Hanukkah Candle Lighting Ceremony

There is a set procedure that is followed in this home ritual.

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Reprinted with permission from Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration (Jewish Lights).

Open up a traditional prayerbook and look at the Hebrew index and you will find the words Seder Hanukkah, the "Order of Hanukkah." Like every other Jewish ritual, the Hanukkah candlelighting has a fixed order and choreography, what is known in Hebrew as a seder, a progression, and what in English we might awkwardly label a "Table Service."

The idea of a seder is of course best known from Passover, where a progression of 15 steps shapes a complicated process that allows us to re-live and re-experience the Exodus from Egypt. In the same way, we are used to daily and Shabbat services flowing through a fixed progression of prayers found in the siddur [prayerbook] (from the same root as seder). Even the way we conjure and welcome Shabbat into our homes every Friday night follows a fixed pattern of prayers and actions.

The Hanukkah ritual is too short to call a seder, yet it has a fixed order of blessings and a fixed progression of actions. This progression takes us through a process. Think of it as one of the rides at Disney World where you get into a car that rolls or floats on a track. The ride takes you through a process: You encounter one experience, then the next, then the next. The order is always fixed, the experience cumulative. Each blessing and each prayer in the Hanukkah candle lighting service has a purpose and a function in bringing the religious experience of Hanukkah alive.

1) First, we say the mitzvah berakhah--"lehadlik ner shel Hanukkah." [to light the Hanukkah lights]. This defines the act of lighting the Hanukkah lights as a "mitzvah," a commanded religious experience, and establishes an expectation that this act can lead--if we have the proper intention--to an encounter with the Divine.

2) Next, we say a berakhah of praise--"sheh'asah nissim la'avoteinu."  [Who created miracles for our ancestors]. This berakhah not only thanks God for the original Hanukkah experience that we are now recalling, but defines Hanukkah as the commemoration of a time when God performed miracles. In other words, this one-line berakhah teaches us Hanukkah's essential meaning (as expressed by the Rabbis): "Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit alone, says the Lord." In other words, we are clearly taught that Hanukkah is the acknowledgment of God's actions on our behalf.

3) As our final berakhah (and only on the first night) we say "shehecheyanu."  [Who has given us life]. This blessing is said at the beginning of every major Jewish religious experience. It acknowledges our entry into a special time, a holy time. But in a real sense, shehecheyanu is a connector. Its words thank God for "continuing our life," "continuing our establishment," and "bringing us along." In short, it is a blessing for growth and continuity. When we say it, we establish a link between the moment we are experiencing and the core of our life. It expresses the hope that this moment's meaning will further enrich the meaning of every experience that has led us here, and help to sharpen our sense of direction from here on. As the last expression of blessing on the first eve of the mitzvah, shehecheyanu is a call for connection and significance.

4) Haneirot Hallalu is a short prayer written in the Geonic period after the Talmud was finished, about 750-1038 C.E. It is a kind of instant Hanukkah lesson that reviews all the key points expressed in the Talmud. Haneirot Hallalu is a kind of miniature "Hanukkah Haggadah," a one-paragraph authorized explanation of the Hanukkah story.

5)      Maoz Tzur is a medieval song that further thanks God for the miracle of Divine intervention. It continues the themes begun in sheh'asah nissim la'avoteinu (#2) and expanded in Haneirot Hallalu (#4). It seals the Hanukkah ritual experience with a call upon God to work future redemptions, just as God effected an earlier redemption in the time of the Maccabees.

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Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the president of Synagogue 3000.