By Rabbi Laurence Glestein
One of the most widely celebrated holidays on the Jewish calendar is the festival of Chanukah, which will be observed this year from the evening of December 22 until sundown December 30. What is the meaning of this festival?
On a simple level Chanukah commemorates the ancient military victory of the Jewish Hasmoneans over the Syrian-Greek forces who ruled over the land of Israel and subjugated its Jewish population.
The physical triumph of the Jews over their adversaries, however, would not alone warrant the establishment of a festival to be observed throughout the ages. Although the stunning victory of the small group of Maccabees over the mighty Syrian-Greek army was in itself an extraordinary event, the true focus of Chanukah is not this triumph. Accordingly, we do not celebrate the festival in the typical manner a military victory is commemorated; there are neither parades nor fireworks on Chanukah.
Indeed, the most visible symbol of the festival is the Chanukah menorah, an eight-branched candelabra with an additional candle in the center, which Jews kindle at sundown on each one of the festival’s eight evenings. In addition to the center candle, which is lit every evening, a single branch candle is kindled the first night, two branch candles are kindled the second night, and so on until the final evening, when all eight branch candles are lit.
There are indeed many lessons to be learned from Chanukah and the Chanukah menorah.
The menorah which is kindled on Chanukah represents the menorah which was lit each day in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. When the Syrian-Greeks controlled Jerusalem in those ancient days, they entered the Holy Sanctuary and defiled it in an attempt to eradicate Jewish observance of the Temple rituals.
When the Hasmoneans prevailed, these pious Jews wished to rededicate the Temple, but they only found enough ritually acceptable oil to last a single day in the menorah. By a miracle, however, this oil kept the menorah kindled for eight days, and the Sages thus ordained that Chanukah be observed for eight days each year in remembrance of this miracle.
It seems reasonable to ask why, if there was already enough acceptable oil in the rededicated Temple to last one day, the festival is not celebrated for only seven days, since that was the length of time the menorah burned due to the miracle. One of the answers to this question which I find quite meaningful is the notion that finding any usable oil in the defiled Temple was a miracle in itself.
We often overlook the “routine” aspects of life while focusing solely on the “wonderous.” The eight-day observance of Chanukah teaches us to be thankful for and appreciative of the daily “miracles” of life, health, and goodness.
Another insight can be gained from one of the blessings recited each night over the menorah. In this blessing G-d is praised for performing miracles for the Jewish people “in those days, at this season.” Our Sages have said that the phrase “at this season” refers to our own time. Jewish holidays are not merely meant to be commemorative celebrations; Jews are supposed to re-live the events and rejoice in them as if they were actually occurring today.
How can one achieve this aim? In tractate Shabbos the Talmud us that a Chanukah menorah which is placed more than a certain distance above the ground is invalid for use during the festival. The reason underlying this law is that the candles in the menorah must be visible to all.
An insight which can be gained from this ordinance is that any Jew, no matter how “tall” or “short” he or she may be — in knowledge and practice of Judaism as well as in physical height — can attain the warmth and spirituality associated with Chanukah.
Being Jewish means different things to different Jews. Nevertheless, we can all share a pride in being Jewish. The shining lights of Chanukah should serve to illuminate this pride and to re-awaken in all of us warm feelings for ourselves and our Jewishness. It is for this reason that we should take special pride in the kindling of the Chanukah menorah, which our Sages teach us should be placed in a window or elsewhere in public view.
Our remembrance of the Chanukah events should also serve to strengthen our faith in G-d, as we recall the faith of our ancestors who lit the menorah in the Temple even though they didn’t believe that there was enough oil to sustain it. Indeed, the light kindled by those Jews thousands of years ago continues to shine even during periods of physical and spiritual “darkness.”
The ver existence of the Jewish people despite centuries of persecution is certainly a tremendous miracle in and of itself. As long as we yearn to be part of the eternity of our people, then the light of the Chanukah candles can never be extinguished.
May we all enjoy a meaningful and joyous Chanukah.