A menorah, lit in the GatherDC townhouse front window.
Why does Jewish tradition tell us to place the Hanukkah menorah on a windowsill or even outside our front door? For the sake of “publicizing the miracle,” pirsum ha-nes (Talmud Shabbat 23b), meaning to make its light easily visible to passersby. I teach this idea every year because I love asking people to think about what the phrase “publicizing the miracle” can mean.
The most common interpretation I hear is that we light the menorah in a visible way to proudly designate our homes, offices, community centers, and synagogues as Jewish spaces. Some people make a parallel reference to the public placement of the mezuzah, the sacred scrolls we place on our front doorposts. And that comparison is correct – rabbis say that, if you’re placing your menorah outside, it should be placed opposite the mezuzah!
I obviously agree with this answer but, in truth, I’ve always seen it as secondary to a more spiritual interpretation. I tend to see the physical designation of a space as Jewish as a natural and important outcome of lighting a menorah in the window (or putting up a mezuzah), but not as the primary intent of the ritual.
Menorahs lit and placed outside on a residential street in Jerusalem, 2016.
Let me explain.
The underlying reason I have always seen for why we light the menorah publicly is to remind ourselves and one another that new possibilities and outcomes – including miracles – are always inherent in the world, even in dark, discouraging times. Jews light the menorah not only to reinforce the message about finding reason to hope for ourselves, but to spread it throughout all the communities and neighborhoods we live and work in.
This intent of “light begetting light” goes even further. The essence of the miracle of Hanukkah is that there was enough oil to keep the light of the ancient menorah going for much longer than it reasonably should have. The original menorah was considered as a ner tamid, an eternal light that the Temple priests were tasked with maintaining every single day. It was a sacred job, but a job nonetheless. It took work. The fire for the menorah was said to be taken from the fire of the altar, which the priests had to meticulously maintain, clean (think lots of soot!), and transfer each and every day. As the rabbis tell us, “[e]ven though fire descends from the heavens, there is still a mitzvah [commandment] to bring fire by person” (Talmud, Yoma 21b).
Even though miracles can surprisingly come from without, they often need us humans to work towards them, to notice and tend to them. The miracle of Hanukkah doesn’t happen without the original Maccabee who, even seeing the lack of available oil, still decided to light the menorah. Who still decided to try. This is the takeaway I always want us Jews to remember and live out by celebrating Hanukkah and especially by lighting the menorah in our windows and outdoor spaces: that we have every reason to believe that surprising, life-affirming outcomes are possible even as we work really hard towards them day in and day out.
While this understanding of publicizing the miracle is of course still necessary and inspiring, with each passing year, I find myself increasingly moved by that first interpretation about proudly practicing public Jewishness.
Suffice it to say, it’s been a rough few years, months and gosh, even weeks for American Jews. Witnessing the very visible ascent and normalization of anti-Jewish bias and hatred is shocking to those of us who’ve had the rare privilege of never or rarely experiencing it growing up. Jews of various identities and backgrounds either have past family stories about antisemitism, learned about its impact in our communal history or, unfortunately, experienced it (alongside other forms of bigotry) firsthand. In some ways, nothing is new. But the intensifying reach of hateful rhetoric and violence against Jews today is increasingly more open and ubiquitous (hi internet!), which is scary and utterly bewildering.
Personally, as an Ashkenazi Jew who grew up in New York, I never had to worry about my safety when lighting a menorah in my window. I would have said that kind of thinking was a thing of the past. Now, probably like many of you, I find myself considering my family and community’s safety because I know lighting a menorah most obviously designates our homes and places of work as Jewish, no matter how proud we are of that fact.
As I find myself feeling, quite frankly, unprepared for this “return of American Jewish vulnerability,” I simultaneously find comfort and resolve in knowing our ancestors passed down their secrets of their resiliency in the stories, customs, and traditions that have lasted the test of time. Hanukkah is one such tradition, a blueprint to helping us cope and respond to the confusing and hostile reality we (and other minorities) face today.
So, here’s what I hope to leave us with this year as we navigate all the feels behind pride, hope and vulnerability:
The word Hanukkah literally means “dedication,” and the story of the holiday is that the ancient Maccabees were able to defeat their oppressors and rededicate the Jerusalem Temple as a public space for Jewish worship. So, just as we proudly claim our space in the American public as Jews always have in this country, let’s continue to look for ways that our uniquely beautiful customs inspire us to explore what it means to be harbingers of light, hope and transformation for us and our world.
Wishing you a chag urim sameach, a happy Festival of Lights.
* * *
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.