Skip To Content

In The Arcane Laws Of The Hanukkah Menorah — A Surprising Lesson About Community

If you take a stroll past most Jewish day schools during the month of Kislev, you’ll find that the art project of the month relates to Hanukkah, with children making their own menorahs to take home for the holiday. In each household as the candles are lit, some will focus more on the military victory that highlights Jewish strength and vitality, while others will emphasize God’s miracles in the Temple. Both of these interpretations revolve around pirsum ha’nes, publicizing the miracle. But what exactly does that mean?

Maimonides discusses pirsum ha’nes in his Mishna Torah: The Laws of Reading Megillah and of Hanukkah. He ends his discussion by presenting us with a hypothetical question: When Hanukkah coincides with Shabbat, and there is only enough oil to light either Shabbat or Hanukkah lamps, which candles should take precedence?

When two mitzvot conflict, we commonly favor the mitzvah that we engage in more regularly, following the rabbinic dictum, tadir veshe’ino tadir, tadir kodem, “that which is frequent and that which is infrequent, the frequent takes precedence.” Thus, lighting Shabbat candles should take precedence over lighting Hanukkah candles. Maimonides, however, explains:

The lamp for one’s home [i.e., Shabbat] receives priority, since it generates peace within the home…Peace is great, for the entire Torah was given to bring about peace within the world, as [Proverbs 3:17] states: “Its ways are pleasant ways and all its paths are peace.”

Like many mitzvot rooted in religious symbolism, the act of lighting candles represents a larger Jewish value of bringing peace and harmony into the family home (shalom bayit) and sanctifying God’s name (Kiddush Hashem). Lighting Shabbat candles, a private mitzvah, is rooted heavily in the former, and is performed to fill the family home with the joy and light of Shabbat. In contrast, the public mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles is an expression of the latter, publicizing the miracle of the holiday (or the victory of the Maccabees) by radiating our light outwards.

Maimonides urges us to realize that this value of peace in the home, as represented in the lighting of Shabbat candles, is primary. Only after we successfully establish shalom bayit, can we hope to bring that inner light outwards – we must first have peace in our own domains and personal relationships before we can hope to bring a meaningful light and true peace to the world at large. Therefore, Shabbat candles take precedence over Hanukkah candles.

It’s no secret that the house of the Jewish people is not yet in order. We struggle amongst ourselves to find a way to accept and include each other, despite our differences, and to figure out how to create room in our home for everyone. To make things even more complicated, we share our home here in Israel with other peoples from different religious and cultural backgrounds, and we struggle mightily to relate to the other. But as we contemplate what pirsum ha’nes means during Hanukkah, our own tradition provides answers that we can look to and choose to live by.

All rabbinic commentaries agree that we may not use the Hanukkah candles for our personal benefit – we are not even permitted to use their light to read in a dimly lit room. We need to have enough light already in our own homes before we are allowed to light them. We are also not allowed to show off the light to the outside world as a way to flaunt our example as “a light unto the nations,” an example for others to follow. Instead, we must treat the light as a reminder of the work that we still have to do within ourselves, starting in our own homes, and then beyond, without getting caught up in the pitfalls of triumphalism.

Last year, at the campuses of Ono Academic College, we set up a Christmas tree next to the Hanukkah menorah, to the dismay of many students. Many Jewish students were understandably wary of what this Christian symbol has meant to Jews throughout history. The concept of embracing and accepting the other does not, after all, erase a long and painful history of Jewish persecution. But now that we are the ones in power here in Israel, and we are back in our own home, we must ask ourselves what we can do today for the sake of shalom bayit. After all, it’s not just our home – we share it with others.

The Christmas tree thus led to an important conversation about how we see each other. It served as a crucial reminder that the traditions, and the people who practice them, can occupy the same space without one negating the other. Lighting Hanukkah candles next to a Christmas tree thus became an invitation for dialogue about who we are as individuals and as groups, and how we must relate to each other. It allowed us to stand side by side with the other, with both of us present and proud of who we are and what we believe in. It is a small reminder of the work we have to do here at home in Israel and abroad in terms of including various others.

How many times do we choose to exclude others in our prayer groups, or our Jewish lives because we don’t consider them to be authentically Jewish? There are so many who have joined the Jewish community who are sincere and devoted but who are consistently rejected or viewed with suspicion by some, because we have not yet found a way to see them as valid, as worthy of being “one of us.”

Even when it comes to what it means to love Israel, we have not decided who is allowed in, and who is not. Are critics of Israel welcome in our home? Should we allow them to love it in their own way? Are ultra-nationalist flag-waving, self-professed Zionists accepted? Or are we still too threatened by others who are not Jewish in exactly our way, so we keep them at bay, even if it hampers our attainment of shalom bayit?

During the upcoming Festival of Lights, it’s important that we consider exactly what type of light we’re radiating into the world. When our home is fragmented by conflict, derision and marginalization, we may be observing the letter, but not the spirit of the laws of Hanukkah. We are neither putting our best foot forward, nor are we contributing more light to the world. Like everything else of value, a lasting, fulfilling peace begins at home.

As we light our menorahs, let’s ask ourselves: What legacy do we want to pass on to our children? And what do we wish to tell our neighbors and the broader world with this light? Our tradition does not permit us to use the lights simply as a way to project miraculous victory if there is no peace at home. As Maimonides observed at the end of his discussion on the laws of Hanukkah: “Peace is great, for the entire Torah was given to bring about peace within the world, as [Proverbs 3:17] states: ‘Its ways are pleasant ways and all its paths are peace.” This concept should be our guiding light as we kindle our Hanukkah lights again this year.

Prof. Tova Hartman is the Dean of Humanities at Ono Academic College, a model of multicultural graduate and undergraduate programming and education-based social reform, as well as the fastest growing institute of higher education in Israel.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.