Many American Jews associate blue and white with Chanukah. Blue and white candles are found in many American menorahs and even the wrapping paper on Chanukah presents typically appears in blue and white combinations. This is a relatively new phenomenon, which some suggest originated in a Hallmark design laboratory. Seeking to find Jewish colours to create a niche for our festival in the midst of the general festive season, the design team adopted the colours of the nascent State of Israel. In popular thought, the battle of the ancient Judeans for independence from Syrian-Greek imperialism corresponded nicely with the battle of the modern Jewish people for independence and sovereignty.
Nevertheless, multi-coloured Chanukah candles still decorate many American menorahs, along with most menorahs across the globe. Certainly, the Menorah in the Holy Temple didn’t have multi-coloured candles. What is the origin of this ubiquitous custom?
אָמַר רַב חִסְדָּא גִּידּוּד חֲמִשָּׁה וּמְחִיצָה חֲמִשָּׁה — אֵין מִצְטָרְפִין עַד שֶׁיְּהֵא אוֹ כּוּלּוֹ בְּגִידּוּד אוֹ כּוּלּוֹ בִּמְחִיצָה
Rav Chisda said: An embankment of five handbreadths and an additional fence of five handbreadths do not join together to form a partition of ten handbreadths (the minimum height for a partition to enclose a private domain). It is regarded as a partition of ten handbreadths only if the barrier is composed entirely of the embankment or if it is composed entirely of a fence.
The Shaar Ephraim (C17 Moravia) was asked whether a menorah may consist of a combination of wax candles and oil lights. Based on our Gemara, he rules that the lights must be consistent. Either all must be wax or all must be oil.
Rabbi Ephraim then adds a further element complicating the mixing of light sources on Chanukah. The objective of the Chanukah mitzvah is pirsumei nissa – publicising the miracle. If one were to walk past a table hosting a motley crew of oil lights and candles, they wouldn’t recognise it as representing anything coherent. In order to ensure the clarity of the purpose of the mitzvah, the lights must match up.
As a result of this concern, the lights (excepting the shamash) must be on the same level. Ideally, they should also be in a straight line. Thus, it will be clear to all onlookers that the lights have been kindled specifically to remember the mitzvah of Chanukah.
Whilst halacha calls for the homogeneity of the material and positioning of the lights, this concept may be the origin of the tradition of using multi-coloured Chanukah candles. As long as the candles don’t appear to have been placed randomly, the menorah is kosher. One way then to enhance the excitement of the lights is to use the same wax material, but have some fun with the colour scheme. Any onlooker instantly recognises the multi-coloured candles as representing the festival. Rather than missing the point, the array of colours enhances the mitzvah!
That’s really the challenge and mission we’re tasked with as we recall the Chanukah story. The Hashmonaim revolted against Hellenizing trends amongst the Jewish people. Some present the story as a triumph of religious extremism over popular culture.
But the fact that a prominent member of the Hashmonaim, Yochanan the High Priest, would eventually become a Sadducee suggests a far more nuanced picture. Heretical ideas were not eradicated from our midst. Clearly, the Jews did not reject Greek thought in its entirety. Rather, they rejected the adoption of Greek ideology at the expense of Torah and tradition.
Chanukah is about striking the right balance between adopting the beautiful and progressive elements of the culture around us, whilst never compromising on the eternal guiding principles of a Torah way of life. That’s not an easy mission. But that’s why God placed us here on Earth. To master the tightrope of our unwavering commitment to Heaven and engagement with the world around us. The colourful Chanukah candles captures that idea perfectly: a colourful array, and yet all consisting of the same materials.
This week, we mourn the passing of former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks. Rabbi Sacks embodied this ideal of the multi-coloured Chanukah candles. He was never afraid to embrace the beauty of the culture around whilst maintaining his commitment to the eternal ideals of Torah. Indeed, to borrow one of Rabbi Sacks’ expressions, it was a ‘great partnership.’
What made Rabbi Sacks such an inspiring leader was the fact that as much as he embraced the world around him and integrated it into his worldview, his primary objective was to publicise the miracle of Jewish thought and impact the culture and values of the world around him. Rabbi Sacks understood that the purpose of the candles is to burn bright and spread light.
May his teachings continue to impact the world for generations to come and may each and every one of us strike the right balance between the culture around us and the eternal light of Torah!