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All About Chanuka

Avi Lazerson

During the period of the Second Temple, the Greeks issued drastic and evil decrees against the Jews forbidding them to study the Torah or to observe its mitzvoth. They violated their daughters and desecrated the holiness of the Temple. The Greeks were determined to destroy our belief in G-d.

The sons of the Hasmonean High priest rebelled against them and eventually defeated the great Greek army, saving the Jews from the oppressive decrees and restoring the purity to the holy Temple. The Jewish kingdom of Israel was re-established under the rule of the Hasmoneans and lasted for more than two hundred years.

After prevailing over their enemies, they entered the defiled Temple to purify it and found only one small jar of oil that had the intact seal of the High Priest. All the other jars of oil were defiled by the Greeks. This was on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. Although the oil in the single jar was sufficient for only one day, yet when they lighted the menorah in the Temple it lasted for eight days until they were able to extract pure olive oil.

The sages of that generation decreed that the eight days beginning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev be set aside as days of rejoicing and thanksgiving. Each night for eight days candles are lit at sundown to proclaim and recall that miracle.

The name Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew word 'chanu' meaning 'they rested' and the Hebrew date '25' pronounced in Hebrew 'ka' because on the twenty-fifth of Kislev the Jews rested from their enemies.

Another reason is to remember the dedication and consecration (from the Hebrew word 'chanech') of the Temple which was purified from our enemies. Therefore it is important to celebrate by eating a bit better and to be joyous during this time. It is traditionally a time to get together with our friends and families, eat together, sing together, and re-tell the story of Chanukah, that it not be forgotten, but it be forever engraved in our hearts. Fasting is not permitted during this time. Charity should be given out liberally.

Work is permitted during the eight days but women customarily refrain for working while the Hanukkah lights are burning and we should not permit them to disregard this tradition. The actual practice of women refraining from work lasts only for the first thirty minutes, since that is the minimum time for the candle to be lit. The reason for this custom is two fold. First, the wicked Greeks decreed that a young bride must cohabit with the governor before her marriage and secondly is that women were actively involved in the final deliverance from the oppressor. The daughter of Yochanan, the high priest, was a very attractive young lady. The cruel ruler requested her to be with him. She accepted his request and prepared for him dishes of cheese which caused him to be thirsty. She then gave him wine which intoxicated him. When he fell asleep she cut off his head and brought it to Jerusalem. When the Greek armies saw their king was dead, they panicked and fled. From this comes the custom of eating dairy dishes on Hanukah.

We proclaim to the world the great miracle that G-d did for us by lighting the candles in a conspicuous place that it be visible to all. In years gone by, when we still dwelt in the land of Israel during the time of the Temple, candles were lit outside to proclaim the miracle to all who passed by. However during our long exile, it became dangerous to light candles outside and so we brought them into our house. Today when it is not dangerous to light outside, the customs of where to light vary from place to place and from person to person. In Israel, the general custom is to light outside by the outside door, although there are exceptions. Outside of Israel, the custom is to light inside; some light by the window that faces the public way and others put the menorah on the table in full view of the family. At one time it was the custom to put it by the door opposite the mezuzah and there remain those who still follow this custom.

Since the miracle in the Temple was done though olive oil, therefore olive oil is the preferred oil for lighting in our menorahs; however, all oils are permissible as long as it give a clear flame. Wax candles are also acceptable, since their light is also clear. Be careful not to get two wicks or candles too close together because the light should not look like a torch.

The menorah may be of any material, but unglazed clay is considered repulsive since once it is used for oil, it absorbs the oil. It is best to get a menorah that is beautiful and many use silver menorahs. Using an attractive menorah enhances the beauty of the mitzvah. But a menorah is not required. In reality, many who light outside use shot glasses or small containers with wicks and put them in a special glass container because a beautiful and expensive menorah would probably be stolen.

The lights should be placed in a straight even line; one candle should not be higher than the next. There should be sufficient space between the lights so that the flames do not touch each other thereby resembling a torch. Only the candle that is called the 'shamash', the extra candle that is used for light, is noticeably higher than the rest.

The custom is that each male in the household lights his own menorah. They should not should be put in close proximity to one another so that an observer should not think that the wrong number of lights were lit. If there is no male in the house that can light the candles, since the women are obligated in the mitzvah also, therefore the women should light. This is often the case when the man is out of town or unable to be home in time for lighting the candles while the children are still awake. Normally the woman lights the Shabbat candles and the man lights the Chanukah candles.

The time to light the Chanukah candles is immediately when the night begins, since a candle in the day is not readily seen. The candles should burn for at least thirty minutes into the night. On Friday afternoon, the Chanukah candles are lit immediately before the Shabbat candles; they should burn for at least thirty minutes after the night has begun. On Saturday night, the Chanukah candles are lit after the Havdalah ceremony.

The order of lighting the candles is as follows: On the first night, the candle to be lit is placed on the right side opposite the right hand. On the second evening, an additional candle is placed on the left, next to the first candle. The additional candle is lit first and then the 'older' one. In this manner additional candles are added from the right going to the left, but the lighting is from the left going to the right.

Since the candles are being used for a mitzvah, we are not allowed to use them for any other purpose. We cannot use them to read or even count our money. This applies for the first thirty minutes. However, if we have another candle close to the menorah, we may use the light since we can say that we are deriving benefit from the extra candle. This is the reason that we have a 'shamash' candle, an extra candle on the menorah, which sits either higher or in a different line than the Chanukah candles. With this 'shamash' we both light the Chanukah candles and use it to provide light by which we may read - it is not counted as one of the candles of the mitzvah.


from the December 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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