Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Meaning of Hanukkah
To dedicate this lesson

Light Makes Right


Rabbi Stewart Weiss

Of all the Jewish holidays, Chanuka is arguably the most popular. At eight days, it is the longest holiday (tied with Sukkot, if you add Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah); it carries no restrictions of movement (like Shabbat/Yom Kippur/YomTov) or diet (like Pesach); it is accompanied by scrumptious - albeit fattening! - foods, like sufganiyot - which now come in more than a dozen flavors - and latkes; and, at least in the Diaspora, it provides a worthy competitor to the "winter holidays" celebrated by the general community.

But for all its frivolity and light-heartedness, Chanuka is also a deep and profound event, with layers of meaning. In fact, the very name "Chanuka" has a root "chinuch" which means education, or teaching. Chanuka has much to teach us, and so I offer the following "8 Points of Light," one for each night of Chanuka:

1. OILS WELL THAT ENDS WELL. Though wax candles may be used in the Chanukiya, oil is preferred, for several reasons. The Menora in the Temple, which we rededicated - another meaning of "Chanuka" - on the 25th of Kislev, after liberating it from the Syrian-Greeks, used olive oil. It's light is pure and clear in color; it must be crushed before it yields its product, symbolizing the oppression we Jews have suffered throughout our history; and the indelible quality of oil, which refuses to mix with other liquids when they are combined, represents the determined stance of the Maccabees, who fought against the Hellenization, or dilution, of the Jewish community in Israel.

But I have another thought about oil. For many years, we lamented the fact that Moses took a wrong turn and ended up in one of the only countries in our region devoid of oil. We watched while our antagonistic neighbors piled up the petro-dollars, enabling them to buy unlimited arms and votes in the U.N. But this was another Divine blessing in disguise. For while they based their entire economies on oil, we found other avenues for building our economy, until today it is one of the most vibrant and creative in the world. And now, as the price of oil plummets, OPEC members are starting to panic and tighten their fiscal belts. We remain fully solvent and only now, AFTER we have built a solid financial base, do we discover oil and gas in Israel, adding that to our portfolio!

2. ODE TO THE UNKNOWN KOHEN. The battle against the forces of Antiochus the Greek was not going well. The Bet HaMikdash was under siege, and its capture was imminent. Soon, the Temple would be overrun and defiled, and the center of Jewish spirituality would be placed under foreign, idolatrous occupation. It would be years until the Hashmonaim would repel the invader, and win back our independence.

In those final, desperate moments before the Temple Mount fell, one wise and visionary Kohen took a cruse of pure oil and secreted it deep beneath the floor of the sanctuary. He was probably slain soon after, but he had an unshakeable faith in Jewish destiny. He knew that no matter how dark the moment, the day would come when we would reclaim our sacred space, and re-kindle the Eternal Flame, the Menora. And to do that, we would need at least one jar of uncontaminated, pure oil. And his faith was confirmed when the Jewish soldiers discovered the oil he had hidden away.

We will never know the name of that Kohen, but he is very much an Everyman, or at least an EveryJew. For we, too, have hung on to our tradition, at the gloomiest periods in history. We never let go, not during the Inquisition, nor at times of our dispersion, nor even at the gates of Auschwitz. We assured our children that, however impossible the present seemed, the future would be ours. And that is why we have what we have today.

3. THE PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN MAN AND GOD. Speaking of faith: There is some debate over what, exactly, constituted the miracle of the oil. All agree that the one, pure cruse of oil was found, with sufficient fuel for one day's burning of the Menora, and that it would take 8 days to get new oil. But what happened next? Some maintain that the entire jar of oil was placed in the Menora, and it burned continuously for 8 days. But others say that it was decided that only one-eighth of the oil would be used each day, and that oil - which should have burned for 3 hours, burned for a full 24.

I heartily subscribe to the latter opinion, for one simple reason: Had we placed ALL the oil in the Menora on the first day, we would have contributed nothing at all on the subsequent days. But by placing a small amount in the Menora each day, we were doing our share, and letting God do His. It is the partnership between Man and God which gives humanity its sense of purpose and meaning in the universe, and is that "duet" which effects miracles then - and now.

4. THE NATURE OF MIRACLES. This analysis of how we lit the Menora provides one answer to an oft-asked question regarding Chanuka: Why - if it took 8 days to get more oil, but one pure jar of oil was found - do we light for EIGHT nights rather than seven? Numerous other answers are also given: The first light commemorates the military victory while the other lights celebrate the miracle of the oil; or the fact that we found any oil at all was a miracle, etc.

