Hanukkah: How to Be Eternal

What is the basic requirement of Hanukkah? Just one candle per household. Thus says the Talmud. In the same section, we learn that the "Mehadrin", those who wish to do it in better style, will light one candle for each member of the family. They will do so each night. Then we meet the "Mehadrin min Hamehadrin", those who wish to do it in even greater fashion. They will light one candle more for each night of Hanukkah. Yes, today everyone does it like the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin. We all light one on the first night, two on the second and so forth.

There is a debate among the commentaries if the Mehadrin and the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin are exclusive or inclusive. In other words, do the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin light just one menorah and follow the days, or do they build on the Mehadrin and light for the whole family, and double that on the second night, triple it on the third and so forth. If a family of three is Mehadrin min Hamehadrin, do they light 1-2-3 .. or 3-6-9...?

I have a more basic question: If the lighting of the candles is to recall the Menora from the Temple, why don't we light seven candles every night? There is a practical answer, that the Bible forbids making a seven branched candelabra, as the one in the Temple needed to be a unique one. So maybe we should light 8 each night? Perhaps so, but the sages generally try to minimize the expenses of the citizenry, so they wouldn't make such an expensive requirement. As it is, the 36 candles required by the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin is enough expense.

I will suggest a different explanation as to what the candles symbolize, and it is NOT the candelabra in the Temple. It is, instead, the root cause of the Jewish victory, and of Jewish persistence and survival. There are a number of elements, but the most basic is the family. "Ner ish uvaito = a candle for each man and his home." The Jewish family is the bedrock of our survival. We teach traditions, we share holidays and every-days. It is a place of nurturing, of warmth, of eternity.

Thus, our first obligation on Hanukkah to ensure the continued existence of our people is to strengthen our families. Our homes should be bastions of Torah and Jewish tradition. There is no room for a Hanukkah bush or a Christmas tree. There is room for candles, for the singing of Maoz Tzur, for the telling of the story of the miracle of the candles. I find it inspiring that even the most assimilated Jews have Hanukkah in their homes.

What about the Mehadrins and the Mehadrin min Hamehadrins? Hillel, the Mishnaic sage, said the famous teaching, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?"

This is how I explain the three levels of lighting, each with its message. "If I am not for me.." is one candle. It's the family unit. "If I am for myself only.." implies living for others. This is the Mehadrin, who lights for all the members of the family. Thus, our concern for each other is expressed, and our cohesiveness as a nation is strengthened.

"If not now, when?" Here we move, perhaps to the most powerful aspect. Growth! This is the basic difference between the Jewish nation and the rest of the world. Jews are obsessively future-oriented. Tomorrow is everything, today is just a way to get there. What we do today must be geared towards strengthening tomorrow. Hence, if not now, when will I prepare for tomorrow? It must be today.

By lighting an additional candle each day, instead of 8 every night, we express the centrality of growth in our faith. Each day must certainly have it's glow, it's accomplishments, but those accomplishments are not in a vacuum. They must lead to tomorrow. Each day builds on the previous. We are always building a greater future.

Therefore, the way we light candles, by including all the elements, expresses Hillel's dictum beautifully. Further, it is the essence of our survival: Our families, our concern for each other, and our constant building up to the future.

Happy Hanukkah!