Chanukah’s guiding lights


When I lie in bed on chilly mornings, waiting for the sun to rise, I think about what it might have been like with no artificial lights to extend the daylight and protect us from the darkness. In this season of long nights, which we mark with Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, I imagine the bewilderment of the indigenous ancients, as they searched the sky while the days grew shorter and the expanses of darkness threatened to overwhelm them. 

At what point, I wonder, did humans become confident that the light would return and that the days would again grow longer and warmer? What role did their fear — that the sun was disappearing forever — play in the creation of the December/Kislev rituals of lighting oil lamps and candles, as if engaging sympathetic magic to grow the light? 

We are about as far in time from the sages, whose voices are recorded in the Talmud, as they probably were from the time when Abraham and Sarah were understood to have lived. They, in turn, were just as far from the ancient festivals of Ur, where they were born, and other Mesopotamian and Sumerian cities of antiquity that observed this month with holidays whose names mean “the-month-of-carrying-fire” and  “the-bringing-forth-of-braziers” (referring to containers for hot coals used for heat, cooking and rituals). However, the choreography of these festivals of illumination still was evolving when the sages held their discussions about Chanukah that have come to us in the words of the Talmud. 

The convention for lighting today’s chanukiyot was established in a historic controversy between Hillel and Shammai, two Jewish sages of the last century B.C.E. and the early first century. These elders of the Jewish tradition founded two opposing schools that bore their names: Beit (The House of) Hillel and Beit (The House of) Shammai. In general, Shammai took a more authoritarian and strict position in their debates on law, ritual practice and ethics, while the views of Hillel tended toward patience and inclusion. Historically, the Talmud almost always sided with Hillel in resolving the issues discussed; still, both opinions are preserved in the text. This affirmation of diversity, a common feature in the Talmud, validates both sides of an argument when it is made “in the name of heaven.” It deems both sides holy, even when the argument is contentious, and even when one side is the clear victor. This inclusion is, in my opinion, one of Judaism’s essential lessons. 

One of their better-known controversies has to do with the lighting of the Chanukah lamps. In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), the disagreement is framed thusly: 

Shammai says: On the first day, light eight and thereafter, gradually reduce; but Hillel says: On the first day, light one and thereafter progressively increase.

Shammai saw the lights as corresponding to the days of Chanukah that still lay ahead. So on the first night, each of the coming seven nights would be marked with a light, with a decreasing number of lights kindled as the holiday continued. Hillel, on the other hand, believed the lights should mark the days of the holiday that have past. Hillel asserted that, like matters of sanctity and holiness, the lights should increase, as we go from strength to strength, multiplying light and holiness into the world. 

Rituals invite projection. The question about a ritual isn’t, “What does it mean?” but “What does it elicit?” What happens to you when you smell the Havdalah spices at the end of Shabbat or when you hear the sound of earth hitting a casket after it has been lowered into the ground? The transformative power of a ritual calls for us to engage our senses to short circuit our rational mind, as we braid communal and traditional meanings of a practice with our individual responses.

This constantly renews rituals, as each person brings their uniqueness to a traditional practice. This gives them a chidush, or new meaning, while solidifying their continuing relevance in a changing world. We braid ourselves into the tradition. We are mutually strengthened. We own it and it owns us.   

The rabbinic chidush fused the story of the Maccabees’ rededication of the Temple, after wresting it from the Seleucids, to the ancient need to kindle lights in a dark time. Revisiting the debate between Hillel and Shammai, regarding the kindling of the lights of Chanukah, is an opportunity to explore the values that our shining candles and oil lamps encode, and can return us to the wonder with which we should bless the lights. 

I see merit in the arguments of both Hillel and Shammai. Each embeds a theological stance, which might be consistent with their authors. I imagine myself staring at Shammai’s chanukiyah, after it has been lit, on the first night of the holiday. Its blazing light conjures the dramatic charisma of incandescent authority. I am inspired by the flash, but also blinded. Eyes closed, in response, I bask in the fire’s warmth. I feel safe and protected. On the ensuing nights, as the lights diminish, my anxiety increases. I am colder. Where will the light come from? I think back to the first night’s intense light for an answer — a strong signal, calling out to The Miraculous Source of Light, as the hours of sunlight gradually begin to increase. The message here is: Humans call and God responds. It ponders a theurgic relationship between powerful humans and an all-powerful God.

