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Our rabbis have traditionally assigned Chanukah “minor festival” status in our liturgical year. However, by closely examining a number of Talmudic and halachic statements that address the legal details of the lighting of the menorah, we will find a deeper meaning, one that elevates Chanukah from the narrative accessible to the youngest Jew to one worthy of the most serious study.
Tractate Shabbat teaches that, “It is a mitzvah to place the Chanukah candles outside the door to one’s home, but in times of danger, it is sufficient to place the candles on one’s table [inside].”
On its face, this text is a simple directive for a practical matter – where is the proper place for the menorah to be placed. But those of us who take Rabbi ben Bag Bag’s advice to heart – “Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and gray over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion than it” – know that the simple explanation, the p’shat, is just the beginning of our understanding.
A fundamental teaching of Judaism is, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – every Jew is responsible for the other. Judaism is, first and foremost, a community. No Jew should live isolated from the rest of his community, nor should he be concerned with his own existence and survival. Each Jew is obligated to reach out to his fellow Jews. In this regard, placing our menorot on the outside of our houses symbolizes this essential lesson.
We bring our light to those who are still in the dark; we seek to enlighten those who have not as yet had the opportunity and privilege to be on the inside. By the same token, being responsible for others should not imply irresponsibility to the self. In times of danger, when there is a threat from the outside, we should keep the lights on our own table, surrounded securely by children and family who are willing to share in the light of Judaism.
In the past, Jewish practice was consistent with this Talmudic instruction. But today, in our modern world, it would be possible to travel to a thousand Jewish communities without finding a menorah lit on the outside of one’s house. In the window, yes. But not outside.
In addressing why we have changed our practice, we begin to explore the remez, the deeper meaning, and possibly even seek the sod, the foundational meaning of this “minor” festival.
For thousands of years, the threat to Judaism was clear. Our enemies were on the outside. By kindling the Chanukah lights and placing our menorot on the outside of our homes, we declared victory over these enemies who would seek to threaten our existence as a people.
But the modern threat is much more insidious, and perhaps more dangerous. Our modern world threatens us less with annihilation by violence and force but rather through the seductiveness of assimilation, intermarriage, ignorance and secularization. In our modern world, the lights of Chanukah must not only shine outward but inward, into our homes and souls. We shine a light against the darkness of these internal threats by lighting the menorah in our homes around our own tables.
The menorah must stand as a source of light to maintain and reinforce the stability of our greatest source of strength – the Jewish home.
Halacha teaches that a Jew lacking funds to buy candles for Chanukah or wine to observe the mitzvah of the four cups of wine on Pesach must go out and beg – to literally “stretch out his hand” – in order to fulfill these special mitzvot.
What makes the lighting of the Chanukah lights and the drinking of the four cups so vital?
If one is unable to fulfill the other mitzvot due to circumstances beyond his control but possesses proper and positive intentions, the good and positive intentions suffice. However, for these two mitzvot which call for pirsumei nisa – public display and declaration – intention alone cannot suffice. When a Jew is called on to publicly display and declare his Jewish pride and affirm his Jewish identity, only action will do.
Proper observance of Chanukah calls for commitment to greater action, to more intensive learning, to more generous giving, to more doing and less preaching.
There is an old custom that after reciting the blessing on the Chanukah candles one is to also recite the verse of Vihi Noam – “May the pleasant grace of the Lord our God be upon us: and the work of our hands confirm unto us.”
Why add these words after the brachot?
Unlike the other festivals, which celebrate the miracles and wonders brought about through the grace and mercy of God alone, Chanukah is a celebration of God’s grace and mercy coupled with the courage and bravery of the Hasmoneans.
God did not redeem the Temple by His grace. Rather, God graced the determination of those brave men and woman who actively fought the Hellenist desecration of the Temple and Jewish identity. The fight against assimilation, secularization, and ignorance can never be God’s alone. It is a fight that calls for “the work of our hands.”
When we succeed, as we did on Chanukah, we not only praise God with brachot, but we also extol “the work of our hands.”
