Hanukkah: Revealing Miracles

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Hanukkah

Happy Hanukkah!

This week’s Torah portion is Miketz, which continues the story of
Yosef and his brothers, but today, following our theme this year of
looking at the application of Jewish practice, we’ll briefly consider
a more . . . (ahem) . . . .burning issue: where to put the Hanukkah
menorah, or Hanukkiah.

[“Menorah” just means “lamp,” and in the Bible, the “menorah” was the
seven-branched lamp in the Temple. A special menorah for Hanukkah is,
technically, a Hanukkiah.]

Many will know that the blessing we say after lighting the Hanukkiah
is called “al ha’nissim,” which is a short blessing of gratitude for
the “nissim,” or miracles, done in this season (of the year) in those
days (of the Maccabees.) The lighting of the Hanukkiah is a way of
doing what’s called “publicizing the miracle,” that is, proclaiming it
or displaying our re-enactment of it. Maimonides, [A.K.A. Rambam]
uses slightly different language in his book of Jewish law called the
Mishnah Torah: he says that we light the lamp near (or over) the door
of the house in order to “show and reveal” [l’ha’rot u’l’galot] the
miracle. (Laws of Megillah and Hanukkah, 3:3)

So why do so many people light their Hanukkiah on the dining room
table, or over the fireplace? Probably because of a practice inherited
from their ancestors to do so- it goes back many generations that in a
“time of danger” it was permissible to make the lighting of the
Hanukkah a private, family affair. In other words- if it wasn’t a wise
idea to draw attention to the fact that there were Jews celebrating a
holiday in the the house, one didn’t have to do so.

However, in contemporary North America, where by and large Jews are
not in danger, it would seem that the proper way to fulfill the
mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkiah would be to put it in a window or
doorway, to “make known” the miracle to those who pass by. In fact,
one can say “al hanissim” when seeing Hanukkah lights that are not
one’s own, even though the mitzvah is to light in each household.

Yesterday a major candidate for President of the United States
mentioned his belief that “nativity scenes and menorahs should be
welcome in our public places.” Whatever one’s political or legal
opinions about putting “nativity scenes and menorahs in public places”
(recognizing a difference between “public” in the sense of communally
owned, like City Hall, versus “public” in the sense of a space open to
all, like a privately owned shopping mall or plaza), what’s
interesting is that precisely to the extent that one feels safe as a
Jew in North America, one should, according to the traditional
practice, be willing to “go public” with Hanukkah lighting. This is
not an argument for a Hanukkiah which is 25 feet high- one doesn’t
have to be garish to make known the miracle- but only the observation
that putting a Hanukkiah where more people can see it is in keeping
with the traditional view of how to observe the mitzvah.

Seen this way, putting one’s Hanukkiah in the window is an act of
Jewish confidence, as it were. That, in turn, is an even greater
re-enactment of the history of the Maccabees than even lighting the
lights- we become the ones who say: “this is who I am, and this I
Hanukkah is not only when we remember the “days of old,” but when we
declare to ourselves and others who we and what we hold precious- today.

Shabbat Shalom and a happy Festival of Lights to all,


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