Tag Archives: Chanukiah

Chanukah & the Light of Creation

Tonight we light the second candle of Chanukah. As is well-known, Jewish law forbids using the light of the Chanukah candles for mundane purposes. At first thought, this is strange since all other holiday candles which we light may be used for mundane purposes. One can have a candle-lit dinner with the Shabbat candles on the table, yet the same cannot be done with Chanukah candles. This is actually why we light an additional (“ninth”) candle called the shamash, whose job is to “protect” the light of the Chanukah candles so that we do not inadvertently make use of them. Why is it that the Chanukah lights must not be used? To answer this question one must go all the way back, long before the Maccabees, to the very beginnings of the universe.

(Credit: Oren Rozen)

The Light of Creation

When we open the Torah we read how God’s first act of Creation within an empty universe was light. God said “Let there be light”, and so it was. A few paragraphs later, we read that on the fourth day God created various luminaries to “give light”, including the sun, moon, and stars. If the things that naturally give off light were only created on the fourth day, what was the light of the first day? The Sages (Chagigah 12a) grappled with this apparent contradiction:

But was the light created on the first day? …This is [to be explained] according to Rabbi Elazar, for Rabbi Elazar said: “The light which the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the first day, one could see thereby from one end of the universe to the other; but as soon as the Holy One, blessed be He, beheld the generation of the Flood and the generation of the Dispersion, and saw that their actions were corrupt, He arose and hid it from them…”

Now the Tannaim [differ on the point]: “The light which the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the first day one could see and look thereby from one end of the universe to the other,” this is the view of Rabbi Yaakov. But the Sages say: It is identical with the luminaries; for they were created on the first day, but they were not “hung up” until the fourth day.

On the simple level, the Sages agreed that the light of the first and fourth days were really the same thing: while God created the luminaries on the first day, He only set them in their specific locations and orbits on the fourth day. This is in line with another opinion that God really created everything in one instant, on the first day, and on the subsequent “days” He simply put everything in its place. [For an explanation of this, see the Ramak’s (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) Pardes Rimonim 13:5.]

On a deeper level, as expounded by Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yaakov, the light of the first day was an entirely different entity. Unlike the familiar, physical light of the fourth day, the light of the first day was a special, mystical light which contained the power for one to see across the universe, through all of time and space. According to the Zohar, this is the special radiance of Creation, from which all things were fashioned (as we’ve written in the past). This idea is already noted in the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 12:6) which adds that “the light with which God created the universe [was given] to Adam, and with it he stood and gazed from one end of the universe to the other.”

Adam and Eve were given this Divine Light as a gift. However, once they consumed the Forbidden Fruit, that light disappeared. In fact, the Kabbalists explain that initially Adam and Eve saw the world entirely through this Divine Light, and themselves glowed with this light, and when they looked upon each other, they saw only each other’s light, which is why they were unashamed. After consuming the Fruit, that light disappeared, and when they looked upon each other they saw frail skin, and all of its lustful trappings. This is why they were suddenly ashamed and wanted to hide.

The Kabbalists explain that this is the mystical meaning of the interplay between the words for “light”, or (אור), and “skin”, ‘or (עור), words that sound the same and are written which just one substitution: The singular, holy aleph replaced with the ‘ayin, which literally means “eye” and represents this illusory physical world. Before the Fruit, Adam and Eve saw light; afterwards they saw only skin. (See Beresheet Rabbah 20:12, Zohar I, 22b, and Pardes Rimonim 13:3)

This is the deeper meaning behind God’s first word to Adam and Eve after their fall: “Ayeka?” The term literally means “Where are you?” referring to the fact that Adam and Eve were hiding because they were ashamed. Of course, God knew exactly where they were. So what did He mean by Ayeka?

Ayeka

The Sages explain that the original Divine Light, called Or HaGanuz, the “hidden light”, only shone for 36 hours. There are two opinions as to how one reaches this number. The first (as in Beresheet Rabbah cited above) is that the Light shone for the entire 24 hours of the first Shabbat, as well as the 12 hours preceding that Shabbat, from the moment that Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day. The light disappeared at Shabbat’s conclusion, which is one reason why we perform Havdallah at the end of Shabbat, symbolizing our hope for the restoration of that Light. Alternatively, the Light shone for the first three days of Creation, before those physical luminaries were created on the fourth day. Since each day had 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark, that means each of the three days had 12 hours of this Divine Light, totalling up to 36.

In reality, both opinions are correct. The Divine Light initially shone for those first three days—36 hours—and was then concealed by the new physical luminaries. On the sixth day, when God created Adam and Eve, He entrusted them with that Light, and they possessed it for 36 hours until the conclusion of the first Sabbath, neatly mirroring those 36 hours of the first three days. When Adam and Eve consumed the Fruit, the Light disappeared from them, and was taken back up to Heaven, stored beneath God’s Throne (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 499). This brings us back to Ayeka. The gematria of that word (איכה) happens to be 36. When God called out to Adam and Eve and said Ayeka, what He meant was not “where are you?” but “where is the Light?”

