Publicizing the Miracle

The home ceremonies followed today were the conscious creation of the Talmudic rabbis.

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The Talmudic explanation of the laws and significance of Hanukkah in tractate Shabbat 21a-24a appears almost as an afterthought amidst a discussion of appropriate wicks and oils for Sabbath lights. Yet in this sole discussion of Hanukkah in the Talmud, the rabbis seem to be pursuing a definite agenda as they debate the details of the Hanukkah ritual--they are creating the ritual that will embody the meaning of the holiday. And for the rabbis, the spiritual goal of the Hanukkah ritual is to publicize the miracle of the oil (in Aramaic, pirsumay nisa).hanukkah quiz

Publicizing the miracle is so critical for the rabbis that they are willing to say that in certain situations kindling the Hanukkah lights takes precedence over that mainstay of Jewish ritual—reciting Kiddush over wine on the Sabbath. If a person does not have sufficient funds for both oil and wicks for the hanukkiyah (Hanukkah lamp) and wine for Kiddush, the rabbis recommend kindling the Hanukkah lights instead of making Kiddush. As the sage Rava thought through these issues:

"Rava inquired: Where the choice is between kindling a Hanukkah light and sanctification of the Sabbath day by blessing the wine, what is the law? Is sanctification of the Sabbath day preferable since it is a frequent obligation (whereas kindling the Hanukkah lights is only an annual event) Or perhaps kindling the Hanukkah light is preferable since its purpose is publicizing the miracle that God wrought for the Jewish people? After Rava asked this question, he himself resolved it: Kindling the Hanukkah light is preferable, since its purpose is publicizing the miracle.

Where to Light the Candles

old menorahThe rabbinical goal of publicizing the miracle even has implications for something so seemingly inconsequential as where Hanukkah flames are to be lit. For the rabbis, the lights must be kindled where they are to be displayed so that act and intent are one; and appropriate placement of the burning lights means making them visible from the public thoroughfare. Consequently, the lights should be kindled either at the outer doorway of one’s home or, if the home fronts onto a courtyard, then at the entrance to the courtyard.

Someone who lives on an upper floor is expected to kindle the lights in a window adjacent to the public thoroughfare. Because the purpose of the lights is to make a public statement, the only time that a person is allowed to light the candles “on his table” is in a time of danger.

To ensure that the Hanukkah lights are kindled solely for the sake of publicizing the miracle, the rabbis mandate that they not be used to provide light for any other activity, even Torah study. Some rabbis argued that using the Hanukkah lights for another purpose was, in effect, treating them disrespectfully; others saw the Hanukkah lights as a commemoration of the Temple Menorah, whose light could not be used for other activities, even sacred ones.

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Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.