Sacrificial Light

Hanukkah is an unusual holiday for a number of reasons. One, like Purim, it is not mentioned in the Torah, but unlike the former, it is not even mentioned in the Bible at all. Two, its rituals are shrouded in a bit of mystery. The miracle of the oil, which is the origin of our lighting the menorah, is found only in the Babylonian Talmud, written perhaps 700 years after the Hasmonean revolt. The Books of the Maccabees, which were written closer to the events, never mentions the incident.

Not only is the origin of the menorah lighting obscure, the customs surrounding it are too. There was a debate in my house this year about which side to begin lighting the candles. The general custom is to light them left to right, but from which perspective? The menorah can be viewed from either direction. I argued that since we are obligated to publicize the miracle, the lights should be kindled left to right as seen from the street looking into our window, but my son argued it should be left to right from the perspective of those lighting the menorah.

I did a bit of research, and it turns out that I was wrong, and my son was right, although it should be pointed out that the direction of lighting itself is a matter of dispute among the rabbis because … of course it is. Two Jews three opinions and all that.

This question led to another. I had always learned that a menorah should be in a straight line, not a circle, curve, or slant, but a colleague and I searched in vain for a source to back up this assumption. We couldn’t find anything. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch, the most important code of Jewish law, writes that you can make a menorah out of bowl, which we presume would be a circle.

Perhaps this mythical prohibition against a non-linear menorah comes from the statement by the rabbis that the menorah cannot look like a bonfire. That is, each candle must be distinct and visible on its own. The best way to achieve this visual is with all of the candles lined up straight, but that does not mean a clever designer couldn’t find a way to achieve the same effect with a different shape.

From this rule, we can derive one of the values of Hanukkah – that we should be able to appreciate each individual light. David Zvi Kalman, in the Forward, notes that this idea is actually really difficult in the 21st century when electricity is ubiquitous. We don’t think about the cost of the Hanukkah menorah. I bought my box of 44 candles for $3 this year, and those were the semi-fancy kind. Before the advent of electric light, finding fuel to illuminate your home was an expensive proposition.

Hanukkah, Kalman argues, is less about the light of the candles themselves, and more about the sacrifice of light. The menorah must only be used to publicize the miracle of the holiday. It can’t do double duty and help you read a book or warm your cold hands. In that sense the light, and the fuel we burn to produce it (originally that olive oil used in the Temple), become an offering to God.

It’s hard for us moderns to appreciate this aspect of Hanukkah. After all, we wouldn’t even consider using the menorah for any practical purpose. Nonetheless, we could all benefit from the concept of sacrifice, the idea of giving up something precious to us for a higher purpose. What might you offer this holiday as you watch the lights burn and the candles melt?

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