Shabbat Hanukkah is always a special experience, especially when we have a nearly full hanukkiah to overpower the flames of the Shabbat candles. The symbols of light and the stories of heroism bring us closer to our history and traditions, while the themes of the holiday broaden our connections with the world around us. Hanukkah is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar and the cultural adaptations during this time of year are ubiquitous, from cookies in the shapes of Magen David in the grocery markets to giant hanukkiyot in public spaces.
Even the phenomenon of ugly sweaters has infiltrated the attire of the Jewish community, with slogans like, “Imagine your cell phone was at 10% but lasted for 8 days. Now you understand Hanukkah.”
Of course, the silliness of that concept is meant to broaden our smiles and share the meaning of the holiday with a useful analogy. The question of why we have a holiday to celebrate the alluring nature of light at all is vital to overcome the physical and even spiritual darkness that can be felt at this time of year.
It’s easy for us to overlook the absolute significance of light in our days, with our access to new sources of power and the perception that our energy is limitless. Our technologies are designed to remain permanently “on” to provide little, if no, interruptions when the energy source is low. With our access to light becoming increasingly convenient, why do we bother gathering around our decorative lamps year after year to marvel in an experience that no longer needs a miracle to exist?
We can look to our sage wisdom recorded in the Talmud for some insight and guidance. In a conversation about what are appropriate materials to kindle flames for use in the celebration of sacred time, Rav Huna points out that lighting Hanukkah candles requires more than a kindling and the hope for a miracle.
Rav Huna said: Those wicks and oils with which the Sages said that one may not light the lamp on Shabbat, one may not light the lamp with them on Hanukkah either; both when it falls on Shabbat and when it falls during the week. Rava said: What is the reason for Rav Huna’s statement? He holds that if the Hanukkah light becomes extinguished, even though one lit it properly, one is bound to attend to it and relight it so that it will burn properly. Therefore, one must ensure that the wick burns properly from the outset. And utilizing the light of the Hanukkah lamp is permitted during the week.
Talmud Shabbat 21a
It has been often noted that the miracle of Hanukkah isn’t so much that one cruze of oil lasted longer than it should. The miracle of Hanukkah is the faith that we will fulfill our obligation to care for the light, particularly when we are uncertain if there will be enough energy or even the right materials to keep the lights on.
The rabbi’s teaching is more than a practical solution to a problem. Rav Huna reminds us that kindling Hanukkah candles correctly is as much a statement of faith as it is the fulfillment of a religious duty. That’s why if the light is extinguished we must light it once again so it will burn properly.
Bringing sustainable light into the world is one of the great lessons of the Hanukkah holiday. It is the model of eternal light with perpetual uncertainty. We may have more than enough for now, but it is our enduring commitment to be the light to the world that ensures our values and our visions shine brightly in every generation. That is a message worth celebrating, ugly sweaters all!
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach!