Chanukah lights on Agron Road in Jerusalem, 2012. (photo from Djampa)
History tends to repeat itself or, as Sholem Aleichem put it, The Wheel Makes a Turn. In this story, he wrote about Chanukah, depicting a proud Jew lighting the nine-branched candelabrum, celebrating this festival of dedication and liberation with warmth and affection. Later in the story, this same Jew, now old and infirm, is barely allowed to light the chanukiyah by his assimilated son, while his grandson is not even allowed to watch. The story ends when the grandson is an adult, and celebrates Chanukah with his friends to the dismay of his “modern” parents who cannot understand why their son has rejected their assimilation and returned to his Jewish roots.
Chanukah is one of Israel’s favourite festivals, widely celebrated even by secular Jews. Unlike in the Diaspora, it doesn’t have to compete with the glamour of Christmas, with its shopping frenzy, Santa Claus, carols and other Christian symbols of the holiday, which can be very seductive, even to Jews.
In Jerusalem during the Festival of Lights, you can see chanukiyot and their tiny, multi-coloured candles on almost every windowsill and, at sunset, you’ll hear voices from quivering childish soprano to deep baritone, all singing “Maoz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”). There is a candlelighting ceremony, as well as free sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), in my local supermarket every evening for the whole eight nights, and a giant menorah burns atop the Knesset and many public buildings and water tower reservoirs throughout the country. Gifts are exchanged, children receive Chanukah gelt, often in the form of chocolate coins, and dreidels, spinning tops inscribed with the first letters of the Hebrew words for the phrase: “A great miracle happened here.”
The Zionist movement has used Chanukah as a symbol and historical precedent of national survival. The Maccabi sports organization was named after the Maccabees, who are the stars of the holiday, and it holds the Maccabiah Games every four years, just like the Olympics.
The singing of “Maoz Tzur” is a feature of the holiday with mysterious origins. The only clue to its composer is the acrostic of the first five stanzas, spelling out the name “Mordecai”; such naming was a common practice at the time and one used in a lot of zemirot (Sabbath songs). Many scholars believe the composer to be Mordecai ben Isaac, who lived in Germany in the 13th century.
There is a Chabad saying: “Song opens a window to the secret places of the soul.” It is hard to define what makes music specifically Jewish, and many categories exist, including Chassidic, Yiddish, Yemenite, Moroccan, Kurdish, Israeli, secular, religious … the list comprises a broad range.
There is nothing in Jewish law against creating new tunes for hymns. The Gerer Rebbe once stated: “Were I blessed with a sweet voice, I would sing you new hymns and songs every day, for, with the daily rejuvenation of the world, new songs are created.”
Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav wrote: “How do you pray to the Lord? Come, I will show you a new way … not with words or sayings, but with song. We will sing and the Lord on high will understand us.”
When we sing “Maoz Tzur” as a family, grouped around the candles, there is harmony of a special kind. The harmony is not just in the song, but in the sanctity and affection that binds the family and gives it a foundation as solid as a rock.
In painful times for Israel, which has seen so much suffering and loss throughout its history, it brings a measure of comfort to be able to recite the traditional blessing: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has kept us in life and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.” This year, amid the pandemic, the blessing resonates even more deeply. Happy Chanukah!
Dvora Waysman is a Jerusalem-based author. She has written 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie, and her latest novella, Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.
Benji Goldstein, who lives in Sioux Lookout with his family, is a full-time doctor working in indigenous communities in northern of Ontario. He has created for Chanukah an almost six-foot chanukiyah out of ice, improving his 1.0 version from two years ago to this 2.0 model, which stands on a big block of ice. The bricks were frozen in milk cartons, which he collected over time, and the structure weighs 400 kilograms. It will be lit every night of the holiday from his mobile phone.
The Jewish Independent found out about Goldstein’s creation from local community member Tamara Heitner, who shared with us the Facebook post of Goldstein’s sister-in-law, Liat Goldstein.
In recent years, sufganiyot have easily become the unsung heroines of new Chanukah traditions. (photo from piqsels.com)
Full disclosure, Chanukah has always been my favourite holiday. It has all the things a good holiday needs: dark wintery nights, deep-fried oily foods, magical lights, melancholy songs and cozy family time.
As a child, I looked forward to latkes and gatherings round the stove at my grandparents’ house, homemade sufganiyot – the jam-filled deep-fried doughnuts, consumed exclusively and excessively on this holiday – and the week-long vacation from school. Needless to say, my romantic view of Chanukah was somewhat tarnished as I reached adulthood only to realize that Chanukah is considered a vacation for schoolchildren; for university students and working normal folk, it’s business as usual, plus sufganiyot, plus kids. Living in Israel, a country that demands a lot of sobering up as you reach adulthood, I still count this as one of my top three.