But of all the possibilities, I love the suggestion that one of the miracles celebrated here is the fact that oil burns! Yes, we take it for granted that certain liquids are flammable (or inflammable, if you prefer!), but nothing in nature should ever be assumed, or taken for granted - it all comes from God.

5. ONWARDS AND UPWARDS. There is a classic debate in the proper way to light the Chanukiya. The school of Bet Shammai held that we should begin, on the first night, by lighting all 8 lights, then "count down" to just one on the final night. Bet Hillel disagreed, and ruled that we begin with just one light and work our way up, until the Chanukiya is at its brightest at the end. Hillel's way is the accepted custom for lighting, and also forms a philosophy of life. Begin humbly, but continually add light each and every day of our life, until all the darkness is dispelled and the room glows brightly. Lead by example, and bring light to all those around you. For a flame has an amazing quality; the smallest spark can ignite the biggest blaze, giving to others while not losing an iota of its own strength. And so the Chanukiya, little by little, adds new "neighbors" to its midst. If a soul is pure, it can "ignite" countless other souls.


While there is a great deal of talk these days, in reference to kosher food, about "Mehadrin," the real source of this word comes from Chanuka. The essential Mitzva of the holiday is to light one light each night for the entire household, no matter how large the family. But those who want to take the Mitzva "up a notch" have each and every family member light one candle per night. And those who REALLY want to go all out - to be "mehadrin min ha-mehadrin" - have each person light an additional candle on subsequent nights, until all 8 lights are lit.

A rule of the Chanukiya is that all the lights must be one level, rather than staggered or in a semi-circle, with only the Shamash "helper light" separated from the others. Both these traditions emphasize the idea of equality and inclusiveness. Everyone is represented; everyone has a "light" all his or her own, each of us shines in a special way. And no one is above - or below - anyone else.


Interestingly enough, Chanuka always occurs during the time when the story of Yoseph and his brothers is being read as the portion of the week. Is there a connection? For those who believe - and I am among them - that nothing ever happens by coincidence, there is indeed a shared message here.

The story of Yoseph begins in a most negative manner, as the brothers battle among themselves and finally sell their brother out, casting him into a pit and then selling him as a slave into Egyptian servitude. The disunity and visceral enmity is horrendous, and almost destroys the family. The story of Chanuka begins in an equally disturbing way, pitting Jew against Jew. The "first shot" of the war occurs not between Jew and Syrian-Greek, but when the Maccabees slay a fellow Jew who insultingly offers a pig on the altar.

Thankfully, both sagas end well, but the warning is clear: Yosef's saga reminds us that exile is always intertwined with intra-Jewish fighting, brother vs. brother. As long as we are throwing our fellow Jew in the pit, we will suffer. Only when we learn to love & trust in one another will we escape Diaspora's dungeon & achieve liberation, living in the one & only land which is our natural habitat. And only when we achieve a sense of unity, as symbolized by the Menora - many branches, yet all of them emanating from one central base, spreading light in
every direction - will we reach perfection.


While in most homes, the Chanukiya is placed on a windowsill, so that it is visible within and without, the ideal spot, according to Jewish law, is to place the Chanuka lights at the door of our house, directly opposite the Mezuza. The Mezuza would be at the right side, as we enter, with the Chanukiya at the left.

These two uniquely Jewish objects carry a special message. When we enter our homes, as well as when we exit, we have to remember exactly who we are. There are some who feel that in public, on the street and in the workplace, where the world at large is watching, I have to behave in a decent, respectful, moral way. But when I come home, within the private confines of my own house, where I can close the door and pull down the shades, I can act any way I want.

And then there are those who feel just the opposite: Out there, in the competitive, dog-eat-dog business world, or among those who have their own standards of behavior and culture, I have to conform to the majority, to be as Roman as the Romans or as German as the Germans. But when I retreat safely into the bosom of my home, I can again be the kind of person - and the kind of Jew - I know I should be.

The Mezuza and the Chanukiya remind us that we must be but one kind of person - inside AND out.

I would add one note: Historically speaking, Chanuka would be our last major holiday for almost 2000 years. We would go into the long night of Exile with our final positive national memory being the rededication of the Temple. The fire of the Chanukiya would light our way through the twists and turns of our Diaspora experience, until that glorious moment when we would reclaim our land, and inaugurate new holidays - Yom Ha'atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim prominent among them - that would bring the light back to the nation of Israel, never to be dimmed again.

Chanuka, as you see, should never be taken "lightly!"
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