Hanukkah, Oil, & the Green Menorah: Talking Points for Sermons and Op-Ed Pieces

Hanukkah, Oil, & the Green Menorah: Talking Points for Sermons and Op-Ed Pieces

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow | 11/7/2007

By Rabbi Jeff Sultar & The Shalom Center’s Green Menorah Covenant Campaign
(215) 438-2983 Greenmenorah@shalomctr.org

During Hanukkah, we celebrate the use of one day’s worth of oil to meet 8 days’ needs. Hanukkah can be seen, then, as the festival that has the most to teach and inspire us about energy use.

And it couldn’t come at a better time:

• We are living in the beginning stages of a global climate crisis caused by human activity.
• Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Warner are right now putting forth a bill, the “America’s Climate Security Act,” which is the first piece of legislation with the realistic potential to begin addressing the global climate crisis, though it also needs to be strengthened.
• In early December (3-14), a new round of United Nations Climate Talks will begin in Bali, Indonesia, to pick up on protocols created in Kyoto in 1997. The weekend in the middle of those talks – which happens to be Shabbat Hanukkah – has been declared “International Days of Climate Action,” and people in over 70 countries will demonstrate, calling for action that actually responds to the direness of the global climate crisis we are facing.

What you can do:

• Feel free to use these talking points in whatever way is most helpful.
• Focus your sermon at the major Shabbat Hanukkah service on the global climate crisis.
• Distribute (via newsletter if not too late) the one-page two-sided flyer (last two pages following the talking points) of b’rachot and suggested actions to address the global climate crisis.
• Write an op-ed piece for your local secular or Jewish newspaper.
• Initiate or support efforts within your synagogue to green the building.
• Initiate or support efforts within your synagogue to inspire congregants to green their homes.
• Attend, with congregants, local International Days of Climate Action demonstrations.
• Use the template at the end of these talking points to send a letter to your senator about the Lieberman-Warner “America’s Climate Security Act.”


Greenhouse Effect
The phrase “greenhouse effect” refers to the fact that our atmosphere acts as a filter, allowing radiation in the form of sunlight to pass in, but then trapping part of the reflected radiation as it attempts to leave the Earth. Without the greenhouse effect, the Earth would be approximately 60 degrees cooler (averaging around zero degrees Fahrenheit); it would be an iceball and life as we know it would be impossible. The greenhouse effect itself, then, is not a problem; the problem is human activity changing the nature of the atmospheric filter.

Scientific Consensus that Human Beings are Causing Increase in Global Temperature
Naomi Oreskes, historian of science at UC, San Diego, evaluated 928 scientific papers dealing with global climate change – none disagreed about the human source of global warming (Science, Dec. 3, 2004).

Why It’s Happening
The amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere began increasing in the 18th century, due to deforestation (trees no longer removing CO2 from atmosphere). It increased more rapidly in the late 19th century due to burning of fossil fuels and even more rapid deforestation. Currently, 60% of the overall warming effect from CO2 is produced by burning fossil fuels; 18% is due to deforestation and land use; 14% is from methane (released in fossil fuel extraction, rice wetland production, digestion of cattle and other ruminants, and decomposition of organic wastes from urban dump sites and the raising of livestock).

The United States, with 5% of the world’s population, is responsible for 22% of annual CO2 emissions from human activity (86 % of the energy in the United States, as of 2005, is from coal, natural gas, and oil). Every gallon of gas burned in a car is responsible for 25 pounds of heat-trapping emissions (driving 10,000 miles in a car that gets 30 miles to a gallon of gas emits one ton of CO2). On average, each American is responsible for 5 tons/CO2/year. The developed world is responsible for 64% of total global CO2 emissions.

So What? What’s Threatening About It?
As the global average temperature rises, it’s as if we all move further south, climate-wise. Editors of The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World say, “We can literally see environmental disasters unfolding before our eyes”: lakes are shrinking, there are changes to ocean coastlines. The Aral Sea in Central Asia has shrunk 75% since 1967; Lake Chad in Africa has shrunk 95% since 1963. The Dead Sea is 82 feet lower than 50 years ago.