The origin story of Chanukah frames it as a holiday of miraculous intervention. Chanukah songs and school teach us that this holiday is all about chasing away the darkness – most appropriate, given its wintery timing – and the Maccabees and their ferocious war of rebellion against the Greek-Hellenistic Seleucid Empire. We have the admirable protagonist of Judah Maccabee, waging his David vs. Goliath-like war against the archvillain of tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes, famous in Jewish lore for his relentless persecution of the Jews. And, of course, there’s the miracle of the oil: as the victorious Jews returned to purify the recaptured Temple, the tiny amount of oil they had miraculously lasted for the eight days it took to do so. This talmudic tale is the source of the modern eight-day celebration of Chanukah centred on the ritual of lighting the chanukiyah, adding a candle with each day.
These mythical tales reinforce the traditional Jewish narrative of a war of independence, and the few fighting and winning against the many, with the aid of a heavenly power. As a Jewish holiday, Chanukah joins the lore of religious and cultural oppression, a fierce tale of valour with a great hero in Judah Maccabee, and a grand finale celebrated in the Temple. Its roots also lent themselves perfectly to creating the holiday’s traditions; the oil from the lamp becoming a staple in both foods and in lighting the chanukiyot, when those were still oil-based, as well as holiday songs equating this religious war with chasing away the darkness.
With time and as with many holiday traditions, the modern celebrations of Chanukah grew to outshine these origin stories. This is partly helped by the holiday’s lack of family traction – no vacation time for grownups, no prescribed big family meals like on Rosh Hashanah or Passover – leaving more room for personal traditions to form and for purchasable items or foods to take centre stage. Our traditions become lighting the candles with our roommates or sharing fancy doughnuts with our work colleagues.
For me, the loose nature of Chanukah tradition also represents the growing pains of adulthood, as we’re freed to make, or burdened with constructing, our own traditions with our own families and friends. A lot of this comprises practical choices, like who to celebrate with and where, but, in the broader perspective, this is our way of connecting, or disengaging, from our community. A way of choosing our group of peers, perhaps redefining some set-in-concrete values we never considered were malleable along the way.
Chanukah provides us with an opportunity to redefine some of those traditions along with their meaning, reshaping them according to our personal beliefs and faith. Take the Chanukah narrative, for example. Do we continue to raise our children on tales of Jewish plight and persecution, of wars as heroic, of the Temple as an utmost goal worth sacrificing our lives for? Are stories of male combative heroism the most important lesson we want to teach the next generation? Is religious separatism still an essential value, or how do we tell this tale while encouraging pluralism and tolerance? And where are all the women in these stories? (There is the tale of Judith and her beheading of opposing military leader Holofernes, which is a rare account of female heroism in a terribly masculine world.) Essentially, how do we create a more challenging version of the holidays and still allow our children, and ourselves, to enjoy these traditions, not losing our sense of community as we go?
In a way, it’s fitting that the main paraphernalia of Chanukah – the chanukiyah, has also historically been a vessel for establishing Jewish identity in the Diaspora. As one of the few items used in Jewish ritual that doesn’t have a Christian parallel (like a censor or chalice, for example), the artists making these objects were free to use any type of decoration, as there was no risk the object would be mistaken for a non-Jewish item. Thus we find chanukiyot with the eagle of the local Austro-Hungarian emperor, architectural flourishes resembling renowned local structures – be they churches or mosques – or even the Chanukah tale of Judith beheading Holofernes. There are Moroccan chanukiyot made of reused sardine cans, as this was a predominantly Jewish industry, Italian chanukiyot featuring animal hybrids and putti (baby angels common in Italian
Renaissance and Baroque art) and Israeli chanukiyot with the Israeli flag. (The Israel Museum has an impressive collection of Chanukah lamps, museum.imj.org.il/stieglitz.)
As the questions of reestablishing our communal and individual identity remain, the grounding of Chanukah in our everyday world is often found in much more earthly places. In recent years, sufganiyot have easily become the unsung heroines of new Chanukah traditions. Bakeries and cafés are finding ways to make their doughnuts progressively outrageous with each passing year, adapting them to the millennial taste for opulence, decadence and quick satisfaction, since who knows what tomorrow might bring. It might not be a perfect solution, but it is undeniable that existential quandaries are best answered while consuming vast amounts of deep-fried, sugary foods while singing songs in the candlelight.
Avia Shemeshis an art history PhD student, studying medieval Spanish art, and living in central Israel. She is passionate about anything to do with art and culture, and loves to write about the ways we interact with the visual world around us and with one another. When not working or writing, she likes to travel, bake and go to yoga classes, like the borderline millennial she is.
Approximately 300 people showed up to a menorah-making event at the Home Depot in Richmond on Sunday, Dec. 3. Families could come and make menorot out of wood, glue and nails supplied by Home Depot. Chabad of Richmond also supplied bullet shell casings to hold the candles on the menorah, symbolic of turning weapons of war into a source of light and life.
