Hanukkah: Festival of Lights? Or – Hebrew are Funny Languages

flame— by Rabbi Aaron Liebman

One of the most common refrains I hear around Hanukkah time is that this is the festival of lights. A few days ago I read a song that referred to Hanukkah as the “festival of light.” Is that really what Hanukkah is?

More after the jump.
Light, as well as darkness, does indeed play a major role in our celebration of Hanukkah. Hanukkah occurs at the darkest time of the year, and it is observed by lighting flames that will burn at least half an hour into the darkness. And yet I suspect that the term “festival of lights” has less to do with that, than with a modern mistranslation of the Hebrew term “chag ha’urim” (האורים חג).

There is a distinction between two similar Hebrew words — “or” and “ur.” Without vowels, both are spelled the same way – aleph, vav, reish. By far the better known of the two, “or” (pl. “orot“) is a common biblical word meaning light. On the other hand, “ur” (pl. “urim“), is a word from mishnaic Hebrew meaning “fire” or “flame”. It is familiar to many of us from the high holiday liturgical poem כחומר הנה כי (“as clay in the hands of the potter, as an axe in the hands of the smith” — (כי הנה כגרזן ביד החרש, ברצותו דבק לאור וברצותו פרש), if he wants he holds it in the fire (‘ur‘) and if he wants he withdraws it.” Please note that if we were to spell this as “or” (as do most machzors) instead of “ur” it would make no sense, since pressing an axe against a light — rather than a fire — does nothing to change it.

But the best known use of the word “ur” in modern Hebrew is in the designation of Hanukkah as “chag ha’urim.” Hanukkah is therefore the festival of flames, not the festival of lights. Paris, on the other hand, is “ir ha’orot,” the city of lights. So now we’ve clarified a common little linguistic error. That leads me to my next question: Who cares?

To answer that question, I would like to examine the central observance of Hanukkah, that of lighting candles, or flames. Flames have different properties to them, and we can ritually use these properties in different ways. For instance, flames burn — they change and consume things in a chemical reaction. Flames emit heat. Flames also emit light — they illuminate. And flames have a distinctive look to them. These properties are important to us in different ways at different times.

The core reason for kindling Sabbath candles is illumination. Now even if we have enough light I would encourage lighting Sabbath candles for other reasons, but the basic reason for these candles is that we should have enough light in the home on Friday night, so that we are able to enjoy a Shabbat meal without bumping into and knocking over things. Therefore, if one is in a situation on Friday afternoon were one cannot safely kindle a flame, one should (according to most authorities) turn on an electric light, accompanied by the blessing “lehadlik ner shel shabbat.”

The core reason for Hanukkah candles, on the other hand, is not illumination. On the contrary, we are not supposed to be using the Hanukkah candles ( להשתמש רשות לנו אין בהם) even for illumination, which is one of the reasons we leave a server candle (שמש) lit next to the Hanukkah candles — that someone who is walking by will be able to see based on the light of the server candle and not by the Hanukkah candles themselves. Why then do we light Hanukkah candles? It is for commemorative purposes, what the rabbis called pirsumei nissa — to publicize the miracle. Obviously light plays a role here: when we see the light of the candles we are reminded of Hanukkah, and that reminds us of the miracle.

But the light from the Hanukkah candles should be enough for them to be seen, but not so much as to illuminate everything around them. Candles per se are not absolutely required, of course, and in fact many people go out of their way to observe this mitzvah by lighting wicks set in oil. But, according to most authorities, a flame is a key ingredient of the observance. Therefore, if one is in a situation where one cannot kindle a flame for Hanukkah, one cannot observe the mitzvah (and should not recite the blessings) by lighting, say, an electric hanukkiah. I am not arguing that one should avoid lighting electric hanukkiot; they are pretty and decorative and they are effective in reminding people of Hanukkah. But people should not think that by lighting electric hanukkiot they are observing the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles. The flame itself is an essential ingredient, so Hanukkah is the “festival of flames.” Referring to Hanukkah as the “festival of lights” or “festival of light” is likely to obfuscate this.

Since I’m on the topic of mistranslation, I’d like to call attention to the name of the  holiday itself. “Hanukkah” does indeed mean “dedication.” Unfortunately, the English word “dedication” means several things, and only one of those things is the correct translation of “Hanukkah.” “Hanukkah” means dedication in the sense of establishing a new home or institution or structure (the song Maoz Tzur refers to the dedication of the altar) or using something for the first time. It does not mean the human quality of dedication as in “perseverance” or “commitment.” Probably a clearer translation of “Hanukkah” would be “christening” and yet, for some reason, I don’t think that “the Holiday of Christening” has the proper ring to it. So, if someone wants to dedicate a new home on Hanukkah, that is entirely within the spirit of the holiday and the meaning of the word. But is someone tells you that you need to dedicate yourself to a task because that is the essence of Hanukkah, tell them to save it for Pesach.

Here are another two words that have many modern Israelis in a tizzy. The first is “chag” as in “chag ha’urim.” Some people point out that the term “chag” is properly used only in reference to a yontif, hence it is inappropriate for Hanukkah or Purim (post-toraitic holidays that do not have a yontif component) or any other cholo shel moed (intermediate days of Pesach and Succot). Such purists are careful to greet each other on Purim with a hearty “simchat Purim” – something which sounds very awkward to anyone who grew up with “chag Purim same’ach.” What do these people do with the phrase “chag ha’urim” in reference to Hanukkah? — I don’t know, and I don’t care.

The second word is “menorah” in reference to the Hanukkah lamp. A proper menorah, they point out, has seven branches, whereas the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) has eight or — more commonly — nine places for individual lights. (The ninth place, set apart from the rest, is reserved for the shamash). Personally, I think it is fine to use the term “menorah” to refer to any kind of lamp, whether it has seven wicks or nine or one. It is useful to remember, however, that the Menorah in the Temple had seven branches, three on either side diverging off one central pillar. And even though many hanukkiot are designed in a similar fashion (but with four branches on either side instead of three), they are not the same as the Menorah which is one of most recognizable Jewish symbols and has been adopted as the emblem of the modern State of Israel.

Rabbi Aaron LIebman is originally from Philadelphia.  He earned a law degree from Bar Ilan University.  Aaron received his rabbinical ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion.


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