Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights commemorating the miraculous restoration of the Temple following the Hasmonean expulsion of the Greek occupiers from Jerusalem in 165 B.C., began this year on Friday evening, the beginning of the Sabbath. When the Hanukkah holiday begins on a Friday night, the eight days of celebration will end on Shabbat as well. The coincidence of two Shabbatot with the Festival of Lights is a matter of great moment, for both the celebration of Shabbat and the observance of Hanukkah constitute a direct link to the Temple, the dwelling-place of the Shekhinah—God’s indwelling on earth—and the wellspring of eternal life in the language of the Psalms.
In modern America, Hanukkah has become the Jews’ poor cousin to Christmas, a gift-giving and house-decorating holiday that shows drearily in juxtaposition to the universal Christian holiday. But the sages of antiquity instituted Hanukkah as a feast in perpetuity, not to commemorate a military victory, but to celebrate the miracle that ensued upon the dedication of the despoiled Temple. A single day’s supply of oil for the Menorah, specially purified for ritual use, burned miraculously for eight days. But the miracle too often is relegated to folklore attendant upon past glory. That sort of presentation of the Festival of Lights is a dissipation of the inheritance of Jewish children, whose home should be the living extension of the Temple. The parallelism to Christmas is far deeper than the annual trek to the toy store: where Jesus is to Christians the Temple and its promise of eternal life, the observant Jewish home is testimony that the Temple lives on in the Jewish home. It lives directly and literally, for the flame of the Hanukkah candles is the living and eternal flame of the great Menorah of the Temple still burning in the windows of Jewish homes.
The Hanukkah miracle does not so much symbolize as embody the eternal life of the people Israel. As Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson write in their 2008 book Resurrection, the “experience of the Temple in Jerusalem” is “an intimation of immortality, for “the Temple is the antipode of Sheol, as life is the opposite of death,” and “longing for the Temple can also represent a longing for immortality.” Hanukkah observance in the home, like the Shabbat ritual itself, transfers the functions of the Temple to the home.
This is misunderstood, or ignored, by secularizing Jews who find unreasonable the promise of eternal life. Writing in the New York Times December 10, David Brooks sympathizes with the Greek occupiers: “At its best, Hellenistic culture emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience. . . . It raised living standards, especially in places like Jerusalem. Many Jewish reformers embraced these improvements. The Greeks had one central idea: their aspirations to create an advanced universal culture. And the Jews had their own central idea: the idea of one true God. The reformers wanted to merge these two ideas,” just like the reasonable Brooks.
Brooks is not sure that he likes the outcome. “The Jewish civil war raised questions: Who is a Jew? Who gets to define the right level of observance? It also created a spiritual crisis. This was not a battle between tribes. It was a battle between theologies and threw up all sorts of issues about why bad things happen to faithful believers and what happens in the afterlife — issues that would reverberate in the region for centuries, to epic effect.”
There is a bit of misrepresentation here, an anti-salvation history, perhaps, as Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson observes in a recent essay on www.yeshiva.net. Brooks, Rabbi Jacobson drily observes,
sheds light on the brighter side of the Greeks…and also illuminates the darker side of the Maccabees, who liberated the Jews from barbaric Syrian-Greek oppression, but whose own regime became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. While admiring the Greek contributions to civilization – its politics, philosophy, art and architecture—it is easy to forget what Greek society was really like. Mr. Brooks fails to discuss the barbaric daily practices in Hellenist culture—Infanticide, pedophilia, pederasty, the Spartan lifestyle, and the glorification of torture in many instances. None other than Aristotle himself argued in his Politics (VII.16) that killing children was essential to the functioning of society. He wrote: “There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state.”
Apart from the odd paramour of an Olympian who turned into a star or a flower, no Greek expected to escape death, which was a dismal affair, as the shade of Achilles complained to Odysseus. Jews may or may not adopt the ambient culture—that separates today’s Modern Orthodox and Haredi—but what makes them Jews is their expectation that God will deliver them from death. What separates observant Jews from soon-to-be-former-Jews, though, is the very un-Hellenic idea that God so loved Abraham that he offered eternal life to the people Israel.
In Hasmonean times this promise of eternal life was manifest in the Temple at Jerusalem. But the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Not long ago a Catholic prelate asked me: “I never quite understood how Temple Judaism became rabbinic Judaism. Just how did that happen?” I answered: “Excellency, the altar of the Temple was smashed into millions of pieces, but each of them became the Sabbath table of a Jewish home. Come to my house any Friday evening, and I will show you the Temple.” The coincidence of the Sabbath with the first night of Hanukkah brings an additional dimension of continuity of the Temple with the Jewish home.