When the Second Temple was destroyed, its menorah was said to have been taken to Rome. This is depicted, with the menorah being carried by Jewish slaves, in a carving on the inside of the Arch of Titus. (photo by Steerpike via Wikimedia Commons)
In the Temple of Jerusalem stood a seven-branched candelabrum or menorah, which was lit each day by the high priest. There were also other candelabra for ornamental purposes. When Antiochus removed the Temple menorah, Judah Maccabee had a duplicate built – called a candlestick with lamps upon it, in one Apocrypha translation – and he lit it, although there is no mention of oil to light it.
When the Second Temple was destroyed, its menorah was said to have been taken to Rome. This is depicted, with the menorah being carried by Jewish slaves, in a carving on the inside of the Arch of Titus.
Lighting a chanukiyah, or eight-branched candelabrum with one to serve as the shamash (one who lights the others), is a popular Chanukah custom. Originally, eight individual ceramic or stone lamps with wicks were lit with olive oil. Jews from Yemen and Morocco also used rough stone lamps with scooped-out places for the wicks and the higher one for the shamash.
At some point, people began the custom of hanging their lamps on the left side of the door, opposite the mezuzah, because Jews were commanded to affirm the miracle in public. When it became dangerous to display the chanukiyah out of doors, people began lighting them inside the house, frequently placing them by a window.
A wide variety of those chanukiyot, in diverse decorative styles and materials, have been preserved throughout the years.
As early as the 12th century, replicas of the Chanukah menorah, with the two additional branches, were found in synagogues, so that poor people and strangers could still benefit from lighting. Eventually, this design was used for home chanukiyot, but some people criticized the custom of lighting in the home. As well, discussions ensued about on which wall to place the synagogue chanukiyah – by the 16th century, lighting the candelabra in the synagogue became established as an addition to lighting one at home.
According to Michael Kaniel in A Guide to Jewish Art, in Morocco in the 11th century, the chanukiyah was the most widely used ritual object. They were made with a wide variety of materials: gold, silver, brass, bronze, iron, lead, glass, wood, glazed ceramics, terra cotta, bone, pomegranate shells, walnut shells and bark. Then, the brass style became popular, with North African Arab designs of flowers, foliage, fruits and animals. Those from Iraq often used the hamsa, the open hand symbol against the evil eye.
Chanukiyot dating back to 13th-century Spain and southern France display a straight row of holders with a back plate. One can also find chanukiyot made of bronze from the time of the Renaissance (14th century), depicting Judith with the head of Holofernes, who she killed, thereby saving her people, but that’s a story for another time.
European chanukiyot, mostly after the 17th century, were made in brass with animals symbolic of Jewish folk art. Later on, they appear in silver and were commissioned from silversmiths; European artisans often created chanukiyot from silver, using plant designs.
An 18th-century lamp from Germany depicts the prayers for lighting the candles. A 19th-century lamp, either from Libya or Morocco, is made of ceramics. Twentieth-century designs in Morocco were of silver and used animals and plants in the design.
Originally, wicks and oil were used, but, in the 18th and 19th centuries, many people replaced these with candles. Traditional Jews, particularly in Jerusalem, still use wicks and oil and hang the chanukiyah outside the house in a glass-enclosed container.
Electric chanukiyot atop public buildings are also customary in Israel as are home-style chanukiyot of all varieties, displayed in stores, offices and public places.
The primary rule for a “kosher” chanukiyah is that all eight holders should be at the same level, with the shamash placed higher than the others.
Sybil Kaplanis a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant features for janglo.net and leads walks in English in Jerusalem’s market.
Alan Dean was the world’s largest manufacturer and distributor of Chanukah menorahs.
“You what!” Zoe’s father was yelling at her. Again. “You traded my lamp?”
Nothing Zoe did seemed good enough for Dad. Her room was too messy. Her grades weren’t high enough. Her clothes were too expensive, too ratty or too “inappropriate.” He was always screaming at her.
“I didn’t mean …” Zoe began. She gazed into the first light burning on the new chanukiyah and tried to hold back the tears.
Ever since her mother had died, Zoe had tried to take good care of her father. Only 12 and a half, she wasn’t a good cook. She didn’t like cleaning the toilets. But all she wanted was to help.
Her dad’s office was a mess. The whole house was a mess. Alan Dean was the world’s largest manufacturer and distributor of Chanukah menorahs. There were candelabras all over the place. They were in the bedrooms, the kitchen, dining room, living room, even in the bathrooms. Every single morning, there was shouting about something that had gone missing: a wallet, keys, a cellphone, a cleaning bill, a shoe.…
That morning, Zoe had taken a black plastic garbage bag into the office to clean out some clutter. Which was when she got a weird text on her phone.
“@Jenny.Hunter New Lamps for Old. Want to trade?”
