These Candles (Hanerot Halalu)
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We light these candles
for the miracles and wonders,
the rescues and battles
You gave our forefathers
in those days at this season
through Your sacred priests.
For all eight Hanukkah days,
these candles are holy
so we may not use them
but only gaze at them
to thank and to praise
Your magnificent Name
for Your miracles, rescues
Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden. Based on the Talmudic Tractate Soferim 20:6; variants to the hymn have been introduced over time in different communities.
Hanukkah is basically an unassuming celebration that many people abuse by blowing it all out of proportion. This happens for two main reasons.
First of all, Hanukkah is not a yom tov that God is said to have ordained directly, in Scripture. It was ordained post-Biblically by rabbis (“through your holy priests”) and as such, it is free of all the restrictions on travel, cooking and musical instruments that that apply to the major Jewish holidays.
Though when the Temple still stood, Hanukkah was marked sedately by sacrifices and hymns, nowadays anything goes and people race around the country from attraction to attraction and from feast to calorific feast.
Secondly, in the diaspora, celebration of the holiday changed because of the need to compete with the seductions of Christmas that appeal to the eye, the ear and the greed gland.
Obviously, the competition poses serious dilemmas in the diaspora but you’d think that once the Jews had their own democracy (more or less), the fuss would die down. It hasn’t in the diaspora, and in today’s Israel there are even some new kinds of hype: According to Oded Yaron, in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz, the religious Zionist website Srugim has declared that observing Hanukkah is more effective than teaching the use of condoms for fighting AIDS.
On a mouthwatering note, bakeries here vie with one another to see who can produce the most elaborate and beautiful donuts fried in oil -- a traditional edible commemoration of the miracle of the cruse of olive oil that lasted for eight days. Lemon meringue sufganiyot, anyone?
The vacation aspect is over the top: Though newly appointed education ministers like to tinker with this, there is always a very long school vacation for both children and teachers. Only. Everyone else is supposed to work. This creates a need for things grandparents can do with children, engendering an entire industry of Hanukkah shows, none of which has attained the canonical status of “The Nutcracker Suite,” though there is of course hope that one day something will become a Hebrew classic.
Jewish children traditionally get small amounts of Hanukkah gelt (money), which they can’t even necessarily keep or spend because of the encouragement of gambling with a spinning top (dreidel in Yiddish and sevivon in Hebrew), a kind of playful lesson on the arbitrariness of life. Nowadays the coins are mostly chocolate but in many diaspora families children also expect and receive actual, wrapped presents on every one of the eight candle-lighting nights. (We know we did.)
Which brings us to candles, the very best thing about Hanukkah observance, even if you feel deeply that in “those days at this season” you personally would have been more inclined to Hellenism than to super piety. Although the origin of lighting candles on Hanukkah remains obscure, candles themselves are simple. Candles are beautiful. Candles use themselves up and you needn’t haul them to the trash like an evergreen shedding its needles.
And candles, as this hymn suggests, are perfect for gazing at to muse on wonders. Wonders of whatever you like – God, nature, history or mysteries of science and philosophy for which we are always seeking explanations. So avoid the hype and fight Hanukkah abuse: Just light some candles, contemplate marvels.
*Bonus: Not your modern Israeli kindergartener’s tune. In old-fashioned Ashkenazi Hebrew, the Hungarian-born Cantor Joshua (Shia) Wieder sings Hanerot Halalu.