Students of Jewish tradition have often noted the peculiar character of the religious celebration of Hanukkah. Whereas the history books tell us that the festival honours the heroism and ultimate victory of the Jewish rebels against their Hellenistic persecutor, the Talmudic tradition focuses on one legendary event, the miracle of the oil, as the central moment of the story.
Of course, Hanukkah is not the only holiday in the Jewish year that commemorates national liberation. Both Passover and Purim celebrate our deliverance from national threats. And yet the characteristic observance of Hanukkah--through the kindling of lights--is unique. This is a fact that has been remarked by traditional commentators.
On the surface Purim and Hanukkah commemorate similar events, yet Purim is a day of feasting and rejoicing, while Hanukkah confines itself to the more ethereal ritual of candle-lighting. Why the difference?
This is a puzzle that was discussed by one of the great Talmudists of 16th-17th century Poland, Rabbi Joel Sirkes, usually known as the "BaH" (the acronym of his important legal commentary the "Bayit Hadash"). In this commentary Rabbi Sirkes proposes the following essential differentiation between the two ways of celebrating liberation:
The difference, he explains, cuts to the essence of each day's meaning. Purim, like Passover, recalls a threat to the physical survival of the Jews. Haman's plot was aimed against the Jews as a nation. He did not challenge them to abandon their faith or observances, but simply wished to get rid of them.
The persecutions of Antiochos, on the other hand, were of a different type. He did not want to kill Jews, but was concerned "merely" to pry them away from their religion. It was a campaign against the Jewish spirit, probably the first such threat in our history, and hence it is appropriate that it should be celebrated through lights, the least material of physical phenomena.
The Jewish commentators have drawn upon a rich set of associations in their efforts to explain the significance of the Hanukkah lights. Talmudic law emphasizes that light has the power to effectively spread the message afar, proclaiming the greatness of the Hanukkah miracle.
Several later commentators have compared the flames of the candles with the human soul itself, citing the words of Proverbs 20:27, "The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord." For others, the lights are the lights of the Torah, in acordance with Proverbs 6:23: "For the commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light."
Maimonides, on the other hand, compares the Hanukkah lights to the Sabbath candles, whose purpose is to radiate an atmosphere of peace. "Great is peace," he concludes his discussion of the laws of Hanukkah, "for the entire Torah was given only to create peace in the world."
In the mystical tradition, the Hanukkah candles partake of a metaphysical aura. They are nothing less than the primordial light fashioned by God on the first day of the Creation. According to Rabbinic legend this light, which preceded the creation of the sun and stars, was a spiritual illumination which allowed the first man to see to the ends of the earth.
The Hasidic master Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz noted that this primordial light illuminated the world for thirty-six hours, until Adam's disobedience persuaded God to hide it away. Accordingly we kindle a total of thirty-six candles during the eight days of Hanukkah.
The midrash relates that after Adam's fall God put the original light in storage, not to be removed until the Messianic era. It is through the same light of the Hanukkah candles, says Rabbi Pinhas, that the Messiah will one day redeem us, echoing the words of the Psalmist (132:17): "There have I ordered a lamp for my anointed one."
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