Zoe happened to be staring at this old, dusty and tarnished chanukiyah on her father’s bookshelf. It was squat and primitive. Her father hadn’t touched it in years.
Before she could think too much, she replied and, a moment later, there was a knock at the door.
“I was in the neighborhood,” Jenny said, smiling into the video intercom. She was a well-dressed woman, a little old, and her teeth could use braces. “Do you have a lamp to trade?”
Zoe was careful. “Let me see yours.”
The woman opened an aluminum suitcase from which she pulled a beautiful stainless steel Chanukah menorah. It was very sharp and very shiny.
Zoe nodded and opened the door a crack. “Why would you trade that for an old lamp?”
The woman smiled again. “Call it a present. Or an almost free sample, with the hope that your father will buy more.”
Now Zoe smiled. Dad always liked a bargain. She nodded, took the steel menorah and gave the woman the old brass one.
“Finally it is mine!” the woman said with something that sounded like a cackle.
Before Zoe could change her mind, the woman was gone. It was as if she had vanished.
That evening, her father was distracted. He didn’t even notice the new chanukiyah until after they’d said the blessings and Zoe lit the candles.
Then he saw it. “Where did that come from?”
“I traded it for your old lamp,” Zoe answered, happily.
Her father rushed into the office. When he came back, he began yelling.
“You went into my private space and…. Don’t you start,” Dad shouted. “Don’t you start quivering that lower lip. Don’t you start tearing up.…”
Which was when Zoe lost it.
Alan Dean stared as his beautiful daughter cried.
He didn’t know what to do. He never knew what to do.
For seven generations, the Dean family had produced boys, and the story had been passed from father to son at the bar mitzvah. The lamp was found in a cave. A genie inside gave each owner three dangerous wishes – guard the magic lamp and use it well.
When his daughter was born, Alan was surprised, even upset.
His wife forbade him from calling her Aileen.
“It has to stop sometime,” Shana had said. “A new girl, a new beginning.”
And she was right. Al’s life, which was always about business, had broadened into a wonderful family, until Shana had passed.
Alan hadn’t told his daughter that their fortune was based on a magical lamp. Zoe wasn’t 13 yet, and he didn’t want her to laugh, but mostly because Shana had been the last one to touch it.
“Make enough so we are happy,” Shana had said as she rubbed the chanukiyah. “And not a single one more.”
The genie, which was now barely a flicker said, “Your wish is my command.”
Instantly, the entire factory was automated, with only enough jobs to keep all the existing employees busy, while increasing production tenfold. The whole system was computerized and efficient. Orders came in, and candlesticks went out. No one worked too hard. The bank accounts swelled. It was every businessman’s dream!
Then Shana had gotten sick and, in one day, she died.
Alan’s world collapsed. After a week of shiva, when he’d finally wandered into his office, he saw the lamp on the shelf and his heart broke.
Could a wish have saved her? In the mournful chaos, he had completely forgotten the power of the lamp. He couldn’t bear to touch it, and it had gathered dust on the shelf. His wife was gone, but he still had his work. He had thrown himself back into it, and barely had any time for his daughter.
Now the lamp that had sustained his family for centuries was gone, too, and he knew that the factory would soon go silent.
Zoe stood in front of him, tears running down her face.
How could he do this to her? Yes, he was unhappy, but his daughter didn’t have to be.
Shana had known. “Make enough so we are happy,” she had wished. “And not a single one more.”
Alan thought for a moment. His mind tallied the amounts in the bank, the value of the factory and the land. The good will of the Alan Dean brand name. He would sell it all. It would be enough.
Alan wrapped his arms around Zoe’s shoulders and pulled her close. He hadn’t done that in years.
“It’s OK,” he said. “Let me tell you the story of that lamp. It has always been a story of magic and wealth, greed and fear, but now I think for us there will be a happy ending.”
Zoe felt warm and safe in her father’s arms.
The lights from the Chanukah candles flickered.
Mark Binderis a Jewish author and storyteller who tours the world sharing stories for all ages. His life in Chelm stories and his latest collection, Transmit Joy! an audio storybook, are available on audio download and CD.
The Chabad-Lubavitch public chanukiyah in front of Karlsruhe Palace in Germany. When we light the candles, we are, in effect, praying that the light of renewal, love and peace will break out in the world. (photo by Michael Kauffmann via commons.wikimedia.org)
What is Chanukah about? Dreidels? Latkes? Doughnuts? Candles? All of the above? According to the rabbis of the Talmud, Chanukah is primarily about the remembering of a miracle. But what is the miracle?
