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.