By Rabbi Steven Schwarzman
(AJNews) – Hanukkah may be the most outward-facing of Jewish holidays, stemming from the fact that the main mitzvah of Hanukkah is pirsum hanes, making the miracle known (or, literally, publicizing the miracle).
The Talmud describes Jews placing their oil-lamp menorahs outside their homes so that everyone could see them (and discusses liability issues if a lamp were to be overturned by passersby). While some Jews even today use oil lamps for Hanukkah menorahs, especially in Israel, the halakhah is that we need to place our menorahs where they can be seen. Hanukkah is not inward-looking, but outward: people walking or driving by should see the candles in our windows.
Perhaps it is from this outward-facing nature of the holiday that Hanukkah has become so widely known among non-Jews, who can be forgiven for thinking that it is a major Jewish holiday. We know that that’s not the case, but its public nature makes it readily identifiable, even incorrectly, as the Jewish answer to that other winter holiday.
Yet there is an inner aspect to Hanukkah as well. When we light the candles, we are not to use them for any practical purpose, but lirotam bilvad – only to look at them. This is why we light a shamash in addition to the regulation number of candles for each night, so that if, by chance, we happen to use any candlelight for a practical purpose, it can be ascribed to the light of the shamash instead of the other candles.
So why look at the candles? What purpose is achieved? When we look at our candles, which stay lit only for a short while, we can see Jewish history taking place in our homes. We can see the ancient Temple of Jerusalem…and the Jerusalem of today. We can see the very long chain of tradition that connects us to the Maccabees and to Jews of all times and places who stood up for Judaism. It’s in large part because of them that we are here today. So many peoples in history have come and gone, but we Jews are still here.
And when we look at the candles, we can see the simple joy of being with loved ones again, of celebrating at our synagogues, of being part of this wonderful story that is Judaism. We remember the miracle of the Hasmoneans’ victory in regaining Jewish independence and the miracle of the oil. By making the miracle known to the outside world, we remind ourselves, too.
May your Hanukkah be full of light!
Rabbi Steven Schwarzman is the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Congregation in Edmonton.