Chanukah celebrates the miracle that Hashem did for us in the time of the Seleucids, when the Greek occupying power tried to wipe out Jewish culture and absorb us into the Hellenic world. Some say that the miracle is the oil that burned for eight days after the
Temple was re-consecrated, even though there was only enough for one day. Some say that it was the defeat of the Greek army, as the prayer “Al Hanissim,” recited every day during Chanukah, says. Perhaps it was both – the miraculous salvation of the Jews by a power not their own, which was clearly demonstrated by the oil that burnt for eight days. Perhaps that was Hashem’s way of signing His name.
Throughout Jewish history, many rabbis have pointed out that Chanukah is about chinuch, education. What is the way of education shown in Chanukah? It is the way of light. Each day, we light another candle to illumine the darkness and we place this menorah of lights in the window where we can show it to the world. Why on this holiday do we publicize the miracle? The Mevaser Tov (the Biala Rebbe Shlita) asks this question, pointing out, “We do not read the Megillah out in the street, or pour the four glasses of Pesach on the street corners!” The reason, he says, is that the light of Chanukah is a first dawning of messianic light – the light that has been hidden away since the beginning of the world. When we light the candles, we are letting loose some of this light and we are, in effect, saying a prayer that this light break out en masse in the world.
But what does this mean? What is the light of the Messiah? The Tanach says that the messianic age will be when: “the wolf will dwell with the lamb / and the leopard will lie down with the young goat / and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together / and a small child will lead them. / Also the cow and the bear will graze / their young will lie down together / and the lion will eat straw like the ox. / The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra / and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. / They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain / for the earth will be full of the knowledge of YHVH / as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)
The light of the Messiah is the light of renewal, love and peace. This light that we light both commemorates and anticipates a miracle – the miracle that human beings and God work together to save the world.
Why did Hashem publicly save the Jews fighting the Greek empire? The Aish HaKodesh (Rabbi Kalonymous Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, died 1942, zt’l) explains by pointing out why the Jews of that time warranted a miracle. Surely Jews of many times and places (and certainly his own!) had suffered great losses at the hands of oppressors, murderers and tyrants. Homes, possessions, families had all been lost. Jews had been maimed, broken, scarred and killed. The reason, the Aish HaKodesh says, is that what most pained the Jews at that time was not the loss of loved ones, possessions or even life and limb. Not that they didn’t grieve for these things, but they were not what caused the Jews to rise up in prayer to God and in rebellion against the Greek empire. What animated the Jews was the threat not to their bodies, but to their spirit. When the Greek empire raised a hand against the values of Israel and threatened to wipe them out, then the Jews rose up. In other words, what provoked the miracle was that the Jewish people cared more about an injury to their spirits than their bodies. Faith like that, love like that, can provoke miracles.
We live in a time of great temptation to forget the spirit of Judaism in our anger and grief. The details are well known and do not need to be repeated here. The Jewish people, and the Jews of the state of Israel in particular, are attacked with lies, with knives, with axes, with stones, guns, bombs, cars, tractors and even buses. The temptation is great to respond with hatred, with violence. We are tempted to give back as we get, and some try to, usually with disastrous consequences. Witness the mob in Israel that attacked a Jew they thought was an Arab, or when another killed an Eritrean man. To lose sight of our highest values at a time like this – values of justice, peace, love for all the nations and unwavering menschlichkeit – is to lose our hope to be a light to the nations. That light is the light of Chanukah. Experience teaches us that only from that light will miracles come. That light itself is a miracle.
Matthew Gindinis a writer, lecturer and holistic therapist. As well as teaching holistic medicine, Gindin regularly lectures on topics in Jewish and world spirituality, and has a particular passion for making ancient wisdom traditions relevant in the modern world. His work has been featured on Elephant Journal, the Zen Site and Wisdom Pills, and he blogs at Talis in Wonderland (mgindin.wordpress.com) and Voices (hashkata.com).
Fray Juan Ricci (1600-1681), sketch of the menorah as described in Exodus, undated. The number of lights on the chanukiyah – eight – is a break with the traditional seven-branched menorah. (photo by Ellen Prokop via commons.wikimedia.org)
The Festival of Lights is unique. We celebrate it for eight days, when most other Jewish festivals and holy days last one or two days or, at the most, seven. The number of lights – eight – is also a break with the traditional seven-branched menorah, which was rekindled in the Temple after the victory over the Syrian-Greeks. We also add a special prayer, “Al Hanissim,” whereby we thank G-d for the deliverance from our enemies:
“Thou didst deliver the strong into the hands of the weak; the many into the hands of the few; the wicked into the hands of the righteous; and the arrogant into the hands of those who occupied themselves with Thy Torah.”
At each morning service, we relate biblical accounts of the dedication of the altar at the time of Moses, and the gifts brought by the 12 princes of Israel. We are comforted, as a small nation against today’s sea of evil, by the words: “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)
Even though the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, it did not affect celebrating Chanukah because it is centred mainly on the home. In the third century CE, when our enemies launched their persecution of the Jewish people, when kindling Chanukah lights was forbidden, as often happens, this later awakened special esteem for the rite. It became a sanctification of G-d’s name, with special blessings.
