My D'var Torah for Shabbat Chanukkah 5783 (December 24, 2022).
A question I often get around Chanukkah is: Is it true that all the candle hae to be at the same level, other than the shamash? Usually the question comes from creativity -- someone who wants to repurpose another item as a chanukkiah, or who has a new vision of the candles and their combination visually or symbolically or both. So for example, artists have asked me if they can make a thing with a spiral or a certain kind of zigzag and still call it a kosher chanukkiah. Growing up I never learned that this was an issue, but you hear the question a few times and you start to think it must be a thing.
Well, as a matter of principle in halacha (Jewish law) the answer is yes, you can have these kinds of chanukkiot! Though if you think you heard that Jewish law says “no” you’re not wrong, and I’ll get to that. The Jewish law books say first that you have to be able to differentiate each flame when you are looking at the chanukkiah. This is the opposite of a medurah, which in modern Hebrew is a campfire or a bonfire. Medurah in itself is cool, and in a medurah like a chanukkiah because you have a lot of flames, but with a medurah or a campfire they are jumbled up together and you can’t perceive each one because they are mixed up and move around. Anyway, one easy way to make sure you have a sert of distinct burning wicks, and not have it appear like a medurah, is to space them out in a sequence on the same level. That’s what the books of Jewish law actually say about the straight line. Personally I don’t really get the same level part, because if you follow the logic of the Talmud out each night representing another level of holiness, you should be able to set up the candles like a staircase or an upward ramp. The Ashkenazi tradition is to stick to the straight line but to me it’s like eating legumes on Pesach, so be Sephardi if you like and spread your candles out however you find intriguing!
What is this all about, the difference between a line of flames and a campfire? Why shold we care?
In the Torah in the Mishkan (desert tabernacle), and in the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem), there were oil lamps and a wood fire, both of which were always going day and night. Oil lamps we think of in connection with Chanukkah because of the ancient seven-branched menorah, and the Temple also had the ner tamid, the eternal light fueled by olive oil.
The fire on the altar reminds me of the burning bush, fire weaving and moving around through the scraggly scrub. One midrash says that the burning bush represents the suffering and the prayers of all the Israelites, and the presence of the Divine with them -- but as a whole, undifferentiated, all of their pain and groans and prayers jumbled together. Vast but trapped in place. In contrast to all that stood Moshe, a single person in that moment, not yet a leader; and the Divine, also singular, not yet in action to save them.
These ancient fires and lamps got me thinking again about this halacha about the differentiated lights. It’s not just about what you see on any given day: six candles, rather than a blazing fire pit with six or more sticks or branches somewhere in there. I think the law is also about perception across eight nights. It’s about the ability on the first night of Chanukkah to say this is one candle, the next night to perceive that these are two candles, and so on all the way to eight.
There is a difference between each candle, and there is a also a difference between perceiving one candle, and five, and eight.
Do you experience something different about the chanukkiah on different nights?
I really noticed this year on days 4 and 5 how different the chanukkiot looked by my window, compared to day 1 and 2. I mean Captain Obvious, I know -- but it’s gotten me to challenge myself about not looking at one as a means to two, not always looking at a couple candles in order to be excited about seven or eight. In my home, the effect is especially pronounced because we have several chanukkiot going each night; the effect of the change from night to night is dramatic. For me the meaning of these teachings about perceiving one, perceiving two, etc. is not to see two people in our community primarily as a strategy for connecting with a third one. How do we get ourselves toward appreciating each of the groupings in the Chanukkah story? Really appreciating just Judith or Matityahu in action; or just Yehudah Ha-Maccabee and his brothers; and just their small band; and their large force. I know I sometimes need to remind myself not to see small numbers of people just as inferior or miniative versions of larger numbers.
My colleague and classmate Rabbi Sue Fendrick once gave a talk in which she mentioned the distinctness of different numbers of people in Judaism.
Two people together are a chavruta, a study pair. There’s something unique about two people facing each other over words of Torah, with no one else to hide behind when your partner expresses and idea or asks a question. You experience Torah differently in a pair, differently than in a Torah service and even a small discussion group.
Three people make a beit din, a court of law. They can rule on a conflict over money and property; they can proclaim officially that someone has become Jewish. Three are enough to call each other formally after a meal in gratitude -- chaverai, n’varech! -- to say the blessing called Birkat Hamazon.
Ten of course are a minyan, enabling us to have a Torah service or say the Mourners’ Kaddish and respond. Ten defines a public according to Jewish law. If you do an act that is seen in the presence of ten or more and is particularly ethical and does honor to the Divine and our people -- a Kiddush Hashem -- that’s a bigger deal than if fewer were around to see it. And the same for Chillul Hashem, if in the presence of ten one does something particularly unethical and shames us or the name of God.
I think about the 208 delegates at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 -- that’s far fewer than make up this congregation today. So too the 23 on the ship that landed the first formal Jewish community in North America in 1654, in New Amsterdam.
Seven, I learned in group psychology, might be the ideal size of a committee or task force -- the point where the chemistry of introverts and extroverts, creatives and analyticals, has the best chance of combining a good end product with good feeling about the experience.
Eight is the extra on top of that seven -- it’s the number of covenant, the leap from the best of what people can accomplish together in our reality to something we might deem messianic.
Even one, in Judaism, is a kind of group. You may be solitary, but you are never alone. Moshe, alone at the burning bush, was with the Divine, and the singular Divine, Adonai Echad, had Moshe. The first candle of Chanukkah has the shamash, the fire that links them to someone else who stored the oil and planned for you to arrive, waited for you to make them less alone.
Jews today are conditioned in a good way to think of how the people in any given “here” can spread what we have -- but our weakness is to get caught up too much on who is missing. The Chanukkah miracle of the oil was meant to reframe scarcity as not just sufficiency, but abundance and overflowing. So too we should see whoever is in the room or around the table, in any number, as abundant and overflowing. You may by now be thinking of Margaret Mead, who could have been talking about each night’s chanukkiah when she famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
So part of the sweetness of the Chanukkiah is the chance to appreciate all the numbers we find ourselves in, the partnerships and discussions and services and protests and parties. The unique and distinct character of each group where we act and learn and reflect and grow. Each day of Chanukkah is a unique festival of lights.
My colleague Rabbi Fendrick closed the talk I mentioned with this beautiful last part from a poem by Marge Piercy called “The Low Road”, and it’s a perfect kavvanah (intention) as we look at our candles each night:
Two people can keep each other sane
can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation
a cell, a wedge.
With four you can play games
and start a collective.
With six you can rent a whole house
have pie for dinner with no seconds
and make your own music.
Thirteen makes a circle,
a hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity
and your own newsletter;
ten thousand community
and your own papers;
a hundred thousand,
a network of communities;
a million our own world.
It goes one at a time.
It starts when you care to act.
It starts when you do it again
after they say no.
It starts when you say We
and know who you mean;
and each day you mean
Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov and Chag Urim Sameach!
A Good New Month and a Joyous Festival of Lights!