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Frederick L. Klein

Lighting the Candles Beyond Eight Days

A reflection for the eighth day of Hanukkah
Image courtesy of Pixabay (https://pixabay.com/photos/hanukah-burning-candles-chanukah-6823675/)

If we look at the Jewish people throughout time, we have been a light to one another and to the world. Jews have always been taught to believe in the redemption of the world, to work for that better world, and to believe against any empirical evidence that kindness and justice will ultimately prevail. We tenaciously hold on to the notion that each person was created in the image of God even if there are so many in this world who seem to deny this claim.

We are living through dark times, and not only because we as a people suffer. We are being accused collectively of callousness and being sources of darkness. People accuse us of lacking compassion and engaging in disproportionate violence, even if in real terms the very integrity of the borders of the Jewish State are at stake. If we are to be honest, it can feel as if the only noble response from us would be to turn the other cheek and die. Even after more than seventy-five years following the Holocaust, many do not feel completely comfortable with a Jewish people that has claimed back history for itself. Some have not fully accepted that the Jewish people- while professing spiritual values- are a real people among the family of nations. It can feel that the only legitimate role for the Jew is to play martyr in this world; this failure of those to grapple with the physical and historic reality of our people is a modern form of antisemitism, denying us the very things any nations ask for themselves.

Let’s be frank. Chanukah is a story about war, about a violent military rebellion against the Assyrian Greeks caused by Greek religious persecution. While for most of Jewish history, the story of Chanukah was a story about the victory of the spiritual over the physical, that was in part because of the fact that Jews were denied any power at all. To be frank, why would Jews living in the exile care about an ancient rebellion that ended with Jewish independence. It made more sense to talk about why they fought, and that was to assert the uniqueness of Judaism. However, the modern reality of the State has re-centered the meaning of this holiday, putting the military victory front and center again. For many, including some Jews, this militaristic dimension is deeply unnerving. In Israel, it is absolutely clear in a way that is not outside of Israel, that Hanukkah teaches that Jews must not only garb the priestly garments and light the menorah in the Temple, but those same Jews must take the sword and the shield. The spiritual and the physical, spiritual power and physical power, can and sometimes are at odds, but the solution is not to reject the latter in preference of the former.

Nonetheless, unlike Yom Haatzmaut or Yom HaZikaron, Hanukkah even today in Israel is still not celebrated through new military exercises or parades. Kids do not dress up as Judah Maccabee, and unlike the story of Purim we do not celebrate the downfall of our enemies. On the contrary, the actual celebrations remain rather nonmilitaristic. We share a legend of the oil on the Temple menorah lasting eight days, as story which seems almost as a footnote to the main story. We talk of the forces of light over the forces of darkness, that the righteous were delivered from the wicked, the pure from the impure. Why remember the event of a military victory- a real historical event- with something so innocuous? To answer this question, let us briefly examine the mitzvah of lighting candles, and see how this mitzvah might inform us in our present predicament.

Regarding the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles the Talmud records a very strange dispute. There are two elements of the commandment of lighting the Chanukah menorah. First there is the technical obligation to physically light the candles, and then there is the act of lighting the candles in such a way that others can see. This is what the Talmud calls hanacha, ‘placing’ the menorah. Ideally, the candles should be placed at eye level outdoors, opposite the mezuzah, and should be lit at a time when people are walking in the streets in the early evening.[1] What is the conceptual difference between ‘lighting’ and ‘placing’?

Because candles were lit every night, simply lighting candles may not constitute a ritual act. Indeed, people thousands of years ago also needed physical light at night, and menorahs were lit every night. Only the context and timing of candles define lighting Chanukah candles as a ritual act as such. We allude to this when we light the candles; we are instructed to say while lighting the candles the recitation HaNerot Halalu, in which we state explicitly the candles should not be used for physical light but they are ultimately symbolic. The goal is to engage in pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracle, thereby praising God.[2]  As such, the real mitzvah of the night is to publicize the miracles through the lighting of candles.  In this sense, the actual lighting of candles might only be instrumental to the real purpose, which is praising God for the miracle. The second blessing, in  which we say, sheasah Nissim (God who did miracles for our ancestors), seems to allude to this second dimension, the dimension of praising God for the miracles (See E.g. Tosafot Sukkah 46a).  In other words,  through reflecting upon the candles, we are reminded of our past. We are filled with gratitude, and praise God for the miracles both then and even today.

Given this, a technical halakhic question can arise. Can one fulfill the mitzvah by achieving only one dimension of this mitzvah, either lighting without placing it in its proper place, or placing a lit menorah in its proper context? [3]  For example, the Talmud asks the following question. Is the lighting of the Chanukah menorah the mitzvah or is the placing of the Chanukah candles in the proper place the mitzvah?   This would have practical halakhic ramifications. To give an example, can one light the candles in one place and then move them elsewhere? The Talmud concludes ultimately no, as one viewing the moving of the flames might assume they were using those flames for merely physical light initially.

