In describing the proper positioning of the Hanukkah lamp, the Talmud (BT Shabbat 21b) states as follows:
One places the [Hanukkah] lamp in the doorway of one’s home, on the outside. If one dwells in an upper story, one places it in a window facing the public domain. However, in a time of great danger, one places it on the table in the privacy of one’s home.
As is often the case in Judaism, the details surrounding the fulfillment of a particular ritual contribute significantly to an understanding of the broader purpose and message of that rite. In both biblical and rabbinic texts, Jewish heritage is often compared to a flame (see Proverbs 6:23, et al) and the analogy is apt for so many reasons.
Like a flame, our religious tradition warms us and illuminates our path. Like a flame, core values can be passed from person to person, and generation to generation, without ever being diminished in the process. Like a flame, genuine spiritual experience is shared only through close contact; not even the marvels of modern technology can enable a long-distance exchange of flames.
And like a flame, if it is to withstand the test of time and continue to shine brightly, a religious heritage needs a steady supply of fuel. The flame of Jewish tradition will continue to burn only so long as it draws fuel from a reservoir of Jewish knowledge and literacy.
When considered in light of tradition/flame analogy, the positioning of the Hanukkah lamp gives rise to the essential message of the ritual: “This is my flame, my religious heritage, whose light has miraculously persevered through even the darkest periods in our history, and continues to burn brightly today. Because of its beauty, I yearn to share my flame with fellow Jews and fellow human beings, so I light it in my doorway or window for all to see. But if the society in which I live chooses to ridicule my flame and despise me for it, I will not extinguish it. Rather, I will place it at the center of my home and gather my family around it to bask in its warmth and its light.”
As we celebrate Hanukkah this year, take a moment to appreciate the warmth and the light of our religious heritage and make every effort to share its beauty with others whose may not be holding a flame of their own.
Let’s resolve to keep the fire burning by fueling it with knowledge and literacy, and transmit it to our children through shared, personal experiences, because that’s the only way a flame can be transferred. And, finally, when it seems like it’s so cold and so dark ‘out there,’ let’s gather our families around the cozy flames that stand at the center of our homes, and bask in their warmth and light.
Happy Hanukkah to all!
Rabbi Ari Perl is the spiritual leader of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach.