The Multiple Lights of Hanukkah

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on December 16, 2022

This year my family will be spending most of Hanukkah in Israel in preparation for the wedding of my son (who made Aliyah in 2016) which takes place immediately after the holiday. I am looking forward to seeing candles in windows all around me and eating over-the-top sufganiyot (jelly and cream filled fried doughnuts) from Israeli bakeries. I’ve also been thinking about the different meanings and understandings of this holiday for Israel/Israelis, and for Jews in the Diaspora, especially in North America (and perhaps Europe). At the same time I am preparing to write this, I am also preparing to teach the last session of my class on Practical Halakhah for first year rabbinical students, in which we will be discussing the "minor" festivals and fast days of the Jewish calendar including Hanukkah. As I (re)read the two major works of the Conservative Movement on Jewish law and observance (Rabbi Isaac Klein’s Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, and the chapter on "Holy Days and Holidays" by Rabbi Alan B. Lucas in The Observant Life, edited by Rabbi Martin S. Cohen) – and similarly two excellent guides to the Jewish yearly cycle by Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Michael Strassfeld – I am struck by a theme that recurs in every work. At heart is a question about the significance of Hanukkah in the Jewish year.

As noted, Hanukkah has long been considered a minor holiday – it entered the Jewish calendar well after the time of the Torah, and has no restrictions on work, no musaf service, not even a book of Bible to ground it. Therefore, as Rabbi Waskow writes, "Though almost two millennia, Hanukkah remained a real but secondary festival of the Jewish people." Yet today it is one of the best known and most commonly observed of Jewish holidays. Or as Rabbi Strassfeld laments (and Rabbi Klein says much the same thing), "in most American Jewish families, Hanukkah is much more important than the biblical holidays of Sukkot and Shavuot." And this may be true of some Israeli Jews as well. All of the sources I consulted, moreover, seem to agree that the modern prominence of Hanukkah is due to two different trends, one with a Diasporic focus, and the other with a focus on Zionism and the modern state of Israel.

The first of these should be fairly evident at first blush: bluntly put, Hanukkah's proximity to Christmas and modern developments in Christmas' ubiquitousness in our society at this time of year. Not a small number of Jews I know find December (and more and more, November as well) a very difficult time of year, a time when we feel our minority status in a predominantly Christian society most acutely. Many Jewish families feel the need to imitate some of the traditions of Christmas (such as lavish gift giving) so that our children and families don’t feel so left out. So too for the situation in Israel: the story of the Maccabees and their triumph over Antiochus and the Seleucid Empire, one critical element of the Hanukkah story, speaks to themes of Jewish nationalism and self-determination that are at the heart of Zionism and the modern revival of a sovereign Jewish state in the Holy Land. And on the face of it, these feel very, very different, even oppositional. One seems to emphasize assimilation or at least the tensions of living as a minority interacting with the dominant surrounding culture, the other independence from foreign influence and domination.

But the Judaism I love is – the reason I love Judaism and being Jewish is due to – a tradition that has always allowed for and embraced and encouraged complexity. And thus our understandings of Hanukkah and its relations to our political and cultural situations can be considered in other directions. For example, it is worth noting that the military victory, as already hinted above, is only one part of the Hanukkah story. The other does not appear in our tradition until later, in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21b) – "What is Hanukkah?" the passage asks, and then relates the story of the oil that lasted eight days. Why do the rabbis tell, or even add, this story? Among the possible reasons is that the subsequent history of the Hasmonean royal dynasty established by the Maccabees is rather less heroic than the story of its origins; eventually they became a vassal state of Rome, and also became corrupted and Hellenized. Winning a military victory and establishing functioning self-governance are not the same thing, and the latter is an on-going struggle the outcome of which is never guaranteed to fallible human leaders. One might merely cite five Israeli elections in a span of less than four years as a reminder of these challenges. As Rabbi Waskow writes: "in retrospect, the rabbis were critical of the meaning and ultimate outcome of the Maccabean revolt. And so, without utterly rejecting the national liberation movement, they refocused attention away from it toward God’s miracle – towards the spiritual meaning of the light that burned for eight days and was not consumed." And so too for the celebration of Hanukkah in the Western Diaspora, it is not only the miracle, but the battle for religious freedom and against assimilation that matters. Elevating Hanukkah for many Jews is precisely a message that despite the pressures of the culture around us, we retain our own vital traditions and our own unique Jewish identity.

In an entirely different context, the Mishnah (Berakhot 8:1) records a debate between the ancient Houses of Shammai and Hillel about the proper blessing to say over the candle at the end of Shabbat: Beit Shammai suggest God should be praised as the One "who creates the light of the flame," while Beit Hillel suggest the phrase should be "the lights (me’orei) of the flame," in the plural. In the talmudic commentary (Ber. 52b), the Babylonian sage Rav Yosef explains that according to Beit Hillel (and Jewish practice almost always follows Beit Hillel, including in this case), there are many lights in the fire. As with the havdalah candle, so too with other lights we use ritually. Which brings me to this conclusion from Rabbi Strassfeld: "the answer to the simple question Mai Hanukkah?—What is Hanukkah?—has continued to be like the flickering flame of the menorah. The flame never looks the same from one instant to the next, but at its core it remains unchanged."

And lastly, as Proverbs 20:27 tells us: "God's lamp is the human soul."  God not only created, but continues to create both the light of the flame and the light of our souls. Both the light of a flame and the light of our souls is multiple, complex and irreducible. There are many kinds of Jews in many places and circumstances and many meanings they bring to Hanukkah – and one eternal Jewish people. As Rabbi Lucas observes: "The real challenge for Jews of all types, secular and religious, inside and outside Israel, is to identify with and affirm Hanukkah’s authentic message of optimism and faith." Ken yehi ratzon, so may it be the Divine will.