Hanukah – A tool for moral education
Hanukah is the celebration of both the miracle of a small jar of purified oil lasting eight days rather than one, and the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks during the Second Temple period in Jerusalem (in approximately 200BCE). It was established by the rabbinic authorities at the time, and is mentioned in the Talmud, particularly in tractate Shabbat. Although Hanukah is generally translated as ‘dedication’, referring to the re-dedication of the Temple, the Hebrew word Hanukah [חנוכה] is also related to the Hebrew word Hinuch [חינוך] — education, and as such education is a central theme of the festival. But what kind of education is implied by this connection?
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) argued that the home is the centre of all religious activity, and thus, it is the appropriate place for publicising the miracle of Hanukah by lighting the eight branched candelabra [Hanukiah]. Common ritual practice is to place the candelabra near a window, in order to ‘publicise the Hanukah miracle’; but this also demonstrates that what happens within the home is radiated outwards.
The home, in traditional rabbinic thought, represents the ongoing practice of integrity and morality and as such, all ritual practice emanates from this foundational standpoint. And, this is also the framework through which education takes place. The Greek culture at the time celebrated the pursuit of knowledge, for the sake of knowledge itself — an amoral pursuit. In contradistinction, the Jewish community pursued knowledge as a pursuit of truth, and the knowledge of G-d –- an ethical pursuit.
The lighting of the Hanukiah within the Jewish home, not only represents contextualising ritual within a moral framework, but also represents facing outward toward the world — and this is best achieved by a grounded education: knowing one’s history, knowing one’s responsibilities, generating a moral imperative to contribute positively to the world, through one’s commitment to Jewish life and lore. This sort of wisdom enables a development of the self, which demands a reflection of one’s deeds, and is not simply an intellectual exercise. Hanukah then represents the shift from mere intellectual acrobatics to purposeful spiritual conscientiousness.
What is particularly interesting about Hanukah is that every member of the household is obligated to light their own Hanukiah. This differs from many other Shabbat and Festival rituals where one person may perform the ritual on behalf of many, further emphasising the importance of each and every person to engage in aspirational ethical education.
Dr Lindsay Simmonds