These Jewish holidays are never quite on time...always floating through the secular calendar and then arriving either earlier than anyone expects them (like Chanukah this year) or later than feels right. Or maybe it's just me...they're always on time in their own terms, after all: Pesach is always on the 15th of Nisan, Chanukah always begins on the 25th of Kislev, etc. But it does feel early this year...and yes, of course, also on time. It's just one of those things!
Chanukah is an odd holiday in some ways. Most of the ceremonies and customs connected with the festivals of the Jewish year devolve on each adult in our communities personally, and without reference to other people and their similar obligations. So everyone has personally to eat the required amount of matzah at the seder, not merely be present when the blessings are recited and the matzah is consumed. And everybody is required to hear the megillah read at Purim, and the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah. But everybody is not required to light his or her own menorah at Chanukah. In fact, the whole custom is described in the Talmud in a way that is far simpler, and far less involving, than the way the festival is observed in most Jewish homes today. The Talmud notes that, to fulfill the mitzvah, each Jewish home has to have a single candle lit each evening of the festival. Slightly more pious families had the custom of lighting a candle for each person in the house. And the most pious families of all used one version of the custom we all observe, either starting (as we do) with one candle and increasing to eight as the nights of the festival progress, or else the other way 'round and beginning with eight and diminishing the number to one on the final night. (It sounds funny to think of doing it that way, but that is, after all, more reminiscent of the story of the oil being less and less every day in the jug, but somehow not running out until after eight days passed and new oil had been prepared for the great menorah that stood in the Temple.) The point is that this was an obligation for each house, or at least for each household, not for each individual. The Talmud even quotes the opinion of Rabbi Zera to the effect that an individual away from home can skip the whole thing as long as the Chanukah lights are kindled in that person's home, wherever it may be. And yet today there are many homes in which everybody present lights his or her menorah every evening of the festival, a custom not even contemplated by the rabbis.
There are so many ways in which we are more lax than our ancestors in terms of our fulfillment of the commandments, so it's nice to note at least one mitzvah that we tend to fulfill even more zealously than they did. And yet, for all it pleases me to see people rising to new levels of observance, there's also something in me that regrets the way the original concept becomes obscured behind all those colored candles. By detaching the mitzvah from the individual and assigning it, almost anomalously, to the home, tradition is saying something interesting, and something subtle, about Chanukah: that it is a festival specifically of the Jewish home, and that the point is not that each of us remember the story of the miracle, but that we be part of a communal effort to proclaim the story from within our homes. (The custom pushed in some quarters, therefore, to stick menorahs everywhere—in shopping malls and post offices, and in the lobbies of banks—is motivated by the traditional impetus "to proclaim the festival", but misses the essential element that it is the Jewish home that is requisite setting for that act of proclamation.)
To put it even more simply: there are miracles and there are miracles. There is the story of the ancient miracle that attended the Jews of old
As the holiday begins next week, I hope we can all find it in ourselves to rededicate ourselves to maintaining fine Jewish homes. The miracle, after all, is not that we were once there, but that we are still here...and still vigorous and unyielding in our efforts to protect our own holy sanctuary, which is the Jewish home. (November 30, 2007)