Posts Tagged Chanukah

The Ninth Night of Chanukah: Keeping the light alive after the last candle goes out

ninth night of chanukah

Chanukah isn’t really over after the eighth night; in a sense, it’s just beginning.  Watch this video to discover the disconcerting aftermath of the Maccabean victory and the enduring legacy of the Hasmoneans.

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Latkes with Cranberry Sauce?

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Will Rogers couldn’t have said it better: “No nation has ever had more, yet no nation has ever had less.” And it’s easy to understand why the two go together.

imgresThe Talmud describes a person obsessed by the dream of becoming rich. If only he had a million dollars, he would be happy. So he labors tirelessly, clawing and scratching to amass his fortune, until what happens? The moment he finally makes his million, he immediately sets his sights on two million.

Human nature dictates that the more we have, the more we want. And the more we believe that we are entitled to have whatever we want, the less inclined we are either to be grateful for what we have or to recognize our obligations to others.

It’s somewhat heartening, therefore, that Thanksgiving has retained so prominent a place in American culture, even if most of us rarely give a passing thought to the Puritan ideals that gave birth to the holiday.

Read the whole article here.

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Kindling the Lights of Wisdom

Please take a look back at past essays, popular and scholarly, that explore the profound contemporary relevance of Chanukah and how the cultural battle against Hellenism remains the defining condition of the Jewish people.


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The speech that might have been

Good Afternoon, Members of the Nobel Committee:

I stand before you today profoundly honored and deeply humbled by the distinction you wish to bestow upon me. I recognize this gesture as your endorsement of my goals to create a more cooperative and respectful society of nations, to address the scourges of poverty and ecological irresponsibility, and to work toward the establishment of a global community devoted to freedom, equality, and peace. I truly appreciate your intention of using the long-standing reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize to bolster my own prestige in achieving the realization of these goals.

However, in good conscience I must confess that my stated aims and objectives cannot compare to the concrete and inspiring accomplishments of those other nominees whom you have overlooked by selecting me. While my intentions may be lofty, and may indeed have already contributed to an increased atmosphere of collaboration among the nations of the world, they fail to qualify as true achievements.

It is unfortunate and embarrassing that I am not the first to be awarded this honor without having met the criteria that objective reason demands. Tragically, in recent years the selection of Peace Prize laureates has often failed to reflect the ideals of Alfred Nobel, who created this body so that he might be remembered for his contribution to world harmony rather than as the creator of dynamite – mankind’s first weapon of mass destruction.

Look back at some of the most incongruous winners of the past two decades. Yassar Arafat, arguably the 20th century’s foremost disseminator of terror. Jimmy Carter, whose purported efforts to broker peace with North Korea were revealed as an utter failure only weeks after receiving his award, and who has conflated the unconscionable travesty of apartheid with an Israeli system in which Arabs enjoy full rights as citizens and even hold elected positions in the national parliament. And Al Gore, whose propaganda campaign has turned questionable science and scare tactics into a cottage industry that misleads the public while increasing his own personal profit. Are these truly the heroes of our age?

Perhaps it is not coincidental that this ceremony has fallen out on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, the commemoration of the battle for substance over appearance and for spiritual illumination against the advance of cultural darkness, a festival originating from a people who, having taught the rest of the world the most fundamental values of human morality, remain the most maligned of all nations. If Alfred Nobel’s once-revered institution continues to allow itself to be usurped by proponents for the superficial and disingenuous principles of political correctness, moral equivalence, and social engineering, a great beacon of inspiration will be forever lost to our children.

I hope that by the end of my administration I will truly have earned the award you seek to bestow upon me. However, given that I was nominated within ten days of taking office, and that I have yet to prove myself as a successful leader, I have no choice but to decline this honor in favor of whichever candidate you choose from among the many people who genuinely deserve it.

Thank you.

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Past reflections on the Festival of Lights.

Best wishes to all for a joyous holiday of spiritual illumination.

