This year, due to a stroke of lunar-calendar luck, Hanukkah and Christmas will begin at the same time. As a result, on Saturday night, many of us will be kindling lights. And as we say the prayers and sing the songs, I hope that we all remember that while the holiday might be particular and its many levels of observance even more so, its broader message—the imperative to be a “light unto the nations”—can be understood as a universal appeal.
But how, at least in the case of Jews, did the ritual of candle-lighting on this holiday actually start?
Even back in the days when the Talmud was being compiled, the true meaning and reasons for celebrating Hanukkah the way we do were clouded in confusion. The holiday is mentioned, in the Talmud, as part of the discussion of lighting Shabbat candles and most of the dialogue relates to how, how many and in what order we light the lights—with only a passing reference to the temporal victory over the Seleucids, the Middle Eastern Ancient Greek Empire.
The Book of Maccabees 1 and 2 don’t, er, shed much more light on the issue, actually talking more about the military victory than it does about the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. And, it’s not until we get to the Scroll of Antiochus, written sometime around the 2nd century CE, that we get a description of the miracle of the oil that we recognize today.
Only Josephus, himself controversial, but a Jewish historian who lived and wrote during the Roman period of the 1st century CE, seems to be the only source who mentions the word freedom as he describes the victory to worship as he links the notion of lights to liberty. The Maccabees returned to a defiled Temple and restored it to holiness rekindling the sacrificial fire. The link between the temporal and the spiritual was clear. People were free once again to worship as they wanted and the freedom of the country was also secured.
It seems to me that we are in a time when the linking of lights to liberty needs to take on urgent new meaning grounded in the ancient tradition. Sadly, thousands of years later, freedom is still under attack: freedom to worship, freedom to be different, freedom to have opposing views, freedom of choice and freedom to live life free of fear. None of us are removed from some of these attacks, and many of us are vulnerable to them all.
It feels meaningful somehow to end with the lyrics of “Light One Candle,” a beautiful song by Peter, Paul and Mary’s, which I heard them sing over 35 years ago in Jerusalem in Sultan’s Pools under the walls of the Old City:
Light one candle for the strength that we need
To never become our own foe
And light one candle for those who are suffering
Pain we learned so long ago
Light one candle for all we believe in
That anger not tear us apart
And light one candle to find us together
With peace as the song in our hearts
Don’t let the light go out!
It’s lasted for so many years!
Don’t let the light go out!
Let it shine through our hope and our tears
This Hanukkah—and Christmas—let’s be sure not to let our lights go out.