Light has great significance in Judaism. Even during the plague of darkness in Egypt, we are told “all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10:23) Although Chanukah imposes minimum religious restrictions, we are required to kindle the lights, stating that this commemorates “the miracle, deliverance, deeds of powers of salvation” wrought by the Almighty at this season. We are instructed not to use the lights for any utilitarian purpose – they are only to be seen. We pray to be placed “on the side of light” and the mystical book of Zohar promises “a palace of light that opens only to him who occupies himself with the light of Torah.”
Why did it take the priests eight days to prepare more olive oil for the Temple menorah? The 25th of Kislev marked the peak of the winter olive harvest season. The Maccabees’ hometown of Modiin lay in the heart of the country’s richest olive-growing region. They could have quickly picked the olives, prepared the oil and rushed it to the Temple in Jerusalem, a day’s walk away.
The explanation is that the special oil required for the menorah was clear oil of beaten olives (Shemot 27:20). It was a two-part operation: first, the beating and, then, the resulting mash was piled into flat fibre baskets and weighted to squeeze out the oil. It was not extracted by pressure, but allowed to seep out drop by drop. This process took much longer, producing an oil free of sediment and impurities, which burned a clear flame.
The date of Chanukah is related to the winter solstice, when the longest night of the year gives way to a gradual increase in the length of each day. When the Greeks first desecrated the Temple, they offered sacrifices to Zeus on the solstice. Upon the Temple’s liberation, three years later, the Jews renewed their service to G-d on the anniversary of the day it had been desecrated, as a gesture of defiance.
The Festival of Lights takes on special meaning at this time of darkness. In Israel, we see daily stabbings, shootings, car rammings and murders of Jews. But, no matter how dark the days of intolerance and racism worldwide, Chanukah has special meaning. The miracle is not just the supernatural one of the flask of oil. It is that beacon of light, the passion of man that transcends the momentary and the opportune. The Chanukah lights, like the Jewish people, refuse to be extinguished.
The schools of Hillel and Shammai debated how the chanukiyah’s candles should be lit. (photo by Gil-Dekel via commons.wikimedia.org)
The following is an excerpt from the Chanukah chapter of Inside Time: A Chassidic Perspective on the Jewish Calendar, published by the Meaningful Life Centre.
“The School of Shammai says: on the first day, one lights eight lights; from here on, one progressively decreases. The School of Hillel says: on the first day, one lights a single light; from here on, one progressively increases.” (Talmud, Shabbat 21b)
Visit, or simply pass by, a Jewish home on any of the eight evenings of Chanukah, and there will be the lights burning in the doorway or window proclaiming the celebration of the Chanukah miracle to the street and to the world at large. They will also be proclaiming which night of Chanukah it is. On each of the eight nights of Chanukah, a different number of flames is kindled, expressing that night’s particular place in the festival. On the first night of Chanukah, there will be one flame illuminating the street; on the second night, two flames, and so on.
Actually, the Talmud records two opinions on how each Chanukah night should identify itself and radiate its unique light into the world. This was one of the halachic issues debated by the two great academies of Torah law, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. The sages of Hillel held that the Chanukah lights should increase in number each night, in the familiar ascending order. The sages of Shammai, however, were of the opinion that eight flames should be lit on the first night, seven on the second, and so on, in descending number, until the eighth night of Chanukah, when a single flame should be lit.
The Talmud explains that the sages of Shammai saw the Chanukah lights as representing the “upcoming days” of the festival – the number of days still awaiting realization. Thus, the number of lights decreases with each passing night, as another of Chanukah’s days is “expended.” On the first night, we have eight full days of Chanukah ahead of us; on the second night, seven days remain, and so on. The sages of Hillel, on the other hand, see the lights as representing Chanukah’s “outgoing days,” so that the ascending number of flames reflects the accumulation of actualized milestones in our eight-day quest for light.
In practice, we follow the opinion of the Hillel school, and an ascending number of lights chronicle the progress of the festival. This is even alluded to in the very name of the festival: the Hebrew word Chanukah forms an acronym of the sentence “chet neirot vehalachah k’veit Hillel” (“eight lights, and the law follows the School of Hillel”).
Our acceptance of Hillel’s perspective on Chanukah is also expressed by the name traditionally given to the eighth day of Chanukah – the only day of the festival to be distinguished by a name of its own – Zot Chanukah.
The name Zot Chanukah is based on a phrase from that day’s Torah reading, and literally means, “This is Chanukah.” This is in keeping with the Hillelian vision of Chanukah, in which the final day of Chanukah – the day on which all eight days of light have been actualized – marks the climax of the festival. Only on the eighth day can we say, “This is Chanukah. Now we ‘have’ the entire Chanukah.” (From the Shammaian perspective, the first day of Chanukah would be Zot Chanukah.)
