Chanukah thoughts

December 14, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple shares some Chanukah thoughts.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Shabbat lights and the Chanukah lamp appear to have much in common but they also have their differences.

On Shabbat one may not use a wick or oil that does not give an even, bright light, in order to prevent the light from flickering and going out. On Chanukah, however, we may use any wick or oil.

The mitzvah of the Chanukah lamp is that of kindling the lights, and if the light goes out it may be re-lit (though not on Shabbat).

According to the S’fat Emet this represents two different kinds of Jew. There is the “flickering” Jew whose Shabbat-Jewishness wavers. They deserve praise for trying, but they miss out on the day-long holiness of the day.

On Chanukah the “flickering” Jew is not such a problem, and if he/she wavers in observance they can re-light their Judaism and try again.


One of the few liturgical reflections of Chanukah is the “Al HaNissim” prayer, inserted in the Amidah and Grace After Meals.

It acknowledges “the miracles, the deliverance, the mighty deeds, saving acts and wars” which God wrought for our ancestors “in those days at this season”.

Its origins are not ancient; it is mentioned in the 8th century Massechet Sof’rim 20:8, though our present version is more elaborate.

The 14th century liturgical authority Abudarham had a problem with the reference to “milchamot”, “wars”; he preferred “n’chamot”, “consolations”.

In a passage which was still in a state of flux it is possible to have various renderings, and the choice of “n’chamot” clearly echoes the sages’ reluctance to stress the war aspect of the Maccabean story.

But even if the reference to wars is more authentic, the important point to note is that it is not human warriors to whom the prayer attributes the victories, but God.


The Arch of Titus in Rome carries a relief of the plundered Temple menorah. It has been there since 81 CE and is based on a triumphant procession with the sacred items from the Temple.

However, the menorah on the arch is rather lopsided, which could not have been because it was carved from memory. If it had been, the menorah shape would have been known and faithfully reproduced.

It is more likely that the misshapen menorah was deliberately carved on the arch to show disdain for the Jews and their symbols.

Another possibility is that the original graceful menorah in the Temple had already been replaced by King Herod the Roman puppet as a symbol of Jewish humiliation.

Herod was guilty of many offences against Judaism and used the opportunity of his works on and in the Temple to distort the menorah in order to gain favour from Rome.


Not only on Chanukah is light part of Jewish observance. Frequently, especially on Shabbat and festivals, joy and light go together; the Megillah says, “The Jews had light, joy and gladness” (Esther 8:16).

We honour a deceased person by kindling a light, since “the spirit of man is the light of the Lord” (Prov. 20:27).

An eternal light (ner tamid) burns in the synagogue, since “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1).

Light is a synonym for Torah: “the commandment is a lamp; the Torah is a light” (Prov. 6:23).

Without light, we would be unable to see each other or the path on which to walk.

However, the Divine creation of light was too overwhelming for the world. The light was so powerful that it “shattered the vessels”, and man’s task is to try to reclaim the sparks.

When Rabbi Chiyya and Rabbi Shimon saw the dawn breaking on the horizon, Rabbi Chiyya said, “So too is Israel’s redemption; at first it will only be slightly visible, then it will shine forth more brightly, and finally it will break forth in all its glory” (Shir HaShirim Rabba 6:10).

The Zohar, the great work of Kabbalah, likewise asserts that “the light of the Messiah” will gradually illumine the world and then break forth in its full glory.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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