The illumination of Chanukah

By Simon Jacobs

Chanukah commemorates the victory of the Jews over the might of the Assyrian empire which had occupied their land over 2,100 years ago. It was a dark time, for the Assyrians did not allow the Jews to practice their religion and tried to force them to worship idols and desecrate the Sabbath. Incredibly the Jews, under the leadership of Judah the Macabee, managed to overthrow their oppressors and regained control of the temple in Jerusalem. After cleaning up the sanctuary, which had been desecrated by the invaders, they found only enough oil to light the menorah (candelabra) for one day, though it miraculously lasted for eight days, the time it took to fetch new oil. Ever since then, to commemorate the victory, the Jewish people have annually been celebrating the festival of Chanukah by lighting the menorah in their homes and synagogues, symbolizing the triumph of freedom over oppression, of spirit over matter, of light over darkness.

 

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The Chanukiah (a special Chanukah menorah) has eight branches, one for each day of the festival. One candle is lit on the first day, with a candle added on each progressive day. An additional candle, called "the shamash" (servant) is used to light the others, showing that it is possible to give light and love to others without losing anything of oneself. The Chanukiah should be placed near an outside window so that its light can be benefited by all.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson wrote, "It is a timely and reassuring message, for the forces of darkness are ever present. Moreover, the danger does not come exclusively from outside; it often lurks close to home, in the form of insidious erosion of time-honoured values and principles that are the foundation of any decent human society. Needless to say, darkness is not chased away by brooms and sticks, but by illumination. Our Sages said, ‘A little light expels a lot of darkness.'"

The Chanukah Light reminds us in a most obvious way that illumination begins at home, within oneself and one's family, by increasing and intensifying the light of the Torah and Mitzvot (religious obligations and good deeds) in the everyday experience, even as the Chanukah Lights are kindled in growing numbers from day to day. But although it begins at home, it does not stop there. Such is the nature of light that when one kindles a light for one's own benefit, it also benefits all who are in the vicinity. Indeed, the Chanukah Lights are expressly meant to illuminate the "outside," symbolically alluding to the duty to bring light also to those who, for one reason or another, still walk in darkness.

This year the festival of Chanukah begins at sundown on December 21 and lasts until December 29. I wish you all a peaceful holiday season and year to come. Shalom.