Family Thoughts: Sharing the Light of Hanukkah

The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) teaches about various opinions our ancient rabbis had about how to light the hanukiyah (Hanukkah menorah).  Many of us are familiar with the debate between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai.  Bet Shammai suggests that we start with eight candles and reduce by one each night.  This reasoning was based on the altar offerings during Sukkot.  But Bet Hillel contends that we light one on the first night and add each night, arguing that we increase in matters of holiness, not decrease.  As we all know, we follow Bet Hillel, and therefore each day, as we celebrate our ancestors’ struggle for religious freedom and the miracle of the oil in the Temple, we ascend and bring more light into the world.

I think that message is an important one: at Hanukkah time, our sacred mission should be how to bring more light into the world.  I ponder this annually in terms of how my family can make our Hanukkah celebration more than just candlelighting and gift-giving. What are the ways we as individuals can bring more light into the world?  What family traditions can we create to enhance our observance and to signify how fortunate we are to live in a country where we can practice as we wish, unlike our Maccabean ancestors?  Here are a few ideas we have incorporated into our annual celebration:

    • Especially when our children were younger and it felt like Hanukkah was only about receiving presents, we began dedicating at least one night to Tikun Olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (charity). Some years, each child selected a tzedakah to which we would donate the monetary equivalent of a gift.  Many years, either on our own or with a group of families from our synagogue, we head to the local supermarket and buy food for the community food bank in lieu of a gift.  (This group of families has been doing it for so long, the supermarket even agreed to let us light our hanukiyot there together before we begin the shopping!)  Or some years, we went to Target and picked out holiday gifts for those less fortunate.  This opportunity to think about the larger community gives us a chance to highlight the importance of giving during the festival.
    • As we add candles on our hanukiyot each night, we take a moment to acknowledge the other brachot (blessings) in our lives. When each member of the family shares one thing they are thankful for, both our gratitude and our hanukiyot grow stronger as the holiday progresses.
    • Finally, as the cliché goes, action speak louder than words. Let us consider each night what actions we have taken that day to assist someone in need, to offer support to a friend or loved one, or to sustain our community.  Reflect or share these deeds at candlelighting time.  Those positive acts also bring more light into our lives and the lives of those around us.

At the time on our calendar when it is darkest and often quite cold, let us think about ways in which we as individuals, as a family unit, and as a community can bring the light and warmth of the Hanukkah menorah and our Jewish middot (good deeds) into the world around us.  And if you have your own special traditions or twists on the Hanukkah rituals, I’d love to hear about them!

Chag Urim Sameach – wishing you a Hanukkah full of joy, warmth and blessings,

Sharon Rosenberg Safra
Assistant Director
Ramah Day Camp of Greater Washington, DC