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The Need to Stamp the Festival. . . The Festival of Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean victory over the powerful army of the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus IV (Antiochus Epiphanes) in 165 BCE. The Books of Maccabees and the Jewish historian Josephus describe various commemorative ceremonies in the years following this momentous event. But the Rabbis of the Talmudic period (2nd-5th centuries CE) knew that they needed to systematize these celebrations and take control of the ultimate message of Hanukkah. One of the ways in which they accomplished this was by transforming the commemoration into a home holiday.

The Manipulation of Meaning. . . The following is one explanation for this transformation, excerpted from a fine article by Noam Zion in his extraordinary compendium, A DIFFERENT LIGHT: The Big Book of Hanukkah, published by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

First, the Rabbinic candle lighting is a liminal ceremony, meaning it occurs at the threshold (“liminos” in Greek) in two senses. In space, the doorway is the border and the gate between home/street, private/public, family/national. In time, dusk is the border between day/night and light/darkness with all their metaphoric significance. The Rabbis required that each household “publicize the miracles of Hanukkah” by sending a message from the home to the public sphere, the market place. It seems more than a coincidence that when the Greeks tried to force every Jewish family to renounce its Judaism and to proclaim its loyalty to Hellenist culture, religion and politics, that the doorstep was the location chosen.

“At the doors of their houses and in the squares they burned incense [to the pagan gods].”

 In short, the Greek persecution was aimed not only at the temple and not only at requiring notables like Mattathias to offer sacrifices on public altars, but struck at family Judaism. Circumcision, Shabbat and Kashrut (or at least eating ritually pure foods) were the target as well. Many rank and file Jews defended their families’ Judaism even to the point of martyrdom. The martyrdom of the scribe Elazar, and of Hannah and her seven sons, is a person “bearing witness” (martyr in Greek means to bear witness) to the public persecutors that God, not Antiochus, is the final authority.

Therefore the Rabbinic “publicizing of the miracle,” house by house is more than a clever advertising campaign to spread information. It is a family bearing of witness to the public that we are a family loyal to Judaism. When the Rabbis encouraged individuals to go beyond the minimum requirement of one lamp per house and to light one lamp per individual, they mandated individuals within each household to voluntarily reiterate their personal commitment to the family’s public declaration of faith. . . .

Let us add a second note about the Rabbinic form of observance. The candles are lit one at a time in mid-winter at the darkest point of the cycle of the moon (the 25th of Kislev when the moon is just disappearing and then beginning as a new moon to reappear on the 1st of Tevet and then to wax slowly). This occurs also at the darkest phase of the solar cycle, the winter solstice (of the northern hemisphere). Unlike holidays of redemption like Sukkot, Purim and Pesach, which are celebrated at the full moon and at the fall and spring solstice, Hanukkah reflects the beginning of the redemptive process, not its completion.

Publicizing the Miracle. . . In the foregoing passage, Noam Zion alludes to the sole purpose of lighting the menorah, according to Talmudic tradition: to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. The lights of the menorah are to be displayed for all to see. They are not to be used for any purpose other than this. We are to look at them, and that it is all. They burn as a testament to our ongoing loyalty to our people, our tradition, and to God.

In this spirit, I wish all of you a Chag Urim Sameach – a joyous Festival of Lights.

CHANUKAH BLESSINGS

Candles are added to the menorah from right to left
and kindled in the reverse direction, from left to right.
On Shabbat, light the menorah before the Shabbat candles.

,בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲֹשֶר קִדְֹּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו
וְצִוָּנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר ֹשֶל חֲנֻכָּה

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav
v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe,
Who has sanctified us with Your mitzvot, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah lights.

בָּרוּךְ אֲתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶעָשָֹה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ 
בָּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha’olam, she’asah nisim la’avoteinu
bayim hahem baz’man hazeh.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who did wondrous things for our ancestors in days of old at this season.


first night only:
בָּרוּךְ אֲתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha’olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.
Blessed are You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life, and sustained us,
and enabled us to reach this season.