Extreme weather patterns will increase in frequency and severity – hurricanes, tornadoes, monsoons, flooding. Ironically, drought will strike other places (note Georgia right now). Danger of forest fires rises as conditions become drier (see California). There will be increases in crop failures, famine, disease, plants and animals extinction (see recent government report that by 2050, 2/3 of polar bears will die off due to climate change). The Ocean is both warming and also growing more acidic (as CO2 creates a weak acid). Sea levels will rise. There will be increases in forced migration and conflict over changing access to natural resources.

Gidon Bromberg, director of the Israeli office of Friends of the Earth says, “There will be less water available for Israel, but there will also be less water available for Israel’s neighbors, and that will make [compliance with] existing peace treaty commitments more difficult between Israel and Jordan.”

Much is unknown: For example, as ocean temperatures change, and currents shift, will the Gulf Stream, which keeps Western Europe warmer than would be expected for its latitude, cause Western Europe to experience a significant drop in temperature? And will rapid disintegration of Antarctic and/or Greenland ice raise sea levels many feet within just a few years? Many of the world’s cities, industrial areas, agricultural lands, and wetlands habitats would be inundated.

Texts about Hanukkah and the Global Climate Crisis

The Menorah is a Tree

The Menorah that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem was clearly meant to resemble a tree:

“You shall make a menorah of pure gold; the menorah shall be made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes, and petals shall be of one piece. Six branches shall issue from its sides; three branches from one side of the menorah and three branches from the other side of the menorah. On one branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals, and on the next branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals; so for all six branches issuing from the menorah. And on the menorah itself there shall be four cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals: a calyx, of one piece with it, under a pair of branches; and a calyx, of one piece with it, under the second pair of branches, and a calyx, of one piece with it, under the last pair of branches; so for all six branches issuing from the menorah. Their calyxes and their stems shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single hammered piece of pure gold.” Shemot/Exodus 25:31-40 (A parallel to this passage appears in Shemot/Exodus 37:17-24, describing how Bezalel follows these directions exactly).

The Torah describes the ancient Temple menorah as having intertwined tree-like characteristics, such as branches and buds. In other words, it was literally a Tree of Light. It was, in fact, a green menorah. We need to reclaim this powerful symbol of the unity of the natural world with the light that we bring to it.

The Menorah is Fed Directly from Live Olive Trees

On the Shabbat during Hanukkah, we read the vision of the prophet Zechariah for the haftarah:

[The angel] said to me, “What do you see?” And I answered, “I see a menorah all of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps on it are seven in number, and the lamps above it have seven pipes, and the lamps above it have seven pipes; and next to it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left. …”And what,” I asked him, “are those two olive trees, one on the right and one on the left of the menorah?” And I further asked him, “What are the two tops of the olive trees that feed their gold [JPS note: can be read as “oil”] through those two golden tubes?” (Zechariah 4:2-3)

This is astonishing: the menorah has two olive trees that are actually a part of it, interwoven with the part made by human beings. The trees are directly hooked up to the menorah, feeding olive oil directly into the lamps. The light of the menorah is actually fed and sustained by a continuous natural source of oil. The menorah, then, is a combination of nature and of human beings, shaped by both of them into an interwoven whole.

What a powerful image, the menorah becoming the embodiment of the same relationship that we see between human beings and the rest of nature, as symbolized by the Creation story. In Bereishit/Genesis, adam (people) are made out of adamah (ground). This is the same as saying, in English, that earthlings were made out of earth. The shared linguistic root implies an entire unity, an inter-relatedness of human beings with all the rest of creation. That Creation is not “us” vs. “it,” but rather one continuous whole, within which we have a crucial creative and destructive potential, a relationship and a responsibility.

Also, the source of energy for the Temple menorah, as envisioned by Zechariah, is a renewable one. At this time of Hanukkah, can we be inspired by the vision of Zechariah to do what it takes – through local, state and national leadership, through legislation, research and development, subsidies, tax incentives – to increase our reliance on renewable sources of energy, and to decrease our reliance on burning energy that produces carbon?

Hanukkah as Festival of Doing More with Less

Hanukkah, according to the Talmud, celebrates the miracle of one day’s worth of oil – energy – meeting eight days’ needs. This image sets an inspiring target for radical conservation and using sustainable sources of energy.