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole

Restoring the Light

While the Or HaGanuz has been hidden for now, it reveals itself in this world through several channels. We find that same number 36 in a number of important places. Most notably, when we look at the actual number of texts in our Holy Scriptures, we find that there are 36: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hoshea, Yoel, Amos, Ovadiah, Yonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Tzephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles. While we generally group these texts into 24 “books” of the Tanakh for convenience, there are exactly 36 independent works. This reminds us that the Holy Scriptures contain within them the Divine Light, and through the study of these texts we can receive a glimpse of it.

Similarly, the Bnei Issachar (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapiro, c. 1783-1841) points out that there are 36 tractates to the Talmud. Study of Torah—whether Written (Tanakh) or Oral (Talmud)—serves to restore that Divine Light little by little. Naturally, this parallels the idea of the 36 Perfect Tzaddikim. The Sages state that in every generation there are exactly 36 perfectly righteous people alive, and the world only continues to exist in their merit (Sanhedrin 97b). They contain a spark of that Divine Light within them. And on the calendar, too, there is a month in which finding the Or HaGanuz is particularly auspicious. This is the month of Kislev which, the Bnei Issachar points out, is a contraction of kis (כס) and lev (לו), the former meaning “hidden” and the latter having the value of 36.

That brings us right back to Chanukah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev. We light one candle on the first day, two on the second, and so on. The total number of candles lit over the course of eight days just happens to be 36. The Chanukah lights are symbolic of that special holy light of Creation. One should not for a moment think that these are just mundane, physical lights. And this is the mystical reason for why Jewish law forbids using the Chanukah lights for any purpose. One should constantly meditate on the fact that the light of the Menorah represents the Or HaGanuz, the light of Creation, the holy light with which Adam and Eve “saw from one end of the universe to the other.”

Jewish law also requires one to place their Menorah in a widely visible spot. We must “publicise the miracle” as much as possible, hence the many public Menorah-lighting ceremonies that take place around the world, and the many electronic chanukiahs found outside synagogues, in shopping malls, and on the roofs of cars. We are not just commemorating the Chanukah miracle, but the Jewish mission to bring light into the world (as Isaiah 42:6 famously states).

From a mystical perspective, we light 36 candles to remind ourselves that our mission is to rectify the cosmos and reveal the primordial holy light of God. We remind ourselves that we should strive to return to being like the original Adam and Eve, who glowed with this light, and who looked past the deceptive skin to see the pure light within each other. When we learn to recognize each other’s inner glow, then we will merit a return to the luminous Garden of Eden.

Chag Sameach!

Chanukah: Did the Jews Really Defeat the Greeks?

“No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. Personally, I have always been on the side of both…”

– Winston Churchill

Chanukah is perhaps the most famous of Jewish holidays. The nine-branched candelabrum, the chanukiah, is instantly recognized by people around the world. One reason for this is because of the halakhah of pirsumei nissah, literally “publicising the miracle”. Although just about every Jewish holiday revolves around some kind of miracle, it is particularly with regards to Chanukah that there is a special mitzvah to publicize its wonder. And so, one can find a glowing, public chanukiah on display in pretty much every major city on the planet.

Chanukah Around the World

The purpose of the chanukiah is well-known: after defeating the Greeks and recapturing Jerusalem, and its Holy Temple, the Jewish warriors led by the Maccabees discovered only one cruse of oil for the Temple menorah (this one with seven branches, as the Torah commands). Although the oil was meant to last only for one day, it miraculously burned for eight, the amount of time necessary to produce a fresh batch of olive oil.

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem's Temple Institute

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem’s Temple Institute

This is the story as recounted in the Talmud. However, the more ancient Book of Maccabees (which is part of the apocrypha, scriptural texts that did not make it into the official Biblical canon) provides a different reason for the eight-day festival. Here, we are told that since the Temple was still in the hands of the Greeks two months earlier, the Jewish nation was unable to celebrate the Torah festival of Sukkot. Of all the Torah-mandated holidays, Sukkot is most associated with the Temple, and was celebrated with many offerings on the altar, along with water libations, and eight days of revelry. Since the people were unable to commemorate Sukkot properly in the month of Tishrei, they decided to commemorate it in the month of Kislev instead, now that the Temple was back in Jewish hands. So, they kept an eight-day festival, with offerings, libations, and revelry, both in honour of the belated Sukkot, and to celebrate their victory over the Greeks.

A David and Goliath Story

Chanukah is a beautiful underdog narrative. The mighty Syrian-Greeks (better known as the Seleucids, to differentiate them from the mainland Greeks in Europe) are imposing their Hellenism upon the conquered and impoverished Jewish people, still struggling to rebuild after the decimation of the First Temple period. The Greek king, Antiochus, demands the sacrifice of a pig upon a Jewish altar, and the Jews refuse. Well, at least some of them do.

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit-Jniemenmaa)

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit: Jniemenmaa)

At the time, there were many Hellenized, assimilated Jews among the masses that were very much okay with a pig on the altar. (It seems that history repeats itself: the first graduation ceremony in 1883 of Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, consisted of frog legs, crabs, and shrimp, among other non-kosher foods, earning it the nickname, “the treif banquet”.) Matityahu the High Priest wouldn’t have any of it, and together with his five sons—soon to be known as the “Maccabees”—started a revolution.

