Shammai, Shmita and Hanukkah
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 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. This custom was the custom of the School of Hillel. A lesser known form of the ritual – that of the House of Shammai- 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.
Rabbi Shoshana Leis is co- rabbi of Har Shalom Center for Jewish Living. Jennifer Geraci is the Vice President of Spiritual Practice at Har Shalom. Visit congregationharshalom.org for information on Hanukkah activities and more.