Chanukah is rooted in what is believed to be the first recorded struggle for religious freedom. Whereas the military defeat of the Syrian Greeks is liturgically noted, it is the miracle of the small cruse of oil that captures our ritual focus, as seen in the Talmud’s account in Tractate Shabbat 21b. And while the Talmud and the later codes allow a chanukiah to be kindled in the privacy of one’s home, especially at times of persecution, central to the mitzvah is the matter of “pirsumei nisa,” the publicizing of the miracle by sharing the Chanukah menorah’s light and glow with a viewing public. In this manner of observance, we might light the chanukiah in our homes yet still seek to share its light with world. Here the two elements of the “clal” and “prat,” the public and private, seem to merge in leveraging its light as a tool for religious tolerance.
Some argue that Chanukah today remains a largely private Jewish matter, as seen in the very retreat of the mitzvah over time to the security of our homes. But aspects of Jewish ritual law as they pertain to the lighting of the menorah in its original form, which have been reclaimed in our more tolerant time, suggest a more worldly and public engagement with this particular mitzvah.
To this end, we find an interesting ruling in the Shulchan Arukh, the Code of Jewish Law, noting that in a situation where one has a doorway to one’s home on more than one side, a chanukiah must be kindled in each. This ruling illustrates a central concern in our optimal fulfillment of “pirsumei nisa”: that we need not hold back in our sharing of this message concerning religious freedom. As my teacher, the noted rosh yeshiva Rabbi Dr. Moshe David Tendler explains, “When it comes to the mitzvah of ‘pirsumei nisa,’ a half-page ad is not enough.”
Moreover, we are taught that a chanukiah cannot be placed in a place that is higher than 20 cubits, as the eye cannot reasonably see that far. This physical limitation on the viewing eye finds support in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev. Joseph’s peril at the hands of his jealous brothers was further aggravated by the indication, noted in the first chapter of Tractate Tamid, that the pit into which they threw him was deeper than 20 cubits, placing him fully out of sight.
In addition to creating proper sight lines with regard to the Chanukah lights, however, there is a further consideration related to the window of opportunity for the would-be viewing public; and so the Shulchan Arukh stipulates that we light the chanukiah after nightfall and no later than the time when the last person would have left the marketplace (“ad shetichleh regel min ha-shuk”).
Modern conveniences that have extended our shopping time and urban engagement late into the evening lend a fluid element to this halachic time boundary, which has clearly been extended beyond its original window of a half hour for the fulfillment of this mitzvah. It is even claimed that the famous Rabbi Chaim of Brisk (late 19th century, grandfather of Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik), who lived across from the town’s theater, waited until late at night to light his menorah, just as the last show was letting out, thus guaranteeing him a sizable viewing audience for his “publishing of the miracle.”
These details, in sum, inform and inspire the mitzvah in a special way. They remind us that we need to be with and a part of the ritual. Given the timeless lessons of the Chanukah experience as it relates to Jewish identity, pride, awareness, and involvement, its central symbol and ceremony must occur within reasonable proximity of its intended audience. It is best served through a present, viewing public.
The minutiae of the chanukiah mandate our involvement in efforts to promote religious and cultural respect. One might still argue and maintain the uniqueness of the Chanukah experience to our particularistic Jewish lifestyle. It is a ritual that is distinctly Jewish even while being ubiquitous.
Ignorance grows from what we do not know and might never see. All faith communities, therefore, are enriched by what they observe being experienced and celebrated by others. So we find an unavoidable – if still manageable – tension in the Chanukah of our day, which has taken on an even more prominent role than is required by tradition. To what degree and exactly where and how we choose to radiate the glow of the Chanukah menorah’s light is a discussion and even debate that seems never to be extinguished.