Hanukkah, the menorah and light

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Hanukkah

Every holiday is accompanied by a mitzvah, serving as a physical channel for the soul connection.

The mitzvah of Hanukkah is the lighting of the menorah. When the sages instituted a mitzvah, they aimed to model it after a Torah mitzvah. The lighting of the menorah for eight days that we do commemorates the story of Hanukkah and is derived from the menorah in the Temple. However, there are three main differences. The first difference lies in the number of candles: The Temple’s Torah command featured seven branches, while ours has eight. The time of lighting is also different. The menorah in the Temple was lit before sundown; we light it after sundown. Finally, the placement of the Temple menorah was inside, by the Holy Sanctuary, and stood on the right side of the room. Ours is on the left side, placed close to the outside.

Illuminating the ‘outside’

Let’s look at the hidden symbolism within these differences and their components: Concerning the placement of the menorah, no other mitzvah (except for the Red Heifer) is linked to the public domain. And while other holidays like Purim celebrate miracles with great festivity, the key mitzvahs occur indoors. The main reason why our Hanukkah menorahs are uniquely placed close to the outside (in the doorway, facing out) is, as the Talmud states, to publicize the miracle. In addition to lighting the menorah with one’s family at home, it is often lit in a public place — and the more places the better.

In recent decades, presidents and politicians worldwide have actively taken part in the ceremony. Although a religious symbol, in the context of public lighting, the menorah has come to represent a broader universal message of hope and thanksgiving. It highlights the spirit and principles of this country’s founders, who expressed thanks to G-d, which is essentially what is being expressed by lighting the menorah — for saving the righteous from the wicked, as our prayers conclude, “these days were instituted to give thanks and praise to your great name.”

These public displays have been an inspiration to many Jews, evoking in them a spirit of identity with their people and the Jewish way of life. This is particularly relevant today, as individuals are wrestling with their identity and seeking ways to cope with growing hatred and instability.

The deeper reason, however, for the requirement of lighting toward “the outside” is to illuminate and uplift the environment with spiritual strength. In Jewish thought, the “public domain” also symbolizes multiplicity or divisiveness. In this sense, it lights up the darkness of the night both literally and the spiritual darkness, which is the root cause for exile, including the inner exile of feeling intimidated by one’s surroundings.

A little light dispels much darkness

This is also why we light our menorahs after sundown. Darkness has long been used as a symbol of evil across many cultures. Although this association often goes unexamined, the simple correspondence between the two concepts points to a universal force that conceals the divine purpose as it actively seeks to undermine goodness, wisdom and life — represented by light.

During the time of the Hanukkah story, when the Greeks sought to extinguish our allegiance to the Torah and mitzvahs, spiritual darkness increased in the world. Yet, after a fierce battle and miraculous victory, we revived the soul through a spirit of devotion, choosing an eternal bond over natural influences, as Greek culture primarily focused on nature and the beauty of physical form.

Moreover, the profound message behind the lighting of eight candles is that the number eight in Torah literature signifies a level within creation that transcends the natural order — an infinite light. (Incidentally, the Hebrew words for oil and for eight share the same letters.) The influx of this godly energy into our world, which manifested in the miracles we recount, was provoked through the brave self-sacrifice of Matisyahu and his sons.

When one’s Jewishness is threatened by haters, the innermost depths of the soul rise to the forefront, like crushed olive oil floats to the top of a cup mixed with water. Even typically cold or reserved individuals become inspired, ready to embrace the enduring flame of Torah and mitzvahs in a more comprehensive manner. This recurring theme is embodied within each flame of the menorah, brightening the minds and hearts of all who gaze at the flickering lamps.

The left-hand side

In Jewish mystical thought, the right side often signifies kindness or abundance, while the left side symbolizes the animal instinct within or external forces that oppose holiness. Our Hanukkah menorah is uniquely placed on the left side, distinguishing it from other mitzvahs, because it has a distinct power to combat — representing impurity and alienation from G-d.

The poignant implication is that evil exists. And antisemitism is a mystical mystery of the deepest sort, beyond the human mind, implanted into Creation by its Mastermind, never to be fully rooted out until the end of days. But more than any other time during the calendar, these eight days are opportune to bring light to the world. 

Takeaway

Hanukkah sends the message that each day there needs to be an increase in the holy light of the menorah which shines out into the street outside, making the world brighter. By thanking G-d for the miracles of the past, we will see new blessings and miracles. And we should receive the assurance that from this Hanukkah, G-d will answer us with long life, health and happiness to celebrate next Hanukkah and for many years to come.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayan-chai.org.

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