What is the basis for these two visions of Chanukah? And why is the view of the School of Hillel so decisively embraced, to the extent that it is implicit in the very name Chanukah, and in the name given to its culminating day?
There are two primary ways in which one might view something: a) in light of its potential, or b) by its actual, manifest state. We might say of a certain person: “He has tremendous potential, but his actual performance is poor.” The same can be said of a business venture, a relationship, an experience, or anything else. Or, we might say: “There’s potential for disaster here, but it can be contained and prevented from actualizing.”
Some of us are potential-oriented, which means that we would admire the person, invest in the venture, stick it out with the relationship and treasure the experience – depending upon its potential. Some of us are more actual-oriented, viewing things in terms of their actual, tactual impact upon our reality.
This is a recurring theme in many of the disputes between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. For example, the sages of Shammai consider the moment of the Exodus to have been the eve of Nissan 15, when the people of Israel were free to leave Egypt, while the sages of Hillel place the moment at midday of the following day, when the Jews actually exited Egypt’s physical borders. In another debate, the sages of Shammai consider a fish susceptible to ritual impurity from the moment the fisherman pulls his catch out of the water, since at this point the fish has been removed from the environment in which it might possibly live; the sages of Hillel disagree, contending that as long as the fish is actually alive (though its potential for continued life has been destroyed), it is immune to contamination, as are all other living plants and animals.
This is also the basis of their differing perspectives on Chanukah. The School of Shammai, which views things in terms of their potential, sees the first day of Chanukah, with its potential for eight days of light, as the point in which all eight days are “there.” After one day has “gone by” and passed from potential into actuality, there are left only seven days in their most meaningful form – the potential form. The sages of Hillel, on the other hand, see the actual state as the more significant. To them, the eighth day of Chanukah, when all eight dimensions of the festival have been actualized, is when the festival is at its fullest and most “real.”
We are creatures of the actual. We cannot live on potential nourishment, or be emotionally satisfied by potential relationships. On the whole, we judge people by their actual conduct, as opposed to their potential to behave a certain way. Reality, to us, is what is, not what might be.
This is largely due to the fact that we are physical beings. It is a most telling idiosyncrasy of our language that “immaterial” means “insignificant”: if we cannot touch it or see it, it’s not real to us. Also, because of our finite and limited nature, we possess potentials that we will never actualize because we haven’t enough energy, resources or willpower to carry them out, or simply because we won’t live long enough to do so. So, the existence of a potential or possibility for something is not enough, for how do we know that it will amount to anything? Indeed, we often judge a thing’s potential by the actual: if this much has been actualized, this “proves” that there is potential worthy of regard.
Envision, however, a being who is neither physical nor finite; a being not limited by space, time or any other framework. In such a being, potential does not lack actualization, as everything is “as good as done.” On the contrary: potential is the purest and most perfect form of every reality – the essence of the thing, as it transcends the limitations and imperfections imposed upon it when it is translated into physical actuality.
For G-d, then, the potential is a higher form of being than the actual. This is why we say that, for G-d, the creation of the world did not constitute an “achievement” or even a “change” in His reality. The potential for creation existed in Him all along, and nothing was “added” by its translation into actuality. It is only we, the created, who gained anything from the actual creation of the world.
So, when the sages of Shammai and Hillel debate the question of which is more significant from the perspective of Torah law, the actual or the potential, they are addressing the more basic question: Whose Torah is it – ours or G-d’s? When Torah law enjoins us to commemorate the Exodus, when it legislates the laws of ritual impurity or when it commands us to kindle the Chanukah lights, does it regard these phenomena from the perspective of its divine author, in whom the potential is the ideal state, or from the perspective of its human constituency, who equate real with actual?
Whose Torah is it, ours or G-d’s? Both Shammai and Hillel would agree that it is both.
The Torah is the wisdom and will of G-d. But, as we proclaim in the blessing recited each morning over the Torah, G-d has given us His Torah, for He has delegated to mortal man the authority to interpret it and apply it. Thus, G-d did not communicate His will to us in the form of a detailed manifesto and a codified list of instructions. Instead, He communicated a relatively short (79,976-word) Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses), together with the Oral Torah – a set of guidelines by which the Written Torah is to be interpreted, decoded, extrapolated and applied to the myriad possibilities conjured up by the human experience.
So, while the entire body of legal, homiletic, philosophical and mystical teaching we know as Torah is implicit within the Written Torah, G-d designated the human mind and life as the tools that unlock the many layers of meaning and instruction contained within its every word.
The Torah is thus a partnership of the human and the divine, where a kernel of divine wisdom germinates in the human mind, gaining depth, breadth and definition, and is actualized in the physicality of human life. In this partnership, our human finiteness and subjectivity become instruments of the divine truth, joining with it to create the ultimate expression of divine immanence in our world – the Torah.