The Sabbath is both a remembrance of Creation—whose purpose was to create the single Day that stands outside of temporality—and the Exodus from Egypt, the moment of creation of God’s people—in the words of the Friday evening Kiddush chanted at the Sabbath table. It is also a continuation of the Temple itself.
When Hanukkah falls on Sabbath, all the symbols of the Temple live and shine again inside the Jewish home. The Sabbath table with its two loaves of Challah (representing the two rows of showbread at the Temple) is an extension of the Temple altar. The head of household acts in place of the priest, blessing the children of the family by laying on of hands, and offering the benediction of Numbers 6:24: “May the Lord bless you and keep you: May the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” The three Sabbath meals, an obligation of Jewish law, recalls the Jerusalem Temple and helps keep alive the belief that it will some day be restored.
Hanukkah transplants another dimension of the holiness of the Temple into the Jewish home: the seven-branched Menorah, which can be seen on the Arch of Titus at the ancient Roman Forum, carted away by Roman soldiery. The eight-branch menorah of Hanukkah, once a year, is lit in continuity with the purloined Menorah—not as a remembrance, but as a living recreation of the eternal flame.
This is explained by rabbinic authorities cited by Nathaniel Helfgot on the “Text and Texture” blog sponsored by the Orthodox Union. As Rabbi Helfgot reports, Rabbi Isaac Judah Trunk of Kutno (1879–1939) “proffers a fascinating theory in relation to the genesis of the lighting of Chanukah candles. He begins by noting that in the famous Talmudic discussion about the origin of Chanukah the section concludes with the statement that the next year they established it as a holiday “with Hallel and Thanksgiving” without any mention of the institution of the lighting of candles in each and every home.”
Rabbi Trunk wrote,
Since it is explained in the derasha of Hazal [the sages of late antiquity] cited by Ramban [Nachmanides] (Bemidbar 8:12) that the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles is an extension of the mitzvah of the lighting of the Menorah in the Temple, that through the lighting of Hanukkah candles, the lighting in the Temple is continued eternally, it is not far from (reason) to conclude that in truth, as long as the Temple stood, Hazal did not institute the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles, for at that time the Menorah in the Temple was still functioning…and only once the Temple was destroyed were Hazal concerned that the miracle might be forgotten for the lights of the Temple Menorah had been extinguished. Therefore, Hazal instituted the mitzvah of lighting on the doorsteps as a continuation of the mitzvah to light in the Temple.
Rabbi Helfgot further cites the interpretation of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903–1993), the Rav of Yeshiva University:
This novel, some might say radical, suggestion yields an interesting view of the neirot [candles of] Hanukkah. In contrast to other rabbinic practices that are termed zeikher le-mikdash [remembrance of the Temple], no such terminology is used in the halakhic literature to describe the lighting of the candles. In short, in this conception, the candles are not a zeikher [remembrance], but actually a continuation of the original mitzvah. In this reading it emerges that the home, the house itself, becomes the mikdash [Temple] in an intense fashion with the menorah perched in its outer “chamber”. We usually think of the synagogue as serving in the role of mikdash me’at [Temple in minature], but in this reading the home itself has taken on that role.
Judaism is not a doctrine but a life: the continuation of the life of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Hanukkah is the living continuation of the Temple of Jerusalem, and Jewish children should understand that the great gift of Hanukkah is to keep alive eternally the sacred fire of the Temple.
During Thanksgiving week the death of a close friend took me to Israel for a funeral and shiva. A bright light in that sad occasion was the opportunity to pray at the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, and to say Kaddish (with a minyan of Hasidim) for my late mother at the conclusion of the prescribed eleven months following her passing. My mother was not an observant woman, but the lighting of Hanukkah candles was a solemn event in our house, and the first Hebrew prayer I learned was the Hanukkah blessing of God “who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time of year.” To pray at the Wall is a reminder of the Messianic promise, for the Shekhinah, as the sages explained, went into exile with the Jewish people; it no longer dwells on the Temple Mount but in the fragile flames of the Sabbath candles, and, once a year, when a Jewish mother kindles the Temple flame before her children upon the eight-branched candelabra of her home.
David P. Goldman is senior editor of First Things.