Hanukkah begins four days before the new moon – the darkest night in the month of Kislev and the closest to the winter solstice, the longest and darkest day of the month. Like many other faiths, the Jewish holiday of Chanukah brings light into the darkest time of the year.
“Let there be light,” is the first act of creation, but a midrash asks: “Where was light created from?” The answer is given in Bereshit Raabbah 3:4: “G-d cloaked Himself in a white shawl, and the light of its splendor shone from one end of the world to the other” (Bereishit Rabbah 3:4). Light has always been symbolic of good and the beautiful. This is true of many cultures as well as ours.
Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, in his book Chanukah: Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul (Leviathan, 1997) writes that “Light is the overarching, central, definitive metaphor for Jewish understanding of all of reality… and is so pervasive that it’s almost overlooked….” He points out that light appears 36 times in the Torah and even more in Psalms.
A recent op-ed piece in the Jerusalem Post discusses the symbolism of light in Judaism and Hanukkah. “In Biblical Hebrew, redemption, truth, justice, peace and even life itself shine, and their revelation is expressed in terms of the revelation of light. The advantage of light over darkness is so obvious that it serves as a sharp metaphor: ‘…wisdom excels folly as far as light excels darkness’.” (Ecclesiastes 2:13). It seems only natural that light would serve as the perfect metaphor for the victory over tyranny.
However, the article also points out that “Above all, the function of light is to illuminate.” We speak about the light of the Torah, of becoming enlightened and of the Jewish people as being a light unto the world.
So light has two very distinct properties: it can both burn and illuminate. In the Talmud, we find the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel at odds about the function of light in dealing with evil. Shammai argued that we need to destroy and burn away all evil, while Hillel asserted that it was not possible to destroy all evil—aside from it being wholly unpractical. “It would be far better, he argued, to create a greater light in the world to dissipate the darkness.”
In view of the violence we face in our world today—we are challenged to determine the best most effective course of action. Surely we want to attack and destroy what is wrong in the world—but are we not instructed to be a light to the world, “to create such a tremendous light where we are that the darkness just fades away?” In his lecture on “Talmudic Insights into Chanukah,” Rabbi Mendel Weinbach zt’l said, “While both methods might be valid, what is supposed to be the main thrust of a Jew; what is to be learned from what happened in Hanukkah? In this matter, Shammai and Hillel are both agreed on the purpose of kindling the hanukkiah – It is to rekindle the light within us that can triumph over darkness.”
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.