Chanukkah, Shmita and Shammai

As we head into winter, the light changes and creates changes inside of us. Dusk descends upon the Earth earlier and dawn arrives later.
An evening walk takes us through luminous pockets of blue, white, red and green. For some, winter light brings a melancholy and longing for bright summer sunlight. For others, the candles and iridescent colored bulbs bring excitement and nostalgia.

It is with this consciousness of light and its effects on the human condition that the Jewish people observe Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

During Hanukkah, we commemorate the triumph of the Maccabees over the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE.  When they rededicated the desecrated Temple, the Maccabees found only one cruse of oil left to light the ceremonial lamp.  That cruse of oil was only expected to last for one night; however, it lasted for eight days.

What meanings can we glean from the miracle of the oil? Perhaps it is that no matter how abused or degraded an individual or a group may be, there is the capacity in it for more fire and light than one could ever imagine. Or maybe it is that triumph over oppression illuminates what is good.  We have what we need even if it doesn’t seem as though we have enough.  We can enter darkness in our world and in our souls knowing that we will endure, and that the world has what it needs to illuminate truth, beauty and goodness.

Congregation Har Shalom is getting ready to construct its outdoor hanukkiah, which we light each night in front of the synagogue.  What will be different about this year’s Hanukkah Festivities at Har Shalom?

Generally the custom on Hanukkah is to light one candle for the first night, and one additional light each night until the eighth night when the hanukkiah is aglow with all eight branches burning brightly. A lesser known form of the ritual is to light eight lights on the first night and one fewer each night until one candle remains lit.  This year, since it is a shmita or sabbatical year in which we allow fields to lie fallow as instructed by the Torah, our community has decided that we will light our public hanukkiah according to the lesser known tradition. This mirrors the shift away from production and cultivation of land which in our times can be construed as increasing consumption of energy and natural resources.  The lights of the universe and beyond will be felt most profoundly on the culminating 8th night instead of eight lights that are humanly constructed and lit.

The sabbatical year occurs every seven years and provides the opportunity for a shift in perspective towards humility in which we
can explore the non-dominant approach.   Our usual way of doing things is interrupted and we take some time to retreat into stillness.  From there, new approaches to address old problems arise, a welcome opportunity in this challenging year.  We hope you will join us in staring into the night sky and that you will be blessed with discernment, and the lights of awareness and new hope.

This guest post was written by Jennifer Geraci and Rabbi Shoshana Leis. Rabbi Leis is co- rabbi of Har Shalom Center for Jewish Living in Fort Collins, CO.

One thought on “Chanukkah, Shmita and Shammai”

  1. This reply is actually from Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Your comments are always welcome and encouraged: Rabbi Shoshana Leis & David Eber, Reconstructionist rabbinical student and intern at The Shalom Center, each independently raised the question: Should Hanukkah be different this year? For this year we are in the midst of a Sabbatical/ Shmita year — the “seventh year” when the Torah (Lev. 25) calls on us to let Earth and human earthlings rest, invites us to freely share what freely grows, and requires us to release all debtors from their debts. So, they asked, should we light the Hanukkah candles as Shammai — one of the great ancient rabbinic teachers — taught, beginning with eight and going down to one?

    These are my thoughts about this question:

    The Sages decided that the teachings of Shammai’s great critic/comrade, Hillel, should be followed in ordinary history. Those teachings included the ruling that kindling the Hanukkah candles should begin with one, and rise to eight. And that is how we’ve done it, ever since.

    But the Sages also ruled that Shammai’s teachings would apply in Mashiachtzeit — the Messianic Era.

    Applying this to the Hanukkah candles, what would be Messianic about Shammai’s teaching that we begin with eight lights and night by night go down to one?

    In ordinary history, we are afraid of the dark. So as the sun dwindles and the moon vanishes, we light more and more and more lights to keep our courage up.

    BUT — ven kummt Mashiach — when Messiah comes — we will no longer be afraid of the dark. We will instead welcome it as Mystery. So then we can act as Shammai teaches: Darker and darker, till only the ONE remains.

    And we might see Shmita as a foretaste of that Messianic time, when we do not force the Earth or each other to work — and when we share the Earth’s abundance that is freely given .

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