While Chanukah might be among the most minor of Jewish holidays–after all, it isn’t even mentioned in the Bible, to me, it represents the most important mission of the Jewish people: to bring light where there is darkness. This Chanukah, are you a bringer of light?
The origins of Chanukah go back some 2200 years to a time when Hellenism was spreading throughout the known world. In response to the assimilation of many Jews to Greek culture, the Hasmonean family–or Maccabees, as they are called, led by Mattathias HaKohein and his son, Judah–began killing these assimilationist Jews. The Greek Syrian emperor Antiochus sent his army in to protect the Hellenized Jews and to defeat the Maccabees.
During the battle, the Greeks took control of Jerusalem and especially the Holy Temple, which they desecrated, along with banning circumcision, celebration of Shabbat, and other Jewish rituals. Eventually the Maccabees turned the tide and defeated the Greeks, expelling the Greek army from the land and taking control themselves of both religious and civic life in the Judean kingdom.
When they rededicated the Holy Temple, and celebrated, albeit late, the eight-day biblical holiday of Sukkot, the Maccabees proclaimed an annual eight-day holiday to be celebrated beginning on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. They called this holiday Chanukah, dedication, because of the re-dedication of the Holy Temple.
Yet, over the centuries, as the Hasmonean dynasty became corrupt, secularized, and ultimately defeated by the Romans, and the Jewish people were exiled from the Land of Israel, the meaning behind the holiday evolved. It was not until several centuries after the Maccabean revolt that Chanukah became known for the miracle of the oil that lasted not one day but eight days. This is the version of the story the Talmud offers, celebrating a religious rite rather than a military victory, and assigning commandments to the holiday that reflect this “other” miracle–that of the oil.
Of course, in that Chanukah happens deep in wintertime, usage of light in the Chanukah celebration makes sense. In addition, based on the Talmudic discussion of the holiday, the great rabbi and physician Maimonides (Rambam) elucidates two other “reasons” we celebrate Chanukah: 1) to “publicize” the great miracle God performed for our ancestors in days of old and 2) as an expression of gratitude to God for imbuing our lives with mitzvot, sacred obligations, that give our lives meaning and purpose.
So it is, at this time of year, we must ask ourselves: Am I bringing light into the world? Am I publicly celebrating God’s presence in my life and in the lives of our people? Am I truly leading a meaningful life of self-reflection and purposeful living? This is how we are supposed to celebrate Chanukah: with praise, with gratitude, and with action.
As we light the Chanukah lights this week, may God grant us courage and wisdom, like He did the Maccabees before us (though, for the record, WITHOUT the killing of assimilationists) to do what is just and righteous; to lead lives of holiness by giving thanks and praise; to care for our fellow human beings; and to bring light into this very dark world.
Rebecca, Caleb, and Ayal join me in wishing you happy Chanukah.
-Rabbi Aaron Starr
Reminders regarding the lighting of the Chanukiyah (the Chanukah menorah):
- The Chanukiyah should be placed in the window so as to publicize the miracle, making sure drapes or blinds or anything that might catch fire are well out of the way.
- Chanukah candles (or, more ideally, oil lamps) are placed into the Chanukiyah from right to left of the person facing the Chanukiyah, with the first candle being placed all the way to the right, the second candle immediately to its left, and so on.
- Each candle should be lit using the shamash (helper candle), beginning with the newest candle and proceeding to the oldest (we light candles from left to right). It is forbidden to use lit Chanukah candles to light another candle; only the shamash should be used.
- While it is a mitzvah to light one Chanukiyah per family, it is ideal to light one Chanukiyah per person in the family.
- Once the candles are lit, the appropriate blessings are recited. On the first night of Chanukah (only), we add Shehechyanu.
- Though Chanukah has become associated with giving gifts to members of our families, it is ideal to give money to tzedakah either in addition to or instead of the gifts.