Mai Hanukkah/What is Hanukkah? Our sages taught: For the idolaters entered the Sanctuary and defiled all the oils in the Sanctuary; and when the power of the Hasmoneans overcame and defeated them, they searched, but found no more than one flask of oil, sealed with the seal of the high Priest, and there was not enough oil in it to last more than one day. But a miracle took place, and they kindled with it for eight days. (Shabbat 21b)

Hanukkah can inspire us in our own day to become 8 times more efficient than we are now!

Many politicians and environmental groups have set a target of 80% reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2050. The number of this percentage resonates with the eight branches of the Hanukkah menorah. And it also resonates with the energy strategy developed by Robert Sokolow and Stephen Pacala, co-directors of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University, who have written and spoken eloquently and widely about the need to approach carbon reduction in terms of “ stabilization wedges.” No one action, no single area of carbon reduction, is sufficient to adequately address the magnitude of the necessary reductions. They propose taking at least 8 different significant actions, with each wedge reducing overall carbon emissions by 10%.

Each night of Hanukkah can be used to envision and to commit to a different area of action. Some possible wedges of action: increase efficiency and conservation of automobiles, homes, synagogues, work places; switch to low carbon fuels; make carbon emission pay through cap-and-trade and carbon tax legislation; switch to renewable sources of energy; support mass transit; support development and implementation of carbon capture and storage; increase global forestation.

Zechariah a Supporter of Wind Energy?

This is the word of the Divine to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit (b’ruchi) – said the Divine. (Zechariah 4:6)

According to Zechariah, we are supposed to rely upon ruach – often translated as “spirit” but also meaning “wind.” What if this statement read during the haftarah of Hanukkah refers not only to spiritual matters, but also calls us to literally rely on the actual wind itself as a major source of power.

Harnessing the power of wind as a source of renewable energy is one great area of hope. But most of us don’t need to wait a moment longer to use it right now and to support further development of this energy source. Many states’ electric utilities already provide to individuals and institutions the option of receiving their electricity from wind, just by signing up and paying an additional monthly fee. Each household that elects to receive its electricity from wind power saves the same amount of carbon emissions as not driving 20,000 miles a year in a car. Synagogues switching to wind power reduce carbon emissions even more than that. So yes, it costs a little bit more, but given how dramatic the carbon reductions are, what are we waiting for?

Hanukkah and Energy Efficiency

The Rabbis wrestled with the question: what exactly is the nature of the miracle of Hanukkah? One answer:

A question posed by the Beit Yosef: The only oil valid for lighting the menorah in the Temple was olive oil, that is, oil squeezed from olives that grew on an olive tree. This being so, how could they fulfill the obligation of lighting the menorah with miraculous oil, which did not come from olive trees but was produced by a miracle?

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk answered: We must conclude that the miracle did not cause the quantity of the oil to increase; no new oil came into being. What happened was that the quality of the olive oil changed miraculously, so that the original olive oil became more potent and burned more efficiently, allowing the one-day supply to burn eight days. Thus, although initially they poured the entire contents of the jar into the lamps of the menorah, each night only one-eighth of the oil was consumed. Consequently, the same miracle occurred on the first day as on each of the following days.

According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the miracle was not that the amount of oil increased. It was, rather, that one day’s worth of non-miraculous oil burned for eight days. The miracle was that God made the small amount of oil eight times more efficient. Can we, created in the Divine image, also achieve such a feat? Can we, in the light of the Hanukkah menorah, in the light of the Hanukkah miracle, find inspiration to likewise make our sources of energy eight times more efficient?

Burning Fuel for Light as Efficiently as Possible

Rav Zutra said: Whoever covers an oil lamp, or uncovers a naphtha lamp, transgresses the law of bal tashchit (do not needlessly destroy). (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 67b)

In other words, both actions make fuel burn less efficiently and therefore are forbidden. By extension, this law prohibits using any energy source any less efficiently than is possible.

Hanukkah as Battle Against Addiction to Oil

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught: Hanukkah tells us that we cannot begin to serve God unless we first wage a war with ourselves to break the stranglehold of the power of materialism. This is the deeper meaning of the battle against Greek idolatry that led to the establishment of Hanukkah.

