Five perspectives on Chanukah that will change the way you see the Festival of Light.
Table for Five: Chanukah Edition
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Throughout the eight days of Hanukkah, these lights are sacred and we are not permitted to make any other use of them except to look at them… -Chanukah Liturgy
Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO SANE; Counselor; Author, Reaching New Heights
Oil represents chochmah, the wisdom of our G-dly soul; a wick represents the body, the strength of the animal soul. The Menorah is the vessel, created by our prayers, that contains both so they can work together. The absorption of the oil into a wick represents bitul, the level of self-sacrifice that allows us to implement our wisdom through action, by performing the physical mitzvos that cause our neshamah to shine brightly. Our mitzvos are absorbed into our body like oil into a wick, and then “burn away” our negative animalistic character traits while our holy deeds are elevated to Hashem like smoke ascending heavenward.
The Zohar asks, why does King Solomon tell us “The wise man’s eyes are in his head,” (Ecclesiastes 2:14)? Where else would eyes be? The Alter Rebbe explains the deeper message: A wise man constantly uses his eyes and his head, contemplating every step, to see if it will bring him closer to producing the oil that will allow the Shechinah to rest upon him. If not, he desists from it. We pray meditatively so that our knowledge can be brought into practical use and our light, and the light of the Shechinah, can shine. The lights of the Menorah shine with oil for the Shechinah. Only the Shechinah can utilize them. We cannot use them for ourselves or our own ego, to light up our name. Powered by our mitzvos, the lights will burn eternally for the Shechinah.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman, Head of Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) bet din
Struggling to keep Torah traditions alive and relevant for modern Jews, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Ha-kohen Kook famously wrote, “Let the old be renewed, and let the new be sanctified!” It is in that spirit of bold innovation that the Rabbis (as we call the founders of our Judaism) innovated a surprising, even shocking blessing: “Blessed are You… who has commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.”
Where in the Torah is that mitzvah recorded? Nowhere, of course; the events it commemorates postdate the entire Bible. On whose authority, then, is the practice required? Why, that of the Rabbis themselves. It is they who established it, who debated and decided its form—increasing the lights each night rather than decreasing, as some had suggested—and its prescribed time and place. And it is they who laid claim to divine authority to back them up: these lights are not just lovely and traditional; they are kodesh, “sacred.”
Modern Jews who care about Jewish traditions and community strive to balance fidelity to the past and relevance in the present. Jewish leaders need to be as bold as the Rabbis, and as Rav Kook, declaring even some of what is new to be as sacred to us as if it had been given at Sinai.
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew
Unlike the Shabbat candles, which are meant to illuminate and enhance the Shabbat meal, the Chanukah lights are not meant to illuminate anything except our hearts and our perspectives. Not only is the light of the Chanukah candles distinctly non-utilitarian, but the holiday of Chanukah itself does not specifically address the needs and pleasures of the human body. Chanukah differs from Shabbat and from nearly every other Jewish holiday in that there are no prescribed feasts on Chanukah. Oily food on Chanukah is traditional, but it is essentially optional. What is required is merely the kindling of the Chanukah lights, and that they be seen. This mode of celebration invites contemplation and a feeling of inner contentment instead of a reliance on food and drink to gladden us.
The purely sacred nature of the candles reminds us that the purpose of our lives is—more than anything else—a sacred one. Chanukah is a celebration and reaffirmation of Jewish values and Jewish spirituality. Each night of Chanukah, we look at the candles in gratitude for the opportunity to make each moment, even those that seem dark and cold, pregnant with light and the warmth of divine activity. Chanukah reminds us that we can find solace and inspiration of the words of prayer and in Torah and holy deeds. We are not alone. God shines into our lives through the light of the Chanukah candles so that we can live with the memory of the Chanukah lights even in our trying moments.
Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School
Chanukah, oh Chanukah, most misused of holidays. When not grossly cast as a Jewish equivalent to Christmas, Chanukah is often reduced to a generalized, even secular festival of light. The candles offer vague representations of hope, bringing lightness into a dark world at the darkest time of year. Bah humbug. Chanukah has a distinct historic context. It celebrates the miraculous victory of Jewish freedom forces against the aggressively Hellenistic Seleucid Greek empire in the second century BCE. Emphasis on miraculous. The Jewish forces were ragtag, under-equipped, and wholly inexperienced. The Seleucids were well-trained, experienced warriors. As for equipped, they had elephants! The Hasmoneans attributed their unlikely victory to God and had no qualms about expressing it. Hence, our liturgical line is incomplete. We may not use the Chanukah candles other than to look at them… “in order to thank and to praise Your great name for Your miracles, Your wonders, and Your salvations.”
John Adams is often quoted as suggesting Independence Day be celebrated “with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” People conveniently forget his prior exhortation that “It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.” So too Chanukah. Do not let the lights blind you. Chanukah is a holiday expressing gratitude to the Savior of Israel. Without that, Chanukah is just an excuse to save 20% on this year’s hottest toys, games, and electronics.
Romain Hini-Szlos, Photographer / www.rhsgallery.com
Chanukah is on its way, the Festival of Lights. So why aren’t we able to use those lights for our benefit? It’s not as if Chanukah is a seven-day Yom Tov. The answer is found in the story of Chanukah, and how that little droplet of oil lasted eight days. In Judaism, eight represents superseding nature, into a realm of the miraculous.
The reason we light the Chanukah candles (or oil) is to elevate us beyond the limits of nature. So why are we not permitted to benefit from this? The purpose of Chanukah is to use those eight days as a reminder that miracles do happen in times of darkness. If we use the light of miracles to our own benefit, it becomes mundane, without much difference from a regular light switch, and loses its purpose.
These eight days of holidays remind us that miracles happen to light up our eyes, warm up our hearts and remind us of the source of those miracles by simply looking at them and kindling our neshamot. The light of the Menorah will kindle our hearts and our neshamot, and then, that same light that we internalize will be expressed to the world through us by our actions — a light that’s spread limitlessly, like miracles themselves.
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