Oils that produce an unstable flame may not be used for Shabbat candles because Shabbat candles must be stable and pleasant. An unstable flame that rises and dips, a flame that is constantly on the verge of extinction causes anxiety and Shabbat candles are meant to be peaceful and pleasing.
However, all types of oil may be used for Chanukah candles. This is because Chanukah candles are not intended for personal use. (In fact, we light an additional (shamash) candle to ensure that if we mistakenly used some light from the Chanukah candles, we could claim that we used the shamash candle.) Since it is not designed to produce a usable light, it doesn’t matter whether the flame is stable and pleasing.
If you think about it though, this doesn’t seem right. One may not make personal use of the Chanukah candles because they are designated for the Mitzvah, not for personal use. So, if Shabbat candles which are designated for personal use must be pleasing and stable, Chanukah candles, which are designated for a holy purpose, should a fortiori be pleasing and stable. Don’t we always seek to beautify our Mitzvot? Don’t we buy the nicest Etrog and decorate and beautify our Sukkah? Why is Chanukah different?
The answer reveals the mystery of Chanukah and explains many curiosities about this enigmatic holiday. Chanukah is a holiday for all Jews though the war was fought by only a handful of Jews. In fact, many Jews were Hellenised and sided with the Greeks in this war, yet Chanukah is a festival for them too. This is unlike Shabbat which was embraced by the entire nation at Sinai and there were no outsiders.
On Chanukah, we light candles at the door or window to ensure that it is visible to the outside. This is unlike Shabbat, when we light candles in the home and its purpose is to illuminate the inside.
Chanukah candles are only kindled after night falls and it is dark outside. This is unlike Shabbat candles, which must be kindled before sunset while it is still light.
Why all these differences between the Chanukah candles and the Shabbat candles?
Shabbat is an indoor event for insiders—Jews who want to celebrate it. We don’t take our celebrations to the street; we invite people inside. Chanukah is about uplifting people who are otherwise not interested in Chanukah’s light. The people on the outside, the people who walk in the dark, these are the people that we seek to uplift with our Chanukah lights.
Chanukah is about bringing the message of hope, endurance, and timeless inspiration even to Jews who believe that religion is an archaic relic that is way past its prime. People who believe that in the modern scientific world we have outgrown the opium for the masses that is religion. These are the modern-day Hellenists that we seek to reach, uplift, inspire, and draw in through the Chanukah lights.
This explains why all oils and all types of flames, even the unstable flame, are permissible on Chanukah. To celebrate Shabbat, you need to have an appreciation of Judaism. The flame of your soul needs to shine steady and stable. Chanukah, however, speaks to all Jews even the unstable flame whose soul flares up on occasion with excitement and passion, and otherwise banks to near extinction.
Chanukah is not just for the Jew who is already on the inside. Chanukah is also for the Jew who is still on the proverbial outside. The message to this Jew is that through the Chanukah lights even an unstable flame can withstand the onslaught and encroachment of darkness.
In this hemisphere, Chanukah is celebrated in the winter when the days are short and the nights are long. It is a time of spiritual darkness and wintry cold. Yet, we kindle our light and proclaim that it isn’t intimidated by the dark. It continues to glow, it continues to dance, even against the darkness of the night.
Uplifting the Soul
In fact, it doesn’t need to shine steady and stable. It can dance through the night. Oils that produce dancing flames, flames that leap high and bank low, are also kosher. They aren’t steady. They grow hot and cold, but when they are hot, they leap. They jump and dance with fervor and joy because when you discover your soul amid darkness, your excitement is palpable and intense. This is the power of the Jew who is drawn close. The Jew who finds the beautiful glow of the soul amid the darkness of night.
The Hebrew word for soul is nefesh. This is an acronym for the three words, ner, petilah, shemen. A candle, a wick, and oil. Both the Shabbat and the Chanukah candles are comprised of ner, petilah, and shemen; both represent the nefesh—our soul. The difference between them is this. The Shabbat candles speak only to the lofty stable souls. The Chanukah candles speak to all souls.
Just like there are souls in spiritual darkness, so are there souls in emotional darkness—broken spirits who have seen better days. For example, people who feel lonely on Chanukah because they remember being surrounded by family and now, they are alone. Or people who have succumbed to alcohol, drugs, or their addiction of choice. Or those who were beaten into hopelessness by harsh circumstances and even harsher people. They have given up on themselves, their flames have banked low, and they are near extinction.
But they are still alive, and the Chanukah message is that where there is life, there is hope. One lone candle banking low in the cold dark night can suddenly leap high, spread light, and whirl with festive joy. The Chanukah candles proclaim merrily that there is hope for us all. We are not alone. We are a people forever together. So, put down the bottle and kindle your flame. Together, we are aglow.
The Great Miracle
This helps to explain yet another Chanukah mystery. We make a big deal out of one jar of oil lasting for eight days and nights. But for G-d this isn’t such a great miracle. The Talmud tells us that one week, when Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa couldn’t afford oil for Shabbat candles, he told his family to use vinegar instead. His family put a wick into vinegar and it lit. If Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa could pull off such a miracle without much fanfare, why are we so amazed that G-d could do it too?
The answer is that we aren’t celebrating the fact that G-d performed a miracle. We knew that G-d could pull it off and that He does so routinely for great people. We celebrate because G-d performed a miracle for ordinary and even broken people. Here was a Hellenist, there a broken soul, there a lonely person, there an unstable flame, and yet G-d performed a great miracle for them all. Not just for the holy Jew, but also for the unholy Jew, the unsteady flame. That is why we celebrate.
G-d doesn’t perform miracles for the underserving. Yet, G-d performed this miracle for the unstable flame. Why? Here we come to the truest mystery of Chanukah. On Chanukah, G-d turned the unstable flame into a Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa. He transformed ordinary and even broken people into great people. Making a single jar burn for eight days is no great miracle, but turning a broken person into someone who is deserving of a miracle, is a great miracle. On Chanukah, all people became deserving. G-d made space for us all and left no one out. The unstable flame found a home in the Menorah.
This is the message of Chanukah. It is one of unity, inclusivity, light, and love. Let’s share that message.