​Chanukah Building Blocks

If anyone ever told you Chanukah wasn’t important, hang on to your dreidel!

This story comes from the JW archives.

by Rabbi Jennifer Krause

A young woman in one of my Jewish basics classes said, “I love Chanukah, but I know I’m not supposed to.” When I asked why, she replied, “Because it’s not an important holiday.” Although it’s true that Chanukah is not detailed in the Torah (like Rosh Hashanah or Passover), the rabbis of old thought Chanukah was important enough not only to make it a holiday, but to create the timeless rituals, customs and blessings we all love. Here is a “behind the scenes” look at some ancient texts that are the building blocks for Chanukah celebrations everywhere. Perhaps they’ll inspire you to see Chanukah in a brand new light.

We’re all accustomed to adding another candle each night of Chanukah. This text, a debate between two Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, reveals why:

Shammai says: On the first day eight lights are lit, and then we gradually reduce them. But Hillel says: On the first day one light is lit and then the lights are progressively increased. Why? Hillel says that we should always add to the sacred, rather than subtract. 

—Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b

Many of us place the Chanukah menorah (also called a Chanukiyah) in the window. This also is an ancient practice the rabbis took great pains to encourage, planning for how to display it in a variety of situations, from different types of dwellings where people might live to where to place the menorah in times of danger. Ideally, they wanted us to be able to publicize the Chanukah miracle (pirsum ha’nes)—to show that a miracle happened and that miracles still can happen.

Our Rabbis taught: Place the Chanukah menorah outside: right near the door of your house. But if you live in an upstairs dwelling without a front door leading directly to the outside of your building, place it in the window nearest the street. In times of danger, though, it is perfectly fine to simply place it on a table [out of plain sight]. 

—Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b

Just how critical is it that we kindle the Chanukah lights? Moses Maimonides (the Rambam), one of the most influential philosophers and sages in all of Jewish history, explained precisely how in his comprehensive guide to Jewish law and practice, the Mishneh Torah. If anyone ever told you Chanukah wasn’t important, hang on to your dreidel!

The commandment to light the Chanukah menorah is an exceedingly precious one, and you should be particularly careful to fulfill it so that you can publicize the miracle. When you light the Chanukiyah, you, too, are reminded of the miracles and wonders God has performed for us and are moved to express your gratitude and offer praise. The commandment to light the Chanukah lights is so important that even if the only food you have is what you’ve received from charity, you should beg, or sell your clothes if you have to, so that you can buy the oil and the Chanukah menorah you need to light the lights at this time of year.

—Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Seasons 4:12, 13

Although reading by the light of Shabbat candles is permitted, using the Chanukah lights for anything other than the sheer enjoyment of looking at them is not permitted. This, too, is a Talmudic concept that has been expounded upon throughout the ages. Here are two examples, one a precept from the Talmud itself, another a short prayer from an 8th-century post-Talmudic source, Masechet Soferim. This short prayer, “Haneirot Hallalu,” is one that many people sing each night after lighting the Chanukah lights.

Raba said: When the Chanukah menorah is lit, another source of light must also be lit whose light can be used. For instance, if a fireplace is blazing in the same room where the Chanukah lights shine, then they are shining purely for their own sake.

—Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b

We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you wrought for our ancestors in those days at this season. … During all eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred. We are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, but just look at them in order to give thanks and to praise Your great Name for your miracles, your wonders and your salvations.

The Chanukah lights are for everyone’s enjoyment, but particularly for women. This text, from a 19th-century guide to Jewish law and practice compiled by a Hungarian rabbi named Shlomo Ganzfried, states this precept that has evolved over millennia:

Work is permitted during Chanukah. However, it is customary for women to refrain from doing work of any kind while the Chanukah candles burn…

Rabbi Jennifer Krause is the author of The Answer: Making Sense of Life, One Question at a Time (Perigee). Her writing and commentary also have been featured in Newsweek, The New York Times, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She has served as High Holidays rabbi at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, where she also makes frequent appearances as a moderator and speaker.