Which is the more dominant element of Torah, divine revelation or human cognition? Which defines its essence? What is Torah – G-d’s vision of reality or man’s endeavor to make his world a home for G-d? At times, the Torah indicates the one; at times, the other. We have the rule that “The words of Torah are not susceptible to contamination.” A person who is in a state of ritual impurity (tum’ah) is forbidden to enter the Holy Temple; but there is no prohibition for him to study Torah. Why is he forbidden to enter a holy place but permitted to think and speak holy words? Because the Torah is not only holy (i.e., an object subservient to G-d and receptive to His presence) – it is divine. It is G-d’s word, and the divine cannot be compromised by any impurity.
On the other hand, another law states that, “A teacher of Torah who wishes to forgive an insult to his honor can forgive it.” This is in contrast to a king who, if insulted, has no right to forgive the insult, and has no recourse but to punish the one who insulted him. For a king’s honor is not his personal possession, but something that derives from his role as the sovereign of his people; one who insults the king insults the nation, and this is an insult that not even the king has the authority to forgive. Yet does not one who insults a Torah scholar insult the Torah? How does the scholar have the right to forgive the Torah’s insult? The explanation given is that “the Torah is his.” He who studies Torah acquires it as his own; G-d’s wisdom becomes his wisdom.
Whose Torah is it – ours or G-d’s? Both descriptions are valid; both are part of the Torah’s own self-perception. In certain laws and circumstances, we find the divinity of Torah emphasized; in others, its human proprietorship.
Thus, in a number of laws, the schools of Shammai and Hillel debate which definition of Torah is the predominant one. The sages of Shammai believe that in these particular applications of Torah law, the divinity of the Torah predominates. The Torah’s perspective is synonymous with G-d’s perspective, meaning that the potential of a thing is its primary truth. The sages of Hillel see these laws as belonging to the “human” aspect of Torah, so that the Torah’s vision of reality is the human, actual-based perspective.
The human festival
In the great majority of disputes between the sages of Shammai and Hillel, the final halachic ruling follows the opinion of the School of Hillel. Halachah is the application of Torah to day-to-day life. In this area of Torah, it is the human element which predominates; here, reality is defined in terms of the actual and tactual, rather than the potential.
But nowhere is the supremacy of the Hillelian view more emphasized than in the debate on Chanukah, where the very name of the festival, and the name given to its final day, proclaim that “the law follows the School of Hillel.” For Chanukah is the festival that, more than any other, underscores the human dynamic in Torah.
As noted above, the Torah consists of two parts: a) the divinely dictated words of the Written Torah; b) the Oral Torah, also communicated by G-d, but delegated to man. In the Oral Torah, G-d provides the guidelines and principles, while human beings follow these guidelines and apply these principles to derive and express the divine will.
The Oral Torah has two basic functions: to interpret the Written Torah and to legislate the necessary laws, ordinances and customs required to preserve the Torah and Jewish life through the generations.
Most of the festivals are explicitly ordained in the Written Torah. This is not to say that there is no “human element” involved in the biblically ordained festivals: the Oral Torah is still required to clarify each festival’s laws and observances. For example, the Written Torah commands us to dwell in a sukkah and take the “four kinds” on Sukkot, but the Oral Torah is needed to interpret the oblique biblical allusions that tell us how a sukkah is to be constructed and which plant species are to be taken. Still, the festivals themselves were instituted by direct divine revelation.
There are two festivals, however, that are rabbinical institutions: Purim and Chanukah. These belong to the second function of the Oral Torah – to institute laws and observances that derive not from a verse in the Written Torah, but which arise out of the historical experience of the people of Israel.
These, too, are Torah, for they were enacted in accordance with the principles revealed at Sinai. Before reading the Megillah on Purim or kindling the Chanukah lights, we say: “Blessed are You, G-d … Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to read the Megillah,” or “… to kindle the Chanukah lamp.” G-d is commanding us to observe these mitzvot, for it is He who granted the leaders of each generation the mandate to institute laws, ordinances and festivals. Yet, in these festivals, it is the human aspect of the Torah which predominates, while the divine aspect is more subdued.
Of the two rabbinical festivals, Chanukah is even more “human” than Purim. Purim was instituted during the era of prophecy, when G-d still communed directly with the greatest individuals of the generation. The story of Purim was written down and incorporated within the Holy Scriptures that are appended to the Written Torah. Thus, while Purim is technically an Oral Torah festival, it is closely related to the Written Torah.
Chanukah, however, occurred several hundred years later, when prophecy had ceased and the canon of the 24 books of the Tanach (Bible) had been closed. It thus belongs wholly to the Oral Torah – to the predominantly human aspect of the partnership. So, Chanukah is the environment in which the Hillelian perspective on Torah – Torah as it relates to our tactual experience of the world in which we live – reigns supreme.