The WORD 12/15/11. We look forward to it all year. It is among the most widely practiced traditions in all of Judaism. We have eight chances to get it right. We are so familiar with it that we could probably do it in our sleep. Yet, we’re usually in such a rush to get to the presents that we rarely take a moment to consider its symbolism.
The ‘it’, of course, is the lighting of the Hanukkiyah – the special nine-branched menorah that we use to celebrate Hanukkah. So, let’s take a moment to think about some of the little things that are easy to overlook regarding the Hanukkiyah.
(1) It is important to place the Hanukkiyah in a prominent location that can be seen from the street. We have an obligation to publicize the miracle. At first, we might think that this simply means that we are reminding anyone who goes by our homes that the miracle of the oil took place some 2200 years ago.
However, there’s a second layer. We should be proud of our tradition. We should not feel compelled to hide our different views and practices. Thoughtful people of other faiths will have even more respect for us when we are proud of our own faith and take it seriously.
(2) Each of the eight candles which represent the eight days must be at the same level. The shamash (the candle we use to light the others) can be higher, lower or off to the side. The other eight must be even to remind us that no one day is any more important than the others. This symbolism should also remind us that no person, community or movement is any more important than another.
(3) Each candle must have a distinct flame; the flames may not touch one another. On the fourth night, for example, there must be four flames. Yet, together, they provide more light than any single candle could on its own. Similarly, let us remember that individual people can – and must be – distinct. Our differences bring a richness to our community. The collective is stronger as a result of the variety among individuals.
(4) When the lighting of the Hanukkah candles coincides with the lighting of Shabbat candles (as it does on the fourth night this year), we light our Hanukkah candles first and then our Shabbat candles. Once we light our Shabbat candles, further manipulation of fire is prohibited. Therefore, we fulfill our Hanukkah obligation first, and then begin the Shabbat. In this way, we remind ourselves of the primacy of Shabbat on Judaism’s communal calendar.
And so, as we light the our Hanukkah candles next Tuesday evening, let’s not concentrate exclusively on the gifts that we will give and receive. Let’s take a moment to consider the flames themselves as they are intended to remind us of the type of community we want to create between this Hanukkah and the next.