Friday, December 9, 2011

These Candles

 (חנוכה). Chanukah is the best known of the Jewish holidays, at least in the US, it is therefore assumed to be the most important. It is not. Its prominence in the US is due solely to its proximity to Christmas. In fact, Chanukah is one of the least important Jewish holidays. It is not one of the seven holidays of the Torah, it's a far younger holiday, added in historic times, to celebrate the victory of the Jews over the Seleucid Greeks, and the rebirth of the Jewish state in 165 BCE.

Chanukah in Israel is fun precisely because it's not so serious. If you don't have children, you probably won't feel it much at all. But children love it. In most families, every member of the household lights a hanukiya (חנוכיה) - the special candelabra made for celebrating the holiday. A hanukiya has eight candlesticks in a row, a the same level. A ninth candlestick must be either not at the same level, or not in line with the others - this candle is called the shamash (שמש). The Chanukah candles are specifically the eight candles in a row - the shamash is emphatically not a Chanukah candle, which is why it must be distinguished from the others. Its presence is required because of a singular restriction on the use of Chanukah candles, namely that you can't. It is forbidden to use the Chanukah candles for light alone, it is permitted only to enjoy them~ to allow the light to remind us of the miracles.The following prayer is recited as we light our candles:

הנרות הללו אנו מדליקים, על הניסים, ועל הנפלאות
  ועל התשועות, ועל המלחמות שעשית לאבותינו
 בימים ההם בזמן הזה, על ידי כוהניך הקדושים
וכל שמונת ימי חנוכה, הנרות הללו קודש הם
ואין לנו רשות להשתמש בהם
אלא לראותם בלבד
כדי להודות ולהלל לשמך הגדול
על ניסיך, ועל נפלאותיך, ועל ישועותיך

These candles we are lighting, for the miracles, and for the wonders
And for the victories, and for the battles that you made for our forefathers
In those days at this time, by means of your holy priests
And all of the eight days of Hanuka, these candles are holy
And we don't have permission to use them
But only to look at them
In order to thank and praise your great name
For your miracles, and for your wonders, and for your victory

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