DID JEW KNOW: You Can Celebrate Hanukkah Meaningfully as Adult

by Rabbi Ilana Zietman / December 18, 2019

did jew know

One of the things I hear adults struggle with when it comes to Hanukkah is that it is largely a holiday for kids. It involves presents, dreidel games, chocolate coins, and some very interesting a capella remixes. And while of course adults can and do enjoy these kitchy aspects of the holiday, they may not necessarily engage us for long or at all (I mean, how many latkes can one eat over eight whole days? Have you actually tasted gelt?!). 

Plus, the story itself (as is often told to children) is rather simplistic when you think about it. A small band of righteous rebels defeat an evil empire and the oil of the menorah miraculously lasted for eight days when it should have just lasted for one. It makes for a great tale, but it might not hold the same meaning as we get older, when we realize that things usually aren’t so straightforward; be they about politics, war, theology, and even hope.  

For those of us in our 20s and 30s, what can Hanukkah mean to us now? How can we celebrate it in a way that is meaningful, relevant, and inspiring? 

This year, I ran a two-part “Hanukkah Deep-Dive” series for people asking this very question. We came up with a variety of ideas, which I’ll get to below. 

First, we studied ancient texts about Hanukkah, going back to where it all began, so to speak. Two main ideas stood out as having the potential to guide us to newly adapted mature Hanukkah, namely, how and where we light the Hanukkah candles. 

How to Light the Menorah

When it comes to Hanukkah traditions, perhaps the most substantial one we can revisit as adults is lighting the menorah. It’s beautiful, it’s got fire, it’s DIY, and its meaning runs deep. 

The ritual of how to light menorah began with the rabbis in the Talmud, a compilation of Jewish law and debate that was collected in the first couple of centuries, CE. This was long after the Maccabees had won the war and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem by the way. 

When it came to decide how to light the candles of the menorah, (the lingering piece of the Hanukkah story that could be done at home) two major scholars, Hillel and Shammai had a disagreement.

Shammai said that we should begin with eight candles on the first day and subsequently decrease the number of lights as the days go on until we only have one left.

Hillel on the other hand, said that we should begin with one candle and add one more each night until we have eight lights on the last day. The latter is the tradition we’ve come to observe. But, why? 

The reason given by the Talmud is that “One elevates in matters of sanctity rather than downgrades.”

In our class, we discussed how to make sense of this ritual from an emotional and psychological point of view. Hillel’s approach of adding light, many noticed, can help us feel a sense of movement from utter darkness to a place of increased brightness, presence, and visibility. It’s no wonder that Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, takes place during the darkest time of year. When it’s dark, we crave light, we crave seeing and being seen, we crave knowing that things can get better. Lighting the menorah Hillel’s way reminds us that it’s possible to find sources of light within and without, even in the midst of dark and scary times. 

By starting with just one light, we also acknowledge that the seeds of change can start out rather humbly, rather than showing up suddenly as a fiery blaze. It’s up to us to pause, notice the small light, and embrace its unassuming energy. By spreading the amount of light each day (literally and figuratively), we embody the idea that when we or someone else brings light into the world, it can quickly catch on and gain momentum. Our individual acts of love and kindness can spread to another, then another, and then another, which in turn, can turn into that fiery blaze of goodness. 

And even though most people in our class preferred Hillel’s approach, there were a few who preferred Shammai’s. After all, if the menorah in the ancient Temple was lit up, it would have had all of its branches on fire at once, with declining light as the days went on as the oil slowly ran low. Shammai’s approach seems to have been more of a reenactment of the miracle. But what’s inherent in his approach is that as much as darkness can make us feel alone, depressed, even afraid, this method underscores that moments of uncertainty can also contain holiness, unleashed potential.

His message was, “Don’t let fear drive you from what you don’t know or can’t yet see. Be patient and trust yourself.” 

Where to Light the Menorah

Realizing the relevance behind both of these messages, we connected them to the main mitzvah (commandment) of lighting the menorah, which we discussed at length. The mitzvah, according to the Talmud, is to light the menorah in a place where anyone can see it from the street, be it outside our homes or on a windowsill. The main goal is to publicize the miracle and not just keep it to ourselves. 

When it comes to what the miracle actually was or represents, there are different ways one can see it. At the heart of it, is that the Maccabees, who had no reason to believe that there would be enough oil to last more than one day, decided to light the menorah with what they had anyway. Maybe they were naive, maybe desperate. Both are possible. But regardless, they decided better to have some light in the world than no light at all. And with that one decision, they were met with unexpected result. 

For some, putting the menorah in a window or entrance to one’s home (or online) is about exercising religious freedom and showing up proudly as Jews and that’s important. It can also be about spreading hope to those who need it most, regardless of background. It can be sharing light with those who are outside in the dark and see our lights within and those of us lighting the candles within who can share them with others. But, more than anything, we should make sure we are actually living out the message behind this ritual every day. Then, I think we’ve reclaimed Hanukkah as adults for our time. 

How to Live the Message of the Menorah

  • Do a selfless act of kindness for different friends and strangers each day of the holiday and reflect on it with others. 
  • Reach out to people you don’t know well, who you’ve been meaning to reach out to like a neighbor or new co-workers, even invite them to a Hanukkah gathering. Invite them into conversation about hope and rededication, or different familial traditions and heritages. 
  • Since Hanukkah is about rededicating sacred space (Hanukkah means dedication), rededicate yourself to something or someone that is sacred to you. How can you uplift that part of your life this year? Get a group of friends together and share your goals, see how you can support one another in your rededications. 

If you have any questions about the above or want more ideas on how to make Hanukkah more inspiring to you as an adult – email me at rabbi.ilana@gatherdc.org. Wishing you a very happy, as well as meaningful and relevant, Hanukkah.



About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!) and watching a lot of tv.






The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.