How might this technical debate inform our present situation. These two elements of the mitzvah- the placing outside and the lighting itself- represent two responses, two ways in which we as Jews think about our role in the world. The first is outward-looking, publicizing the miracle’.  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik has argued that this ‘publicizing of the miracle’ is not only directed to Jews, but everyone. Unlike every military victory, which all people understand, the battle of the Hasmonean against the Assyrian Greeks was a fight for the spiritual uniqueness of the Jewish people.  While at first glance this military campaign was like any other, the message to later generations and the world was that this victory was inspired from above.[4]  The message to the world is that we do not fight for power- although we needs security- but we ultimately fight on all levels to preserve our spiritual orientations and contributions to the world. Our people are to be a ‘light unto the nations’ through teaching that there is more to the world than the world of physical power.

Rabbi Norman Lamm z”l, the late President of Yeshiva University, in a prescient essay following the ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution of the United Nations in 1975 wrote the following:

It is our major mission as Jews to light candles for the entire world. [We light the Chanukah candles facing outward.] But if the outside, the entire world, has turned antisemitic and has institutionalized its Jewish hatred in an organization[5] and declared a danger for the Jews to hold aloft his Chanukah menorah, then even if it is dark outside, we shall make it light and warm inside….

If on the outside we are plagued by enemies who bear us hatred, let us on the inside increase our mutual love, our love and concern for each other.  …

If on the outside hypocrisy prevails in the world, then on the inside let us do the reverse: let us study and practice Torah, the repository of truth and decency.

There are times in human history, and sadly this may be one of them, when our light is eclipsed by waves of hypocrisy and hatred, and our community becomes the object of all the cultural wars of the moment. Natural actions any country would take to protect their population are suddenly denied to us. While we should be upset about the uptick of antisemitism, Rabbi Lamm’s advice is not to retreat in fear or wallow in guilt. Rather it is to double down on our light, which reflects the second dimension of the commandment, the commandment to light candles.

We end where we began. It is instructive to consider that the rabbis decide to represent the victory of the Hasmoneans through a curious story of priests lighting the oil in the Temple, as if to redirect our attention away from the battle.  In some ways, it makes sense, because for the majority of Jewish history until modern times, an ancient military victory is simply not instructive for powerless communities scattered throughout the globe.

However, the redirection of our attention is more fundamental, as it reflects the key to not only Jewish survival, but the purpose for Jewish survival. The Hasmonean priests were victorious not simply because they overcame the Greeks, but because they were committed to purifying the Temple and lighting the menorah. Like their great ancestor Aaron, who was enlisted to light the menorah daily, the Hasmoneans by their lighting signaled many years later that they were faithful to their original role. The miracle indicates that just as the original priests engaged in eight days of dedication of the tabernacle which culminated in a miracle of fire (Lev. chapters 7-8), the Hasmonean dedication was just as monumental and important. Aaron and his sons, and now the Hasmoneans thousands of years later, continue their priestly role- placing holiness and Godliness in the center of the life of the people.[6]  Just as the tabernacle was built and dedicated after the sin of the Golden Calf, the Temple in Jerusalem was purified from the idols of Zeus. Just as Moses needed to wage a battle for the spiritual integrity of the Jewish people following the Golden Calf, at the core the Hasmoneans were waging a war not for political independence per se, but to preserve the unique light of the Jewish people.

There is no Temple any longer, but on the eight nights of Chanukah we light candles to remind us of the candle lighting so many years ago. In essence, each of our homes become a Temple and each of us assume the roles of the priests. We are actually imitating the actions of the Hasmoneans. In symbolic form, we imprint upon ourselves and our families that we too continue the lighting of the menorah begun with Aaron and continuing with the Hasmoneans. When we light the candles in our homes we testify to all around us that we are faithful to the vision, that we continue to light the flames even without the Temple. Indeed, just as the children of Aaron were to be the priests for the Jewish people, we announce to the world that we continue to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ to the world, bringing the Divine light to all the corners of the world. Thus, the very act of lighting itself, independent of whether it is recognized by others at any given moment of history, reminds us of who we are as a people. We are lamplighters bringing light into the world.

Finally, the light we light is not simply to commemorate some miracle of the past. It is a statement of faith, that the power of the spirit will defeat our greatest enemies, and we too will ultimately experience the salvation experienced by our ancestors long ago. Lighting candles in the darkest of times is a clarion call of hope, as we recognize that all of Jewish history is somewhat miraculous. We access the memories of the past to give us perspective on the present, and hope moving into the future. As we light our last candles, let the brightness of the lights linger, lasting into the coming year, and let us be faithful to our mission. Let our candles of light last more than eight days.

Chag Urim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom

[1] Today most light in the window, but if it is dangerous, one may light inside. (See Rashi B.T. Shabbat 21b, s.v. sakkanah and Tosafot s.v. u-vesha’at).

[2] See Mesechet Sofrim 20:6 in which the recitation HaNerot Halalu is recited directly after blessing of the candles and subsequent lighting, and before the blessing sheasah Nissim, making explicit that the act is of symbolic nature.

[3] To be clear, the Talmud does have indications that one might make a blessing of sheasah Nissim on someone else’s candles if they see them, therefore splitting lighting from pirsumei nisa completely.  (However, the Shulchan Aruch bases its ruling on Rashi and Rashba that the case of the Talmud is a case where one sees a lit menorah and will not be able to light later at home.)

[4] See the instructive comments of R. Alec Goldstein here: Philosophical Implications of Pirsumei Nissa – Torah Musings

[5] He is alluding to the U.N.

[6] See the very instructive comments of Nachmanides, Number 8:2 who implies that the festival of Chanukah is alluded to in the Torah.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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