Hillel’s procedure, on the other hand, begins with humility. Who are we to summon the light? The first night we gently touch match to wick as we say the blessings and sing the songs. The resulting light strengthens our resolve for the second night. Not only does holiness increase, night after night, as Hillel foresaw, but we sense increasing empowerment as we progress to the eighth night of Chanukah. With each night’s illumination, we garner more courage. Lo and behold, by the last night of burning candles or oil, the days have grown longer. Although it feels audacious to assert it, we have the sense that we have worked together with The Miraculous Source of Light to align ourselves with the longer days. We are partners with the Miracle. The light we hold in our own hands is mirrored above. 

Notice that I described my imagined experience of Shammai’s practice in first-person singular, whereas Hillel’s procedure was described with a collective pronoun. I suspect I see in Shammai’s approach the power of individual authority. However, I also see, in the distance between the bright light of the first night and the return of the longer days, a distance between the human actor and God. With Hillel’s practice, as we approach the full blaze of Chanukah slowly, it feels as if the collective is slowly mingling with the increasing light above. It feels more democratic. God feels more accessible.   

Clearly, I stand with the Talmud and with Hillel’s prescription for the ritual. I love the sense I get each year, in the dark days near the winter solstice of watching the lights grow brighter as the days of Chanukah proceed and Chanukah lights appear in windows in fulfillment of the talmudic injunction that we should “publicize the miracle.” In addition, to my 21st-century eyes, Hillel’s manner of kindling the lights imparts a hope that brighter times are ahead for us, whereas Shammai’s blaze at the beginning conveys the sense that the sunny times are in the past.  

That we should dare to strike matches in the dark at all is a message that repeats itself through Jewish liturgy and practice. It brings to mind the words of the Aleinu, the prayer said near the end of most Jewish worship services. Aleinu literally means “It’s on us.” I have the sense that the service that precedes the prayer provides us a respite from the world. It gives us an opportunity to marinate in Judaism’s values and concerns and to restore our alignment with those fundamentals of holiness. Sitting or standing, as the service’s choreography instructs, we re-energize our commitments, so that when the Aleinu comes, we can stand together as a community with the strong commitment to prepare to courageously walk that holiness into the world.    

This commitment to increasing holiness calls for the same courage that it takes to strike a match in a time of darkness, or to be like the Maccabees and kindle a cruse of oil discovered in the newly liberated Temple that was ample for only one night. It is congruent with Hillel’s imperative that we are to increase holiness, as well as the sense of lighting as an audacious act of heroism in a dark, dark time. The Maccabees are our role models for empowerment. They teach us that we must act. When the lights above seem to disappear (Aleinu), it is upon us to strike the match. Perhaps the greatest miracle is human empowerment.

This empowerment often comes after times in the darkness. At times when it is hard to see, when, perhaps, we feel we have lost our way, we often wait, shivering in the darkness, hoping for some authoritarian godlike creature to lead us into the light, forgetting that it is the light inside of us that must kindle the change for which we yearn.  

As you prepare to bless your holiday candles, I would like to remind you of an often forgotten understanding of what blessing means, when it is done in Hebrew and not translated from English. It returns us to our own indigenous roots and underscores the miracles of the season. The word baruch (bless) is related to the words birkayim (knees) and bricha (pool), a connection that may seem elusive to our contemporary minds. Nevertheless, imagine our ancestors, trudging through the desert, tired, dry and thirsty, certain that relief will never come. Suddenly, there appears in the distance a pool of water. What would they do? Like the subtle dance performed in the synagogue whenever the word baruch is recited, they would bend their knees. Filled with awe and gratitude, I can imagine they would get close to the ground, cup their hands, fill their mouths and shower themselves with the refreshing water, shouting out their amazement to the Miraculous Source of Blessings. 

May you feel that amazement as you prepare to journey from dark to light and recite the blessings that begin the Chanukah liturgy.


Rabbi Anne Brener, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and spiritual director, teaches about ritual, death and dying, and spiritual development at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, where she is a professor.

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