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Der Meistersingers of Athens

Moaz Tzur, the classic Chanukah poem, has been degraded not so much by the King Jamesian translation Rock of Ages but by the carol-like tune that has become as inescapable as shoppping mall Xmas music.  It’s worse than you think… which is part of the problem.

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The Candles and the Stars

From this month’s Jewish Observer:

            And HaShem said, “Let there be light!”  and there was light (Bereishis 1:3).

            Even as the first words of Creation set the stage for everything that will follow, they also set themselves apart from everything that will come.  After every other stage in the genesis process, the Torah reports that HaShem spoke, vayehi chein – “and it was so.”  But after the creation of light, instead of saying vayehi chein, the Torah reports vayehi ohr – “and there was light.”

            The Malbim explains that vayehi chein implies permanence:  every act sealed with this expression would endure forever.  The heavens and the earth, the water and the land, the vegetation and the birds, fish, and mammals – all these would last until the end of days.  But not the light.

            The kabbalists tell us that the light of Creation was not the light of photons that illuminate our physical world.  The light of the First Day was, rather, the ohr haMakif, the divine light of HaShem’s radiance projected into the spiritual void that preceded the existence of the physical universe.  This was the “light” that enabled Adam to “see” from one end of the universe to the other, to perceive the true essence of the world and everything in it.1  It was the light of absolute knowledge and absolute power.

            But HaShem foresaw that, after Adam’s sin, this divine light would threaten the very existence of the world.  Used irresponsibly, such power could wreak incalculable destruction.  HaShem therefore concealed the light, storing it away for the tzaddkim of future generations.2  Before the process of Creation had ended, the light of Creation had been hidden away.


            On the fourth day, however, HaShem created the sun, moon, and stars – the luminaries whose physical light would substitute for the spiritual light of the first day.  But how can mere physical light take the place of the light of kedusha?  How can the lights of the sky replace the spiritual illumination of the soul?  And precisely where did HaShem hide the original light of Creation?

            HaShem hid His light in the Torah, preserving it there for the sages and scholars who, through diligent study, would one day reveal the brilliance of divine wisdom before all the world once again.3

            Until then, the physical luminaries would have to suffice, with optic vision providing a barely adequate replacement for the spiritual insight of Torah wisdom.  Through their familiar and uninterrupted passage above us, these heavenly bodies serve to reassure us that the light of Creation, temporarily removed, can be permanently restored by the luminaries of Torah, the bright lights of scholarship and wisdom who light the Jewish people’s way through the generations.

            Thus Moshe says to his people:  “HaShem, your G-d, has multiplied you and behold, you are today as the stars in the heavens” (Devarim 1:10).


            Was this so?  Standing at the boundary of Eretz Yisroel on the east side of the Jordan, the Jewish nation was still relatively small, the numbers by no account comparable to “the stars in the heavens.”  Comes Rashi to explain that Moshe meant something else entirely.  The Jews were not as numerous as the luminaries of the heavens; rather, Moshe declared that they were as permanent and as enduring as the sun, the moon, and the stars.

            Rashi’s allegory seems to echo the narrative of Creation, in which we understand the sun, moon, and stars as an allegory for the Torah scholars who would bring back the light of kedusha to a world of spiritual darkness.

            If so, perhaps the connection goes even further.

            In addition to the idea that HaShem hid the light of Creation in the Torah, the B’nei Yisoschar suggests that HaShem hid the primordial light in the candles of Chanukah.  The thirty six flames of the menorah correspond to the thirty six tzaddikim hidden in every generation, for it is through them that the light of kedusha is most prominently revealed. 

            This interpretation dovetails with the Midrash that finds within the narrative of Creation an allusion to the four kingdoms that would rule over the Jewish people in exile.  In the opening description of Creation, the Torah records that “there was void and nothingness, with darkness upon the surface of the deep” (Bereishis 1:2).  Void alludes to Babylon, nothingness to Persia, and the deep to Rome.