Also: But when one is fortunate enough to…master one’s base instincts, then one kindles the Hanukkah lights. Its bright lights symbolize the ladder that reaches upward toward inner perfection. However, we should not remain standing on the rung we have reached. Our souls must grow and aspire to greater purity and holiness. This idea is reflected in the number of Hanukkah lights, which increases from day to day.

As even President George W. Bush finally acknowledged, we in the United States are addicted to energy consumption. It will be impossible to tackle the global climate crisis without recognizing this fact. We in the United States represent only 5% of the world’s population but are responsible for nearly a quarter of the world’s total carbon emissions. Can we exercise leadership in our own lives and for the world, and pro-actively recognize these impacts, and transform them into responsible and inspiring action?

Oh yes, this teaching by Rebbe Nachman might also lend itself to some other teachings about the relatively- recent-in-Jewish-history association between Hanukkah and materialism in general (the focus on gifts rather than the numerous other themes of Hanukkah).

Proclaiming the Miracle – The Need for Public Action

We are instructed to light the menorah not only for ourselves, but rather in order to pirsum hanes – to make the miracle of Hanukkah known to others as well.

Just as it is not sufficient to light the menorah in private, so too, in facing the global climate crisis, must we turn our individual actions outward into the wider world. Just as the miracle of Hanukkah was magnified eight times, so too must we find ways to multiply the impact of our individual actions. Can we identify key areas for change in our own lives, make those changes, and then commit ourselves to multiplying our own efforts at least eightfold? While we need to take many small steps, we also need to commit ourselves to making sure that those small steps lead to big results.

Influencing those directly around us is a good start. Don’t just switch to wind energy as a source for electricity in your own house, but encourage others to follow your lead. Work with any institutions you belong to – your synagogue, your workplace, your gym – to facilitate their making the switch as well.

But never forget that individual and even institutional measures will never be enough by themselves. Individual and institutional efforts must lead to changes in public policy, to multiply our individual efforts by far more than eight times.

We must remember that the Maccabees were a small band of true believers. And that their actions changed history not only for the small historical nation of Israel, but for the world as a whole.

By taking individual action, we create an environment in which we can call upon our institutions to be brave, to take the bold steps necessary to lead their communities. And by individuals and institutions taking action, we in turn create an environment in which we can call on our politicians to be brave.

Hanukkah means “dedication,” and refers to the rededication of the Temple following its desecration in the time of the Maccabees. But that act of rededication didn’t end back then; rather, that’s only when it started. By instituting the observance of Hanukkah each year through the lighting of the menorah, the Rabbis transformed any place in which the menorah is lit into a mikdash m’at, a small sanctuary.

Our homes and our synagogues become a place, on eight consecutive nights, when we increase the light that fills these dark times. They represent a series of moments when we can rededicate ourselves to make a difference. On the Jewish festival that is concerned most explicitly with how we use energy, can we kindle lights through our actions that will inspire the wider world to make the necessary changes in order to avert a global climate crisis? Can we take the small lights of each of our menorahs and transform them into a light unto the nations?

What Can We Do?

Accompanying these talking points is a one-page flyer listing 8 actions people can commit themselves to, one for each night of Hanukkah. Please contact us: for more information, about bringing in resource people from Green Menorah, and about exploring your synagogue becoming part of the Green Menorah Covenant:

Rabbi Jeff Sultar, Director
6711 Lincoln Drive
Philadelphia, PA 19119
(215) 438-2983

Sample letter to Send to Your Senator
about the Lieberman-Warner “America’s Climate Security Act”

You can also go to this weblink for the same letter in a form that can be edited and then sent immediately via e-mail to your senators:



Dear Senator:

I am deeply concerned about the impact of our global climate crisis on God’s creation – the web of life that includes, as the Bible says, the human race and all the living, breathing beings of our world.

I am glad that Senators Warner and Lieberman have introduced their bill to address this crisis. But in its present form, the bill falls short of what we need, to save our food supply, water supply, coastlines, and human health
as well as many other species in the sacred web of life, from the ravages of climate crisis and global scorching,

Global scorching is already affecting the poor in America and around the world most quickly and deeply, just as Hurricane Katrina most deeply affected the poor of New Orleans. I am especially concerned that the bill address issues of equity and justice as part of addressing the climate crisis.

