Speaking truth to wisdom

A Chanukah message for the times

Posted 11/23/21

Last year in this column I addressed the meaning and development of the eight-branched candelabra, the Chanukiah, kindled on this festival to commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple in …

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Speaking truth to wisdom

A Chanukah message for the times


Last year in this column I addressed the meaning and development of the eight-branched candelabra, the Chanukiah, kindled on this festival to commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem of old. In an interesting set of developments, the Chanukiah, the name for the nine-branched candelabra, came to commemorate the rekindling of the seven-branched menorah that was a central religious artifact in those holy precincts.

This year, we’ll explore the primary purpose served by that act of lamplighting.

The Chanukiah is lit all eight nights to publicize the miracle of the rededication of the holy sanctuary and the miracle of it remaining lit and burning for the full eight days of the dedication period, with what was an amount of oil that should have lasted for only one day.

The ritual requirements associated with the lighting of the Chanukiah assert that it cannot be placed at a place higher than 20 cubits (a cubit being 18 inches) as the eye cannot properly see and track it at such a height. Jewish law related to this Chanukah practice also stipulates that ideally the menorah should be lit in one’s doorway. Further, if one has a doorway on other sides of one’s home, a Chanukiah should be placed in each of those doorways, so that an onlooker can view the sight and celebration from each of those directions.

So why does the law possibly require a Chanukiah to be placed in each of the four directions?

Chanukah’s focus on the theme of publicizing the miracle of reclaiming and rededicating the Temple and remembering how the Menorah remained lit for eight days goes beyond mere celebration. It is also about affirmation and declaration. The victory of the Hasmoneans over the Hellenistic forces aimed at the eradication of Jewish tradition is believed to be the first battle fought for religious freedom.

Similar struggles were to follow. The battles for society and its ideals are many and varied. As much as we wish to believe that both our civic and religious traditions are safe and being maintained in good order, we cannot rest on our laurels with this assumption.

In our own day and times we are seeing an assault on the very principles upon which our democratic society was founded and has flourished. And in defense of these traditions we dare not be silent or indifferent.

This concern for proper messaging and promotion of society’s key values might then be exemplified by the above oddity in Jewish law mandating the kindlings in all four directions.

For in the words of my late teacher and Rabbinic mentor, Rabbi Dr. Moshe David Tendler, a noted Talmudist and scientist, “when it comes to “pirsumei nisa,” or publicizing the miracles of the Chanukah drama, a half-page ad does not suffice.” Rather one must convey the full import of its message in the most optimal way.

Practically speaking, we do not observe the personal kindling of these lights in this expanded manner but light in one direction. This resulted from an ultimate need to remove the kindling act from an external experience to one that is internal and home-based, due to acts of persecution that have occurred through history.

But the message of a full-court press in defense of life and liberty as ensconced in the best of our democratic traditions still remains.

When our values need articulation and assertion, our efforts must be full-throated. We must use all reasonable avenues in their defense and protection. A half-page ad will not suffice.

In this light I am reminded of the story told about a visit to this country in the mid 1960s by the then-chief rabbi of Moscow, Rabbi Yehudah Levin. He was a noted scholar and righteous individual. But his leadership and religious freedom were compromised by Soviet restrictions and his visit included the presence of KGB agents who watched his every move. At a reception for him held at the spacious apartment of the Hon. Arthur Goldberg, former Supreme Court Justice and then U.S. representative to the U.N., Goldberg managed to lead the rabbi through a maze of hallways and secure a room where they could both speak freely. When aware of this newfound freedom, albeit temporary, the rabbi exclaimed, “if we can now speak freely then we must ‘shrei Gevalt’”—Yiddish for “scream to the Heavens!”

Seeing the Chanukiah placed in prominence and in clear view, while carrying a message and reminder from times of old in defense of freedom of religion, is also a message for the ages. We must “shrei Gevalt!”

We must speak truth to wisdom and be ever vigilant in the protection of the ideals and practices of a just and honorable democracy.

Chanukah in these unusual times of civic peril carries with it new light and serves as a beacon to guide us in pursuit of these critical values. “Nisa” literally means “miracle,” but its etymology is in the word for “banner.” As such “pirsumei nisa” means to hold the banner aloft, unabashedly, and with pride, purpose and conviction.

Chanukiah, Chanukah, lamplighting, menorah


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