10 December 2020

‘Renew these days to
re-dedicate the world to
pure and clean light and
to the wisdom of truth’

The Hanukkah menorah in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This evening [10 December 2020] is the first night of Hanukkah, the holiday that continues for eight days until nightfall on Friday 18 December 2020. The theme of darkness and light is important in both Jewish and Christian traditions at this time of the year, but this is also a theme that resonates in a year of social and psychological darkness, swept in unexpectedly by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hanukkah (חֲנֻכָּה‬) commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire. It is also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication.

In the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah starts on 25 Kislev and continues for eight nights and days. It falls sometime between late November and late December, and sometimes is so late that it overlaps with Christmas.

The name Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew verb ‘חנך‎’ meaning to dedicate. On Hanukkah, the Maccabean Jews regained control of Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple. Two books, I and II Maccabees, describe in detail the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of the menorah.

That eight-day rededication is described in I Maccabees 4: 36 to 4: 59, although the name of the festival and the miracle of the lights do not appear there. A similar story is alluded to in II Maccabees 1: 18 to 1: 36, and recalls how Nehemiah relights the altar fire in a miracle on 25 Kislev, which may explain why Judah Maccabee chooses this date for rededicating the altar.

In I Maccabees 4 and II Maccabees 1: 9, the feast is seen as a delayed observation of the eight-day Feast of Booths (Sukkot). II Maccabees 10: 6 links the length of the feast with the Feast of Booths.

In the Gospels, John 10: 22-23 recalls Christ walking in Solomon’s Porch at the Temple during ‘the festival of the Dedication … in Jerusalem. It was winter.’ As Sukkot falls in autumn, in September or October, we are left wondering whether Jesus was in the Temple for the Festival of Hanukkah.

The festival is marked by lighting candles on a candelabrum with nine branches, a Hanukkah menorah (or hanukkiah). One branch is typically placed above or below the others and its candle is used to light the other eight. This unique candle is called the shamash (שמש‎, ‘attendant’). Each night, one additional candle is lit by the shamash, until all eight candles are lit together on the final night.

Today is also Human Rights Day. The story of Hanukkah is one of resistance to hatred, prejudice, racism and anti-Semitism. It is a story that too many Christians are unaware of, both its narrative and its significance.

Dreidels are part of a children's game at Hanukkah … a display in a synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Rabbi Dara Lithwick of Temple Israel Ottawa is also a Canadian lawyer specialising in constitutional and parliamentary law. She has suggested themes for the eight nights of Chanukah in this ‘pandemic’ year:

Night 1: We light tonight’s lights for health care and long-term care workers (from personal support workers to heads of public health) at the front lines of the pandemic caring for the most ill and vulnerable members of our communities.

Night 2: We light tonight’s lights for grocery store, supply chain, food and retail, hospitality and service workers often working for minimum wage, showing up day in and day out to keep society functioning, store shelves full, and lights on.

Night 3: We light tonight’s lights for teachers feeding our students’ minds and souls in ways different from any lesson plan of years past, online and in person, often counselling anxious students through the pandemic all the while sustaining the future.

Night 4: We light tonight’s lights for parents/ caregivers juggling and struggling work (or the lack of work) and childcare often all on top of one another, without the benefit of boundaries and support.

Night 5: We light tonight’s lights for volunteers delivering meals, groceries, goods to those in need, walking dogs, checking in with at-risk neighbours, counting ballots to preserve democracy while garbed in PPE.

Night 6: We light tonight’s lights for artists of all media and for spiritual care providers/ faith leaders, prophets and pastors both, creating anew and maintaining faith and connection across all platforms, dreaming up holidays and holiness in ways never experienced before.

Night 7: We light tonight’s lights for public/civil servants upholding democratic norms and institutions, developing and delivering pandemic support programs around the world at a decidedly un-bureaucratic pace.

Night 8: We light tonight’s lights for all of us! Surviving, caring, holding on, crying, mourning, loving, living, lighting our candles.

Her suggestions are part of a collaboration with the other rabbis, writers, liturgists and artists in Bayit’s liturgical arts working group, https://yourbayit.org/liturgical-arts/ producing a new collection for this difficult ‘pandemic’ Chanukah, Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah.

These contributions include a new liturgy for this pandemic Chanukah, evocative poetry, and stirring artwork, intended for use by individuals and communities across and beyond the denominational spectrum in Judaism.

The contributors to this project are: Trisha Arlin, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat Rabbi Dara Lithwick, Rabbi David Evan Markus, Rabbi Sonja Keren Pilz, Rabbi Jennifer Singer, Devon Spier, and Steve Silbert.

These poems and other liturgical offerings can be found at Bayit’s page, Liturgical Arts for Our Times.

A Menorah made for Hanukkah by children in the concentration camp in Theresienstadt in 1944 … Hanukkah is a story of resistance to hatred, prejudice, racism and anti-Semitism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In an introductory section, Rabbi David Evan Markus, a New York lawyer, rabbi and lecturer, has written a reflection, ‘From the Year 2050 looking back on this time, for the children of our children’:

‘We thank You for the miracles, redemption, the strengths and salvations, and wonders You did for our ancestors in those days at this season.

‘In the days of Stacey Abrams, Jacinda Ardern, William Barber, Anthony Fauci, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, John Lewis, Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai, peoples of the Earth had forgotten Your teachings and transgressed Your ways of justice. Greed corroded truth. Ignorance mocked science. Fossil fuels burned without end, defiling Your temple of nature. Zealotry and corruption flourished, defiling Your temple of democracy.

‘But even as heaven and earth testified against the peoples of that time – when seas rose and forests burned, violence spilled innocent blood, plague brought nations to their knees, cities began to crumble and the garden You gave them to till and tend began to die – still their hope was not lost. Amidst pain and yearning, they recalled the Covenant, they heard the still small voice within, and they returned to You in love.

‘And You, in Your great mercy, stood with them in their time of distress. You fought their fights and judged their cause. You delivered the future into the hands of the righteous, and in Your holiness You empowered their great deliverance and redemption. With the pure power of clean light and justice under law, Your children returned to the oracle of Your house, cleansed Your temple and purified Your sanctuary. They kindled lights in Your holy courts, and renewed these eight days of Chanukkah to give thanks and praise to Your Name – to re-dedicate the world to pure and clean light and to the wisdom of truth forever.’

A Hanukkah Menorah in a shopfront in Murano in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Earlier this week, on her blog Velveteen Rabbi, the poet blogger and rabbi Rachel Barenblat wrote of how, in this ‘difficult December, we need all the beauty and whimsy we can find.’

Her poem ‘Rededication’ is her contribution to Bayit’s Chanukah project, Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah. It is a poem for the second night of Hanukkah:

Rededication by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

It’s not like the Temple, sullied
by improper use and then washed clean
and restored to former glory.
This house is tarnished by familiarity.
Month after pandemic month I’ve circled
from bed to table to sofa to bed again.
I no longer see the mezuzah
on every door frame. Tonight
with one tiny candle I light another.
I want their little flames to galvanize
my hands to consecrate each room.
I sweep flour from my kitchen, affirming
here where I sing to my challah is holy.
So too the hallway where I hang coats
and newly-washed fabric masks to dry,
the bedroom with its pile of quilts
and rosemary plant in the window
struggling to make it until spring.
God, we’re all struggling to make it
until spring. Help me make this house
a place where hope keeps burning bright.

A Hanukkah Menorah in a shopfront in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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