But what of the fight when the enemy does not amass an army against us? The Talmud teaches that the proper time for kindling the Chanukah lights is “when the sun begins to set.” The simple reading might see in this the acknowledgement of the time to kindle the lights. However, the remez understanding recognizes that it is precisely when the sun sets, and darkness, fear, and trembling set in, that candles need to be lit.
With the dying sun, we fear eternal darkness will envelop us and never again will we enjoy the rays of light. Science has taught us not to fear for the rising of the next dawn, but how often in contemporary times do the statistics of assimilation, intermarriage and conversion make us fear for the future of our people?
Our Jewish population decreases. Jewish ignorance increases. This is the impending darkness we fear. It is precisely in response to such awesome and dark realities that more and more candles need to be lit. True, the approach of Beit Shamai, who advised that we begin with a big flame of eight candles so that we may burn through the contemporary scene of decay and Hellenism, may not be practical or advisable.
Instead, we follow Beit Hillel and begin with just one small candle. With a single spark. From the one little spark, we work our way up, slowly and surely, to bigger and stronger lights – mosif veholech.
How important are the Chanukah lights? Clearly, the rabbis felt they were very important. Among the laws of Chanukah we also find that “wicks and oils which may not be used on the Shabbat, may be used for Chanukah.” Reb Mendel of Kotzk claimed that neshomot, souls, that may resist even the beauty and sacredness of Shabbat, may be motivated by the observance of Chanukah. Even during Hasmonean days, when many Jews were alienated and removed from the mainstream of Judaism, they were, nevertheless, moved to join the struggle for Jewish independence, sovereignty and pride.
Another law regarding the lighting of the Chanukah menorah gets closer to the sod of Chanukah observance. If a Jew is unable to light or participate in the lighting of the menorah but merely sees a menorah belonging to someone else, he is permitted to recite two of the blessings recited when kindling the lights – She’asa nisim l’avoteinu (Who performed miracles for our forefathers) and Shehecheyanu (the blessing of gratitude for reaching a significant time or season.)
Understanding why one may recite the first blessing upon seeing the Chanukah lights seems self-evident – the flames are our tangible means of publicizing the occurrence of the miracle. But why must one also see the flames in order to recite Shehecheyanu? The fact that another Chanukah is here, and we are alive and well to usher it in, should be sufficient reason to give thanks and recognition to God.
The S’fas Emes explains, however, that merely being alive on the twenty-fifth of Kislev is not enough. One must see the flames and remember and understand what they represent. As Jews we must at least see the Chanukah lights – even if physically lighting them is an impossibility – and acknowledge our gratitude for the triumph of Torah’s light over Greece’s darkness, for Hasmonean commitment over Hellenistic compromise, for spiritual growth over physical gratification.
Even after full independence was attained, our festival remained a commemoration of the miracle of lights, not of political supremacy. The purpose of the Hasmonean uprising was not power, it was light of Torah, mitzvot, learning, vibrant and dynamic Jewish homes, synagogues and schools.
The Hebrew root of “Chanukah” means “dedication.” Another word formed from this root is education. Just as the Hasmoneans rededicated and purified the Temple, every Jewish family can “repurify” its own sanctuary or home by providing a good Jewish education to its members.
Only children who learn primary Jewish sources, who study Jewish history, tradition and heritage and who appreciate their ancestors and identify with their language and customs, can be expected to be dedicated – even if they merely see the lighted menorah.
The Kedushat Levi concludes that the Talmud’s statement regarding the law of Chanukah – hadlakah osah mitzvah (the actual lighting of the fire is the essence of the mitzvah) – has as its ultimate goal to create fire, excitement, enthusiasm and yearning to create light. Jewish education is the spark to sparking that contagious fire. Only light conquers darkness.
It is time we rededicate ourselves to the real purpose of Chanukah. The lights of Chanukah were meant to banish our inner darkness. It is time we emerge from the shadows and illuminate our world. This year, do your share to let the light in.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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