Despite dropping temperatures and the dimming of daylight, most of us recognize that December is also a month of joy and celebration. While all around us the air becomes colder and the daylight hours shorter and shorter, the customs of winter holidays and festivals bring light and warmth to our homes and communities. Many faith traditions counterbalance the onset of winter through the celebration of festivals and holidays, employing a slew of traditions and customs that encourage us to draw nearer to friends and family, and to acknowledge that despite the cold winds of winter our homes can become full of light and love.
The details surrounding the observance of Chanukah are numerous and arguably obsessive. Perhaps some of us may have experienced being chastised as to the order, number, and sequence of kindling the Chanukah candelabra. Yet as in so much of Jewish custom and practice, when we take time to study and consider the details surrounding Chanukah practice, we see that in their best application these details bring increased awareness and intentionality to our celebrations. Even for those who would describe themselves as “less religious and more spiritual,” the details of Chanukah observance illustrate that religious attention to detail can actually work in tandem with increasing our spiritual lives and practices.
Therefore I think it would be fun and helpful to discuss some of the details of Chanukah observance, so that we too can add increased awareness and intentionality to our practice of Chanukah this season.
The Talmud, which is the multi-volume body of Jewish civil/ceremonial law redacted in 5th Century of the Common Era, contains several discussions surrounding the customs of lighting candles on Chanukah. The topic is introduced through the question “Where do we light the [Chanukah] candles?” We are told in Talmud tractate Shabbat 21b, that Chanukah candles should be placed by the doorway of one’s home from the outside. In periods of antipathy towards Jews, this guideline was addended to place Chanukah candles in the interior of one’s home by a window so that the candles could be visible from the exterior. From this it is possible to conclude that the light of Chanukah should be shared with world outside of our homes, symbolic of both our pride in Jewish identity and our willingness to share in the light of Jewish customs with our friends and neighbors.
Of course, the number of candles that we light on Chanukah is also full of significance. We are told again in the Talmud, Shabbat 21b, that each household should light a candle for each night of Chanukah. The Talmud passage continues that the household can accomplish this obligation with more beauty (mehadrin) if each member of the household lights their own individual candles on each of the eight evenings of the festival. From this detail we can deduce that full and active participation in the customs of Chanukah is encouraged. By actively engaging every single person in the celebration of Chanukah, the joy of this practice is increased.
The Talmud continues that one can fulfill the obligation of lighting candles with the greatest amount of beauty (mehadrin min ha-mehadrin) by consciously counting the amount of candles that each participant lights each night. In this matter, the Talmud presents two contrasting practices: according to the House (philosophical school of thought) of Shammai, we are to light eight candles on the first night, seven candles on the second night, and so on in a nightly diminishing of candles. The House of Hillel (considered to be the prevailing practice today) teaches that each participant should light one candle on the first night, two on the second night, and so on in a nightly increasing of candles until eight are kindled on the final festival night.
Each side of this debate has their rationale, which the Talmud records and presents within this same tractate. According to Shammai, the diminishing candles of Chanukah are to correspond with the practice of of diminishing sacrifices during the weeklong festivals in Temple times (citing Temple law that during the seven day, harvest festival of Sukkoth one was to offer 13 bulls on the first day, 12 bulls on the second day, and so on in sequence of diminishing the sacrifice each day by one bull). The House of Hillel eschews Temple custom in favor of symbolism- arguing that through the successive lighting of increasing Chanukah candles, we symbolically increase the holiness of our Chanukah celebration. According to Hillel the increasing of holiness is an overarching principle of Jewish life, and as such our practice of kindling Chanukah candles should also reflect this trend of increasing holiness.
And now, a few notes in conclusion: the details of Chanukah observance, in particular those surrounding the lighting of Chanukah candles, increase our awareness and participation in this Jewish custom. We display Chanukah candles in the windows of our homes in part to display pride in Jewish identity and the sharing of light and warmth with the outside world. Each member of our household is encouraged to light their own Chanukah candles so that all may partake in this joyous celebration. Lastly, if we are to follow the practice of Hillel, then the increasing number Chanukah candles symbolizes our Jewish commitment to increasing holiness within our lives and world.
May our practice of Chanukah this season be full of joy, love, intentionality- and through the kindling of these lights may we express our commitment to increasing light and holiness throughout the world.
Cantor Jay O’Brien