According to many historical sources, Chanukah represents the first battle for religious freedom after the Syrian Greeks tried to deny the small second Judean commonwealth its rights to practice and …
According to many historical sources, Chanukah represents the first battle for religious freedom after the Syrian Greeks tried to deny the small second Judean commonwealth its rights to practice and uphold Jewish life. This culminated in the success of the Maccabean military campaign in 168 BCE.
As part of restoring the sanctity of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled by the enemy forces, the menorah (a seven-branched candelabra, a central religious symbol of that religious sanctuary) was rekindled with a remaining small cruse of sanctified oil. While appearing to be sufficient for only one day, it miraculously burned for eight, long enough to prepare more during the succeeding eight days of the temple’s rededication.
This then poses the question as to why on Chanukah the Jewish people light an eight-branched menorah, the “Chanukiah,” instead of the traditional seven-branched one. One Rabbinic source notes that, after entering the destroyed holy space and reclaiming its sanctity, the Jewish people celebrated with a torch-lit procession using eight iron spears that were found on the Temple grounds. Implements of war were converted into symbols of spiritual strength and light. This custom prevailed until the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, after which the Jewish people would experience a 2,000-year period of exile from their homeland. Living among cultures often hostile to public religious expression, the Jewish people reduced and compacted the torch-lit parade of the past into a home-based ritual of lighting, using a much smaller but symbolic eight-branched menorah. Hence the custom and ritual that we are familiar with today.
In the principal text on this observance—found in the Talmud, tractate Shabbat 21b—the Rabbis debate the correct manner in which to light the Chanukiah during the eight-day holiday. The School of Shammai maintains that it should be lit in descending order, beginning with eight lights on the first night and decreasing by one on the subsequent seven days. The School of Hillel asserts that it be lit in ascending order—in Hebrew, “moseif v’holaych”—beginning with one and adding one each day until there are eight lights aglow on the final day of the festival. The latter opinion prevailed and thus became the normative practice that still endures. This is also in keeping with the Jewish spiritual and legal concept that, in acts of holiness, we must strive to add to their measure. We endeavor to raise ourselves to greater spiritual heights and ritual holiness. We are challenged to increase our levels of cultural and social growth.
The implications of such an approach are no less relevant and compelling today than they were in Talmudic times when this ruling was made. In these trying and troubling times, when darkness abounds on account of any number of social ills—not the least of which is the current pandemic and its challenging demands on our global society—the concept of increasing “growth in goodness” is all the more beckoning and necessary. In one sense, such thinking might be seen as counterintuitive. After all, so many of our national and cultural celebrations begin on a high note and then diminish and disappear—enjoyed in the moment before leaving us bereft of that spirit and excitement, but briefly experienced.
Instead, we might be better served by an attitude and worldview that can take a small light or ember and increase its strength and impact on life. The call to service and
commitment to the wellbeing of society begins with simple steps and small acts of kindness. The concept of social justice and communal concern should be seen as a work in progress. The belief in a better world becomes more possible when we look upon it as a process. It is not a zero-sum game but rather an aspirational approach that celebrates possibilities even amid what could otherwise be social blindness and human darkness.
The small flask of oil that lasted for eight days instead of the anticipated one was discovered by an unidentified, anonymous Kohein, or priest, serving in the temple. His willingness to light the lamp despite a paucity of fuel speaks to an awareness that improvement, healing and help need not wait for ideal circumstances to occur but can take root in smaller efforts that can and will grow over time. Each of us can be “moseif v’holaych” and bring greater light to life, hope and encouragement to those who hurt, as we step out of what are too often crippling comfort zones and away from our limited horizons.
Chanukah’s message through the manner of the Chanukiah’s kindling is to start small but think big. It encourages an expansiveness of heart and greatness of spirit. According to Jewish mystical thought, the number seven represents nature while eight stands for that which is beyond the usual and customary.
So, we start with one small light and add each day to its warmth and radiance. Instead of dwindling down in devotion and burning out of betterment, we build on our base. Perhaps these sentiments can best be captured in the simple but often ignored lesson that life is best experienced in “tending to the fire rather than worshipping the ashes.” May growth in goodness shine forth from our ever-increasing lamps of love for life and liberty, generously shared and nobly experienced.
Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler is the president and CEO of Sayva Associates, an elder-care practice based in Sullivan County. He has served as a pulpit rabbi, hospital and hospice chaplain, Jewish educator and communal executive.