Public Displays of Hanukkiyot

A modern phenomenon that draws on basic Hanukkah beliefs

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President George W. Bush at a hanukkiyah lighting in the White House in 2001.

Today, it has become common for people to place their Hanukkah lights in the window for the neighbors to see; and one can even find some houses in Israel that have a special niche facing the front, in order to allow people to place their lit hanukkiyot (the plural of hanukkiyah) in a glass-enclosed display cases of their very own.

Dangerous Publicity

In a world that was not always tolerant of varying religious practices, the rabbis permitted the lighting of the Hanukkah lights inside on a table, if one felt that one was in a she’at ha-d’khak (a time of danger). This teaches us that, while publicizing the miracle is the central reason of the holiday, publicizing the miracle to one’s family is the essence, and further steps need not be taken if one perceives dangerous consequences.

Interestingly, even in the United States, where religious freedom is touted as one of the proudest achievements, the concept of she’at ha-d’khak has been tested, though not in the traditional manner of taking Hanukkah displays inside during times of danger. One modern example: In Billings, Montana, in 1993, a small boy placed a Hanukkah decoration in his bedroom window, only to have it destroyed when a rock shattered the window. In reaction to what was likely vandalism by members of an Aryan group, a campaign was started to have both Jews and non-Jews (the clear majority in Billings) decorate their windows with a hanukkiyah or with a picture of one. Ten thousand people joined in this campaign, and while several windows were still smashed, this town became quite an inspiration to many who appreciated its courage in the face of religious hatred and intolerance.

It is the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism that has propagated the public display of hanukkiyot in cities throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe--and even to Moscow in 1991. Their large, angular hanukkiyot can be seen in public places across the world. These displays also have made headlines because of controversies they have generated concerning the separation of church and state.

Litigating Hanukkiyah Displays

In 1989, the issue came as far as the U.S. Supreme Court in Allegheny County vs. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU. The court was to decide whether the county violated the First Amendment’s clause establishing that the government may not endorse or prohibit the free exercise of any religion. At issue was the displaying of a crèche (a Christian nativity scene) and a hanukkiyah on public property. The court ruled against the crèche but allowed the displaying of a hanukkiyah along with a Christmas tree, since the court perceived these to be secular symbols of religious holidays and therefore not an endorsement of any particular religious belief.

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Rabbi Iscah Waldman

Rabbi Iscah Waldman is the director of education and family programming at Ansche Chesed in New York City.