Hanukah has a clear spiritual meaning. On one level, it’s simple. And, on another, it’s mystical.
Winter is a dark time. Daylight is short. Night is long. With just a few hours of sun, we humans don’t get enough vitamin D. So we get a little depressed.
We need a lift. Something to substitute for the sunlight. The light of love, maybe—friendship or family. The light of laughter—stories and silly games. Music, good food, favourite rituals. Metaphorical lights. Lights for the spirit. These are the customs of Hanukah.
In some ways, Hanukah is a typical Jewish holiday. It marks time in two ways. First, it follows a seasonal cycle, celebrating a natural solar rhythm. It’s a solstice celebration. Second, it connects us with the past, recalling an event in Jewish history. It celebrates a military victory, a Judean revolt against an imperial army in 167 BCE.
But in other ways, Hanukah is not typical. First, It’s eight days long, but there’s no sacred sabbath-like day. So there’s no official “day off” in the Jewish calendar. We cram Hanukah into the evenings of a busy week. That’s why the liturgy is so short. Two blessings you say at home. One paragraph plus a handful of psalms at synagogue.
Second, it’s not in the Torah. God did not command it; Moses did not introduce it. Of course Judaism has evolved since the time of Moses. We have invented new holidays, both seasonal and historical. But they last one day. Not a whole special week. Only Torah holidays are that long.
So, it’s tempting to read Hanukah back into the Torah. It’s not hard, really. All you have to do is read the first chapter of Torah with a critical eye. Then think creatively in midrashic and Hasidic style. You’ll easily discover the legend of the Or Haganuz, the light God stored away.
So, here’s a question about Genesis Chapter 1. God creates light on the first day. But God does not create the sun until the fourth day. So, what kind of light does God first create? The Talmud says it is a spiritual light. It shines so brightly that a person could see from one end of the world to the other. But this kind of vision is like a superpower. So, God cannot let it fall into the wrong hands. So, God stores it away for righteous people in the world to come (Chagigah 12a). People who will use it to do right by others.
When are we most likely to see this light? When the more familiar sunlight doesn’t hide it. During the winter, that is, when there’s little daylight. That’s also when we are likely to look for it. Because we need a spiritual uplift. And we get it from the Hanukah candles. They “draw down” this light, so to speak (Sfat Emet). So that we can feel it in our hearts. And, when we feel uplifted, we enter the world to come. Which is obviously not a place, but a higher state of mind (Ba’al Shem Tov).
Wishing you a joyous Hanukah. Or at least, a little uplift. Watch the glowing oil, wax, or filament—whatever you can manage this year. May you glimpse the light of goodness.
More on Hanukah:
Hanukah’s Casual Violence (2015)