Rabbinic Reflections: Lighting, not lights

Now is the time to take back Hanukkah! Enough with the “Happy Holidays.” No need for a national chanukiyah [Hanukkah menorah] (nor local public square ones). Let’s give up on outdoor light displays to compete with neighbors’ Christmas lights (full disclosure, I staunchly supported such competition in the past). In fact, let’s stop using the chanukiyah’s allotment of eight branches.

This year, I think we should light just one candle each night. To be clear, the rabbinic law for Hanukkah candle lighting is that only one candle is required. The rest of what we do is supposedly beautification of the ritual.

Since the earliest days of Hanukkah, we know that Jews debated whether to light eight candles on the first night and consecutively less or to light one on the first night and consecutively more. They lit eight precisely to add beauty through light. We also know that in later years, having each person in the house light their own eight-branched chanukiyah was seen as the best way to add beauty through light. Again, though, the requirement never changed from just one candle per household.

Why am I advocating for minimalism when the trajectory has clearly been towards more light? After all, Jews have been additionally required to “publicize the miracle” since at least the fourth century. One candle is hardly publicity.

This year, I feel publicity is the wrong method for achieving the goals of publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah. For a long time now, Jews have made publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah an outward statement of Jewish pride. In America, I think rightfully so.

For hundreds of years, Jews were forced to light the chanukiyah in a private space within their homes rather than windows where others would see. Being able to light a chanukiyah in a town square is a significant, positive change for Jewish security and inclusion. This year, though, publicity has been too fraught with identity politics. This year, outward statements seem boastful and antagonistic. I think we need to focus more on the lighting and less on the lights.

Hanukkah should remind Jews of the military victory of a small band of Maccabees who stood up for the right to worship free of Greek control, and defeated an imperial army. Hanukkah should remind Jews of the miracle of finding light within ourselves — individually and communally. Hanukkah should remind Jews of the holiness of kindling a flame to have light for its own sake, not to work by and not to see by, but rather just to be able to add light into a dark world. Lighting one candle does all of this reminding just as well and perhaps better than lighting eight.

This year, I will focus on one light each night. I invite you to do the same. By focusing on the one light, I hope to find the light the Hanukkah miracle, the light of my Jewish soul, the light of my divine uniqueness. I hope you find your light, too; try to do so by focusing on the lighting.

** The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ownership or management of Chadds Ford Live. We welcome opposing viewpoints. Readers may comment in the comments section or they may submit a Letter to the Editor to: editor@chaddsfordlive.com


About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.



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