            Darkness alludes to Greece, whose secularist wisdom darkened the eyes of the Jewish people.4

            It was the light of the menorah, restored by the Hasmoneans, that pierced through the darkness of Greece, just as the Torah of the sages returns the light of kedusha to the world.


            As a commentary on the verse in question, however, Rashi’s allegory presents a problem.  Since Moshe compared the Jewish people specifically to the stars, why did Rashi feel it necessary to include the sun and the moon?  Indeed, HaShem Himself made reference only to the stars in His promise to Avrohom.5  Why did Rashi consider the allegory of both HaShem and Moshe insufficient?

            In truth, we do find allegories similar to Rashi’s scattered through Chazal.  Adam and Moshe are compared to the sun.6  Yehoshua and Dovid are compared to the moon.7  Although the Jewish nation as a whole is compared to the stars, individuals within it are compared to the sun and the moon.

            Consequently, Rashi may have recognized something deeper within Moshe’s metaphor for eternity:  an allusion to the unique influence of successive historical eras upon the fortunes of the Jewish people.  If so, perhaps we can articulate a precise correlation between the celestial luminaries that dispel the darkness of night and the Torah luminaries that dispel the darkness of exile.

            The quality shared by Adam and Moshe is their proximity to the Master of the World.  Adam was the prototype for all mankind, the first and only human being created directly by divine decree.  Moshe Rabbeinu was the only human being after the expulsion from Gan Eden to speak “face to face” with the Creator, the only individual entrusted to bring HaShem’s Torah to the world.  These two alone occupied a spiritual level so exalted that they radiated their own intrinsic kedusha, like the sun.8

            All other human beings aspire not to radiate, but to reflect.  It was Yehoshua who replaced Moshe, leading the Jewish people not only into a new land but into a new kind of existence, one without open miracles, in which the glory of HaShem was recognized indirectly through the workings of nature and divine providence.  In this new world, the kedusha of HaShem was no longer projected by leaders like the sun but reflected by leaders like the moon.

            As with Yehoshua, Dovid HaMelech also is described as a disciple of Moshe.9   Not only does the moon reflect merely a fraction of the sun’s light, it also lacks the sun’s constancy, waxing and waning as it courses through its monthly cycle.  HaShem placed Adam and Moshe at the pinnacle of human existence and charged them with preserving the perfection of Eden and Sinai respectively.  In contrast, HaShem charged Yehoshua and Dovid with negotiating the peaks and valleys of human uncertainty.  Rise and fall, victory and defeat, transgression and redemption – these describe the complex pattern of human life symbolized by the changing faces of the moon.  As the radiance of kedusha dimmed, the universe became darker.  But as the universe became darker, fainter lights could shine bright.

            And indeed, the darkness intensified.  Sancheriv drove the ten tribes into exile.  Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Beis HaMikdash.  Prophecy disappeared from the world.  And the spiritual darkness of Greece spread over the earth, disguising itself as a new aesthetic wisdom and seducing mankind with its self-serving, pleasure-seeking, and empty sophistry.

            What had become of the luminaries?  Without teachers like Moshe, without disciples like Yehoshua and Dovid, who would rally the Jewish people against their enemies?  Without either sun or moon to guide them, how would the Jews ever find their way?

            They found their way by the stars.


            A single star offers little light.  But a thousand, a million, a billion stars burning bright across the canopy of the heavens — here is light enough for all eternity.  With each star shining like a single flame, adding its tiny pinprick of radiance to the light of a billion others, the darkness of night gives way before a soft, intangible glow of illumination.  So too, a single Jewish neshoma, shining bright by resisting the seemingly irresistible descent of spiritual darkness, combines with other Jewish souls to prevent the light of kedusha from being extinguished.  One neshoma added to another and another, like the individual flames of the Chanukah menorah, suddenly explodes into the silent darkness like a symphony of light.

