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Flames of Rebellion

Flames of Rebellion

Lighting Hanukkah candles is a brave act in the Maccabean tradition.

by

Certain aspects of Hanukkah have long bothered me, eluding my attempts at understanding.

First is the fundamental obligation to light a menorah at home, what the Talmud describes as Ner ish uveito – "a candle for each and his home." But the event commemorated on Hanukkah is the recapture of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the relighting of its Menorah. Why is this commemorated primarily by lighting in individual homes?

On Purim, by contrast, the commemorations take place mostly in public: reading the Megillah in synagogue, exchanging gifts with neighbors, giving charity to the poor. Hanukkah has no such communal aspect, no central public observance.

Next, the Talmud states that the preferred location for lighting the menorah is by the public entrance to one's home, positioned at the left of the doorway – "so that the mezuzah is on the right and the Hanukkah candle on the left.”

In what way do Hanukkah candles resemble a mezuzah?

The Hanukkah candles are portrayed as parallel to the mezuzah, both physically and symbolically. But why? In what way do Hanukkah candles resemble a mezuzah? What does this juxtaposition signify?

Finally, the Talmud states a rule that we generally do not follow today: If one's home has two public entrances facing different directions, one must light Hanukkah candles in both of them, lest passersby suspect that one has not lit candles at all. What an odd requirement! Shouldn't we judge favorably, and assume that if we see no candles on one side of the house, surely the owner has lit at the other side?

Similarly, the law requires that Hanukkah candles be lit at nightfall and continue to burn "until the feet have left the marketplace." At least one opinion interprets this to mean that if the candle goes out while there are still people in the street, one must relight it. Again, it seems we wish to avoid the possibility that someone might pass by, not see candles lit, and assume that the household did not light them at all. Why this compulsion to allay all possible suspicion?

Public Stand

I'd like to offer a novel theory which – with Occam's Razor simplicity – may at once account for multiple observed phenomena.

The key is the mezuzah. This commemorates the Exodus from Egypt when the Israelites were commanded to smear their doorposts with blood from a sacrificial lamb (Exodus 12:7). The blood on the doorpost was a public sign of identification with the nation and with God, an outwardly visible statement that this home contained unabashed supporters of the slave rebellion.

This was precisely the origin of the Hanukkah candles. The Hasmonean-led rebels, a small band of brave warriors, had won a stunning battle against the Syrian-Greek occupiers. Against all odds, and with the open support of only a small portion of the Jewish public, they recaptured the Temple, rededicated its altar and relit its menorah. But contrary to common understanding, the war was far from over. The fighting would continue for another 20 years.

The Jewish public was split in its support for the rebellion. Some, especially the political elites, openly allied themselves with the Syrian-Greeks and adopted Greek culture and religion. Others supported the rebels to varying degrees. But most people, naturally, were reluctant to take sides. They just wanted to be left alone, to lie low and live their lives as safely and peacefully as possible.

If the recapture of the Temple was to be followed by further victories, the rebels needed to gain as much public support as possible. They needed to win hearts and minds, to persuade the common folk to take a public stand. The Temple victory could be leveraged into further success if it could be used to demonstrate that the war could really be won.

Perhaps that is why the Sages decreed the following year that all Jewish homes should light candles in commemoration of the miracles. Every home with a “Hanukkah candle” was another supporter of the rebellion. The more candles people saw lit, the more they felt brave enough to light their own, openly declaring their sympathies and perhaps even joining the battle. A home without candles was under suspicion, presumably still loyal to the occupying forces, or at least unwilling to take a stand against them. Perhaps, in areas where the rebels were strong enough, those holdouts who refused to light candles would find, as in Egypt, that their very lives were in danger.

The flames of the Temple's menorah figuratively spread from home to home until Jews everywhere lit Hanukkah candles in solidarity – just as today our flame spreads nightly from candle to candle until all eight blaze in proud glory.

Course of History

Hanukkah famously celebrates the victory of the few over the many, the weak over the strong. But more importantly, it tells the story of how a few rebels can defeat a large strong army. Yes, they need to hide out in caves and tunnels, to amass weaponry, to train warriors in secret. Beyond that, they need to win public support for their cause. They need to spread their ideas. And when they won a crucial but limited victory, they need to rekindle hope among the people, to inspire them to declare loyalty in public, to give them the courage to join the fight – and to expose those who refuse to come along.

Hanukkah is about the inspirational power of ideas, and the courage to fight for them. It is about the crucial importance of each and every family standing up for our national cause. It is about how a small, symbolic act of public defiance, repeated thousands of times in home after home, can change the course of history.

The candles were not merely a reminder of the victory in the Temple; they were the vehicle for winning the rest of the long war. So too today, everyone who lights Hanukkah candles is a brave, indispensable participant in the Maccabean tradition.

Published: December 6, 2012


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