I urge you to strengthen the bill in these areas:

1. We are already facing even faster ice-melting and other disastrous results of global scorching than scientists originally predicted, and must move swiftly to reduce CO2 emissions. The goal must be reductions by 20 percent of 2005 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. The bill falls way short of that, and I urge you to support its strengthening.

2. Please include a carbon tax along with cap-and-trade as ways of reducing CO2 emissions, devoting its proceeds to vouchers for low and middle-income people to use public transportation.

3. Please include major grass-roots aid to developing countries to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and to meet the needs of communities endangered by drought, floods, or newly spreading diseases.

Most policy changes can proceed by increments without permanent damage. But to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis, we need to do ENOUGH and do it quickly, not little by little. I urge you to strengthen the
Warner-Lieberman bill and move quickly to pass it.

May the work you do to heal the earth and human civilization from this danger, fill you with a sense that you have well met your responsibilities.


Greening Your Menorah
(During Hanukkah…and Beyond)

The root of the word Hanukkah means “dedication” and “education.”
What can we dedicate ourselves to learn about and to do – beginning right now – in the coming year?

Hanukkah is about using one day’s oil to meet more than one day’s needs. And we are not only to light the menorah, but to publicize the miracle, to turn our individual actions outward for the rest of the world to see and to be inspired by.

After lighting your menorah each evening (blessings can be found on the other side of this page), reflect on the theme for each day, and dedicate yourself to making the changes in your life that will allow our limited sources of energy to last for as long as they’re needed, and with minimal impact on our climate.

No single action will solve the global climate crisis, just as no one of us alone can make enough of a difference. Yet, if we act on as many of the areas below as possible, and act together, a seemingly small group of people can overcome a seemingly intractable crisis. We can, as in days of old, turn this time of darkness into one of light.

Day 1: Personal/Household: Call your electric-power utility to switch to wind-powered electricity. (For each home, 100% wind-power reduces CO2 emissions the same as not driving 20,000 miles in one year.)

Day 2: Synagogue: Urge your congregation to switch to wind-powered electricity.

Day 3. Civic or professional groups: Network with other members to encourage newspaper editors, real-estate developers, architects, bankers, etc. to strengthen green factor in all their decisions and speeches.

Day 4 (Shabbat). Automobile: If possible, choose today or one other day a week to not use your car at all. Other days, lessen driving: Shop on-line. Cluster errands. Carpool. Don’t idle engine beyond 20 seconds.

Day 5: Workplace: Get an energy audit. Check with utility company about getting one free or at low-cost.

Day 6: Town/City: Urge town/city officials to require greening of buildings through ordinances and executive orders. Creating change is often easier on the local level!

Day 7: State: Urge state representatives to push subsidies for mass transit.

Day 8: National: Urge your Senators to strengthen and pass the Lieberman-Warner “America’s Climate Security Act.” Go to http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/602/t/4181/campaign.jsp?campaign_KE…

For more information, to explore having your synagogue becoming a partner in the Green Menorah Covenant, or to arrange for Green Menorah resource people to visit your community, please contact Rabbi Jeff Sultar atgreenmenorah@shalomctr.org or (215) 438-2983.
You can also visit our webpage at www.shalomctr.org
Blessings for Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah
First Blessing:

Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.
Blessed are You, Source of All Life, Who fills the cosmos with holiness, inspiring us to become holy through the kindling of the Hanukkah lights.

Second Blessing (note addition of v’imoteinu/foremothers):

Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, She-asah nisim la’avoteinu v’imoteinu ba’yamim ha’heim baz’man hazeh.
Praised are You, Source of All Action, Who inspired stirring deeds for our ancestors
in those ancient days at this time of year.

Third Blessing (said only on first night):

Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, Shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higi’anu laz’man hazeh.
Praised are You, Source of Beginnings and Endings, Who has filled us with life, lifted us up,
and carried us to this moment.

[For those who wish, “Yah” (as in “Hallelu-Yah”) can be substituted for “Adonai” and “Ruach Ha’olam”for “Melech Ha’olam.”]

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