            In the depths of exile, we have no single leader to shine like the sun, nor even to reflect the sunlight like the moon.  But the hidden tzaddikim, each revealing the primordial light of Creation concealed by HaShem in the Torah, each according to his own capacity and his own efforts, collectively shine forth with enough brilliance to drive away the darkness of corruption and impurity and superficiality.

            We allude to this every day of Chanukah in al haNissim, when we declare that HaShem delivered


            the impure into the hands of the pure,

            the wicked into the hands of the righteous,

            and the wanton into the hands of those who diligently study Your Torah.


            Rav Nachman Bulman zt”l suggested that the parallelism in this arrangement appears to be flawed.  On the side of our enemies, the levels of evil are ascending:  the merely impure are less evil than the wicked, and the wicked are less evil than the wanton – those motivated not by simple desire but by a philosophical commitment to do evil.  On the other side, however, the levels of righteous seem to be descending, with the tahor – the servant of HaShem who has attained purity and perfection in his divine service – having more merit than the mere tzaddik, who nevertheless has greater merit than the simple Jew who struggles in his study and observance.  Superficially, we would expect to find the pure paired off against the wanton and those who study Torah paired off against the impure.

            But this, explained Rav Bulman, is precisely the point.  Although darkness descends when we have neither sun nor moon to push back the night, in the absence of great luminaries the myriad tiny lights begin to shine, showering their radiance as one until, collectively, they have conquered the darkness.


            The Torah testifies that Moshe Rabbeinu was “extremely humble, more than any man upon the earth” (BaMidbar 12:3).  What made Moshe so humble?  The Zohar tells us that he saw the last generation of galus before the coming of Moshiach.10  For Moshe Rabbeinu, who spoke to HaShem “face to face,” who lived amidst open miracles and the revelation of the Sh’chinah, who witnessed the redemption of his people from slavery after 210 years of crushing servitude, belief and trust in HaShem posed little challenge.  For Moshe, even so exalted a quality as yiras Shomayim was easily acquired.11

             But to live in the depths of galus, in an era of such spiritual blackness that HaShem’s presence seems not merely a distant memory but a flight of pure fancy, and to retain under such circumstances the slightest sensitivity to kedusha, much less the devotion to Torah and mitzvah observance – before this, even Moshe Rabbeinu found himself in awe.  The knowledge that a generation would succeed in doing so left him profoundly humbled.

            At once humble and exalted are, like the stars of the sky, the lights of Chanukah and the neshomos of the Jews prior to the end of days.  Flame upon flame and light upon light, they ignite one by one in a common purpose, joined together by a common foundation, illuminating the darkness of galus with the sparks of HaShem’s mitzvos, and spreading the light of His wisdom by revealing the light of His Torah.


1.  Chagigah 12a; Bereishis Rabbah 12:6

2.  Rashi on Bereishis 1:4 from Chagigah 12a and Bereishis Rabbah 3:6

3.  Tanchuma, Noach 3

4.  Bereishis Rabbah 2:4

5.  Bereishis 15:5

6.  Zohar 1:142b and Baba Basra 75a

7.  Baba Basra 75a and Rosh HaShonah (with Rashi ad loc)

8.  Although Shimshon was also compared to the sun, we might suggest that this was not for what he accomplished but for the messianic potential he possessed to permanently restore HaShem’s light to the world.  See Sotah 10a and Bereishis Rabbah 98:14.

9.  Shocher Tov 14:6

10.  Ki seitzei 3:282b

11.  Berachos 33b

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Princes in Exile

More than any other holiday, Chanukah addresses the Jewish experience in exile.


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The Candles and the Tree

Reflections on having grown up under the modern shadow of the ancient Greeks.  And, as was pointed out to me a year or two ago, the term I used for the Hellenistic agenda of blending Jewish culture with Greek culture should have be new syncretism.

May this year be a year of light and wisdom for all of us.

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The Mystical Meaning of the Dreidel

More than merely a child’s toy or a candle-side game, the dreidel conceals the secret of Jewish survival throughout the long darkness of exile.

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