Amazon.