What Does the Hanukkiah Mean?
The prophet Zechariah never heard of a hanukkiah. But he can help us understand its meaning.
In synagogue on Shabbat Hanukkah, we read Zechariah’s vision of the menorah. It’s a good choice, right? We light a type of menorah, so we read about a menorah.
But that seems a little superficial. The connection shouldn’t just be through the physical symbol. It should revolve around the symbol’s meaning. So, what does the hanukkiah mean? And what does Zechariah’s vision add to its meaning?
We probably know the child-friendly teaching about the hanukkiah. Eight lamps represent eight miraculous days of light. But we’re adults. We know that the holiday’s origins lie with the Maccabees in 164 BCE. The Maccabees celebrated the military victory that established their Hasmonean dynasty. Imagine if the Hasmoneans had created our liturgical calendar. Probably, our Shabbat Hanukkah reading would be an oracle about God’s armies on the move.
A Rabbinic View of the Hanukkiah: God’s Light Shines On
But, our liturgical calendar was fixed by our early rabbis. They re-interpreted Hanukkah to suit the politics of their own time, 200-500 CE. By then, the Hasmoneans had partnered with Rome. And Rome had overrun Judea. We Jews were dispersed around the Mediterranean region. We had very little political power. Certainly not enough to restore a temple in our former capital city. But we did have intellectual and spiritual power. Enough to re-envision our tradition. It doesn’t matter, our rabbis said, if war and exile have eroded our old religious practices. God’s light shines on.
The rabbis told an allegorical story about the Maccabees. After winning their war, the Maccabees inspect the Temple. But they find only one day’s worth of pure, high-priest approved oil. Still, oil from that little jar fuels eight full days of menorah light (b. Shabbat 21b). Moral of the story? God’s light shines on, with or without high-priest approved supplies.
A Prophetic View of the Hanukkiah: God’s Spirit is All Around Us
We could read that same moral into Zechariah’s menorah. One night, an angel takes Zechariah on a dream-time journey. Zechariah sees the spiritual forces that direct our world. But he doesn’t see them directly. He sees them symbolically. So, he has to keep asking his angelic guide to interpret the symbols. At one stop on the tour, Zechariah sees a miraculous menorah. Oil flows directly from olive trees into the lamps of this menorah. No harvesting, no processing, no labor needed. “What are these?” Zechariah asks. The angel explains, “Not by might; not by power; but by my spirit” (Zech. 4:4-6).
The interpretation is as cryptic as the symbol. But the rabbis understood it. We don’t have Maccabean might. Or Hasmonean political power. But we do have access to God’s spirit. So, we don’t need high priest-approved oil. We have something better. Something brighter. God’s spirit flows to us directly from the created world.
Zechariah’s View of the Hanukkiah: Social Justice is Good Politics
But let’s be historically honest. Zechariah prophesied in 520 BCE. Long before any Hasmoneans or rabbis existed. He had his own historical concerns. Sixty-six years earlier, the Babylonian army had ripped through the region. The Kingdom of Judah was one of its many victims. Jerusalem was destroyed and her people exiled. But by 520, Persia had defeated Babylonia. A few passionate Jews had returned to Jerusalem. With imperial Persian support, they began to build a new Temple. They set up a local government. Zechariah was not worried about a Jewish community without religious or political power. He wanted us to live well with political power.
Here’s how he put it in his book. The horrific war is finally over. Persia’s version of peace encourages local self-government and regional cooperation. We have a chance now to create a non-militarized world. But to succeed, our leaders must follow a strict ethical code. They must show integrity, generosity, and concern for the oppressed. Generosity won’t make us vulnerable. Because, at this auspicious time, God is arranging regional dynamics in our favour.
At this time, Zechariah says, we won’t succeed through military might. Or through political power, which is so easily corrupted. Only our spirituality is foolproof. Our communal spirituality, that is. Measured by our truth, justice, and empathy. By our faith that these virtues build prosperity. And by our trust that God truly bends the universe towards good. All we have to do is remember the mantra: “Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit.”
Hanukkiah: A Physical Reminder of Spiritual Resistance
The miraculous menorah is a physical symbol of this mantra. So says the angel. Still, he leaves us wondering. How does the menorah express the mantra? To me, the menorah represents a human body. With arms outstretched, it receives from nature, without violence or exploitation. It collects spiritual fuel, converts it into light, and shares it with the world. The menorah expresses a moral teaching: this is how we build political community.
Zechariah’s menorah has seven lamps. In the priestly world view, the number seven signals completion, fulfillment, holiness. And Zechariah hopes that violence and corruption have been banished forever.
But the hanukkiah has eight lamps, not counting the shamash, its source. The hanukkiah won’t allow us to rest in completion. In our time, we are more cynical than Zechariah. We know that the work of building an ethical polity is never done. Your hanukkiah wants you to know: the resistance is not over.
Presented as a dvar Torah at Or Shalom Synagogue, Dec. 16 2017.