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Chanukah: What's Light Got to do with it?

by Rabbi Dov Pinson


Library » Holidays » Chanukah » About | Subscribe | What is RSS?


Why do we call Chanukah the Festival of Lights? Why not the Commemoration of Oil or the Miracle of the Eight Days?

The root of the word Chanukah is Chinuch, which means education. Chanukah is a cumulative spiritual process through which the total of thirty-six lights that are kindled grow to reveal the light of creation.

What is light? Light is commonly viewed as a metaphor for wisdom. The universal symbol for understanding in a cartoon or graphic illustration is a light or flash. Light. Seeing. People of all cultures, when grasping a concept that is being explained, use in various languages one word: see. "Oh, I see," we say, when finally arriving at an understanding of something.

Maimonides writes that a prophet can experience a flash of light, of radiance, which illuminates his direction. "Light" is often used in the Torah to mean knowledge and wisdom. With the words "Let there be light," the creation of the world emerged. The Talmud explains that this light illuminated Adam and Eve for thirty-six hours, Friday noon through Shabbat day, when "Adam could see from the end of the world until its [other] end." During this time, the Primordial Light, the inner wisdom of purpose and truth, was displayed to mankind.

...the Chanukah lights are placed in the window as a beacon to all passersby that darkness can be dispelled with wisdom, obscurity can be illuminated with truth
But for the purpose of creation to be actualized and the mandate of overcoming darkness to be manifested, this intense light was hidden from the universe, stored for a time yet to come.

Ever since, we yearn for that light, search for it and pursue it in prayer, study and meditation. Yet, even in our darkest hours we can access this memory born of the 36 hours when we, humanity as a whole, lived in this light. "Where was this light to be hidden?" asks the Midrash, "in the Torah." In its radiance we experience the wisdom, purpose, and intent of creation.

In every generation there are 36 elevated souls present who sustain, nurture and guard this light. Concealed, unassuming, and virtually unknown, these 36 righteous people are sparks of that Hidden Light. Through their refined consciousness, the light of Torah permeates the world.

During Chanukah’s eight days, our world is luminous with this glorious light. Unlike the Shabbat candles, the Chanukah lights may not be used for personal pleasure.1 "These lights are holy…we may only gaze upon them."2 For though our perception may be blurred, we were, and essentially are, masters of vision. Indeed, the Chanukah lights are placed in the window as a beacon to all passersby that darkness can be dispelled with wisdom, obscurity can be illuminated with truth.

As much as Chanukah commemorates the past, it celebrates the present and the future. For while Chanukah celebrates the miracle of a single jug of oil burning for eight days, it also imbues the world with the hope of redemption, when light will triumph over negativity. This is both a past and future time, when like during the 36 hours of the inception of humanity, "there will be no hunger or war, no jealousy or rivalry. For good will be plentiful, and all delicacies as common as dust. The entire occupation of the world will be only to know God. ‘For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of G-d, as the waters cover the sea.’"3


  • 1. Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 139:14
  • 2. Chanukah liturgy.
  • 3. Maimonides.


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(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Moses son of Maimon, born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
An eight day mid-winter holiday marking: 1) The miraculous defeat of the mighty Syrian-Greek armies by the undermanned Maccabis in the year 140 BCE. 2) Upon their victory, the oil in the Menorah, sufficient fuel for one night only, burned for eight days and nights.
(Pl. Midrashim). Non-legal material of anecdotal or allegorical nature, designed either to clarify historical material, or to teach a moral point. The Midrashim were compiled by the sages who authored the Mishna and Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE).
The first man, created by G-d on the sixth day of creation. He was banished from the Garden of Eden after eating from the forbidden fruit of the forbidden knowledge. Died in 2830 BCE.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.