More than anything else, this was a civil war between traditional Jews and the Hellenized ones. Of course, the Hellenized Jews had support from the Greek government, which soon brought in some 60,000 troops, together with war elephants, according to the Book of I Maccabees (4:28-29). The Maccabee forces managed to scramble 10,000 mostly-untrained, guerrilla warriors. Ultimately, the 10,000 overpower the professional Greek army. The Seleucid Empire would never be the same again, and less than a century later, would totally come to an end.

Spiritual vs. Physical

Today, the Chanukah story often carries the same message: the Greeks were materialistic, promiscuous, Godless people, while the Jews were moral, spiritual, and God-fearing. Chanukah, then, celebrates the triumph of righteousness over licentiousness, religion over secularism, spirituality over physicality.

While the above description of the Seleucid-Syrian-Greeks may be true, it presents a false image of the Greeks as a whole, and one that isn’t at all consistent with traditional Jewish holy texts, especially the Talmud. In truth, the great Jewish sages of the Talmud valued and respected the Greeks. They stated (Megillah 8b) that it is forbidden to translate the Torah into any language, except Greek, which the rabbis considered a rich and beautiful tongue. The rabbis also adopted the Greek style of democratic government, with elected officials sitting on the Sanhedrin, from the Greek root synedrion, meaning “sitting together”.

One of the earliest known synedrions was established by Alexander the Great, made up of representatives from across his vast empire to assist him in government. The Talmudic sages spoke highly of Alexander the Great. According to legend, Alexander saw a vision of the Jewish High Priest before coming to conquer Jerusalem. There are several versions of this story, but all agree that Alexander was grateful to the High Priest, and spared Israel from his destructive conquests (as well as from paying tribute, according to some sources). In turn, the rabbis adopted “Alexander” as an honorary Jewish name. Indeed, one of the sages of the Talmud is Rabbi Alexandri, and many other rabbis have Greek names, such as Hyrcanus, Teradion, Antigonus, Dosa, Papa, Symmachus, and Tarfon.

These rabbis gathered in various learning academies across Israel and Persia (producing the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, respectively). Their academies were very similar to the Greek academy. In fact, the successors of a Greek academy spoke very much like the rabbis of the Talmud, quoting teachings from previous generations and debating them, while citing an uninterrupted chain of tradition all the way back to Plato, much the same way that rabbis cite an uninterrupted tradition back to Moses. Many of their modes of reasoning and dialectics were the same, too, even lesser-used forms such as gematria, another Greek word adopted by Judaism. The Greeks had also used their alphabet for numerology (an art that they called isopsephy).

Greek traditions appear to have even found their way into Jewish holidays. In ancient Greece, families would get together for symposia, parties in which they would recount the history of Greece and its great victories. According to the Greek philosophers, it was best to drink three cups of wine at a symposium, while drinking five cups was considered excessive and inappropriate. Thus, most people drank four cups. They would lie on couches, specifically on their left side. Recounting history while drinking four cups of wine and lying on one’s left—sound familiar? Let’s not forget that afikoman is itself a Greek word (epikomon, literally “that which comes after” or “that which comes last”, referring to either dessert or the concluding festive songs).

While the ancient Greeks certainly held onto a number of abhorrent beliefs and practices, to suggest that all the Greeks were atheistic, unjust, or not spiritual is certainly untrue. Socrates was killed for criticizing Athenian injustice, Plato preached how illusory this physical world is, and Aristotle described metaphysics and theology as the “first philosophy” and most important of subjects. One of the earliest known preachers of reincarnation was Pythagoras, who also wrote of three souls, much like the Jewish conception of nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. Nor is it a secret that some of the angels mentioned in the Talmud bear Greek titles, among them Sandalfon and Metatron.

So, did the Jews really defeat the Greeks? We certainly defeated the immoral and oppressive Seleucid Greeks in battle, but definitely not the Greek spirit as a whole. In fact, some might argue that Judaism is the best preservation of ancient Greek culture in the modern world! Whereas the rest of society has moved on to other methods of education, we still have a yeshiva system like the ancient Academy. While others celebrate their holidays with gifts and formal dinners, we gather in symposia, reliving the words of our sages, who openly bore their Greek names. And of course, while most of society is primarily concerned with what’s happening on television, we’re still trying to be philosophers, debating the finest points of reality.

The Greeks had a profound impact on all of civilization, and Judaism was not immune from it. Perhaps this is why, over time, the holiday became less about defeating Greeks and more about the miracle of light. Chanukah is a holiday celebrating Jewish resilience, and symbolizing the power of light over darkness, and hope over despair. It is a lesson in resisting assimilation and being true to ourselves; in standing up for what’s right and upholding our customs; and most importantly, in the longest, blackest nights of winter, Chanukah teaches us that although the world may be full of evil, one tiny flame can break through all the darkness.


The article above is an excerpt from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!