Renewing the “Light” of Our Menorah

Dear Friends,


Through our tour of Old Jerusalem, we will hopefully gain spiritual insights which can help us to renew the “light” of our Menorah. I will therefore begin this stage of our tour by discussing the lighting of the Menorah which took place when the Maccabees liberated the Second Temple from the Syrian Greeks and their Hellenist Jewish allies who attempted to extinguish the light of our spiritual culture. As we know, the highlight of the Chanukah story is the lighting of the Temple’s Menorah through the discovery of one small flask of pure olive oil which miraculously gave light for eight days. This miraculous event took place many years before we regained full independence; moreover, the Hellenist oppressors still controlled parts of Jerusalem and most of the countryside. Although the military struggle was not yet over, the miraculous renewal of the light of the Menorah inspired our sages to establish the festival of Chanukah. What is the deep significance of the light of the Temple’s Menorah? The beginning of the answer can be found in the following teaching of King Solomon who built the First Temple:


“Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23).


The Syrian Greeks had outlawed the study of Torah, the light-giving Divine Teaching; thus, the lighting of the Menorah by the Maccabees represents the renewal of this light-giving Divine Teaching. According to our tradition, the future redemption of Israel and the world will result from the fulfillment of this Divine Teaching, and a source for this idea can be found in the following prophecies of Isaiah:


“Many peoples will go and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the Mountain of Hashem, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths.’ For from Zion will go forth Torah, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem... they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation, and they will no longer study warfare.” (Isaiah 2:3,4)


After presenting this unifying vision of the future age of universal enlightenment and shalom, the Prophet then called out to our people:


“O House of Jacob: Come let us go by the light of Hashem!” (2:5)


Through these words, the Prophet Isaiah is revealing that the responsibility of achieving this universal goal begins with us! If we desire to experience the era when all the peoples will study and fulfill the light-giving Divine Teaching, then we ourselves must begin to serve as an example. We must therefore go by the light of Hashem – the Torah and her path of mitzvos (commentary of Radak). In this way, we can experience the fulfillment of the following prophecy: “Nations will go by your light” (Ibid 60:3).


The Torah-committed men and women of Old Jerusalem strived to heed the ancient call: “O House of Jacob: Come let us go by the light of Hashem!” They also brought this light into the new neighborhoods that they built outside the Old City walls and into the new agricultural settlements that they established before the birth of the modern Zionist movement.


In 1882, the settlers of the modern Zionist movement began to arrive in the Land, and a major group among them was called “BILU” – a Hebrew acronym based on the ancient words: “O House of Jacob: Come let us go.” As you may have noticed, they removed from this ancient proclamation the concluding words, “by the light of Hashem.” This omission expressed the outlook which began to dominate the World Zionist Organization which was established in 1897. According to this outlook, the future of our people does not depend on our fulfilling the Torah; the future of our people depends on our nationalistic return to Zion where we can become a nation like all other nations.


Dr. Arthur Hertzberg, a noted historian of the Zionist movement, discusses this new secular outlook in his book, The Zionist Idea. As he explains, there were leading Zionist activists who called into question the traditional view that our people were chosen by God for a unique and universal spiritual mission; moreover, these leading activists wanted us to become a nation like all the other nations through having a land and language of our own. As an example, Dr. Hertzberg cites in the introduction to his book the following statement of Jacob Klatzkin, a leading Zionist thinker: “Let us be like all the nations!”


According to Klatzkin, this was to be the goal of the Zionist movement, and Klatzkin defined this goal in the following manner:


“In longing for our land we do not desire to create there a base for the spiritual values of Judaism. To regain our land is for us an end in itself – the attaining of a free national life.” (The Zionist Idea, Part 5)


The World Zionist Organization therefore began to establish schools which stressed that this secular and nationalistic goal represents the raison d’etre of our people. In addition, the basic premise of Klatzkin was accepted by the World Zionist Organization when it passed a resolution in 1911 which stated, “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.” This resolution was therefore a rejection of the following prophetic proclamation regarding the role of Zion: “From Zion shall go forth Torah and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem!”


As our tour progresses, we shall learn about the following development: When leading Zionist activists began to eliminate the “light of Hashem” from the ancient vision of Zion, the devout men and women of Jerusalem, Tsfas, and other communities of the Old Yishuv made a valiant effort to preserve the light of Hashem. These devout men and women of the Old Yishuv were inspired by the devout men and women in the Chanukah story who zealously resisted the attempts of the Syrian Greeks and their Hellenist Jewish allies to extinguish the light of our spiritual heritage. These preservers of the light are the heroes of the Chanukah story, and their spirit is expressed in the following call of Mattisyahu, the Kohen, who served as the first leader of the Maccabees:


“Whoever is zealous for the Torah and is steadfast in the Covenant, let him follow me!”


The men and women of the Old Yishuv who were inspired by the spiritual zeal of the Maccabees therefore became known as “Chareidim” – those who are zealous to defend the Divine word (Isaiah 66:5).


As we shall later discuss, the Chareidim were focused on the future well-being of our people. They remembered that Moshe and the other Prophets of Israel told our people that our security and prosperity in the Land of Zion would ultimately depend on our fulfilling the Torah. In addition, some of their leadings sages taught that fulfilling the Torah in the Land of Zion would hasten the arrival of the messianic age.


On our tour, we shall encounter leading modern Zionist activists who rejected this spiritual focus regarding our future. In addition, these activists viewed the Chareidim as relics of the past – people who would remain in the “wilderness” and not enter the “Promised Land” of the new Zionist movement. There was a leading sage of that era, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, who was known for his efforts to bridge the gap between the Old Yishuv and the New Yishuv, and he offered a response to this negative view of the Chareidim. In an essay which discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the modern Zionist movement (Igrot R’iah 871), Rabbi Kook writes that this movement “will never be a stronghold for the whole nation, because it intrinsically fails to grasp the holy eternal light of the nation’s soul, the spirit of the true God in its midst; thus, it will do well in the external area of building up the nation, but will never be able to deal with its inner side.” Rabbi Kook adds:


“That inner building stands ready for other workers of an entirely different type. These will develop, from all places, out of the ‘wilderness’ of the Chareidim, those who faithfully and truthfully opposed Zionism because of their pure zealousness regarding the spirit of Hashem, His people, and the foundation of its existence.”


At the next stage of our tour, we will discuss some of the root causes of the conflict which began to develop between the New Yishuv and the Old Yishuv. We will then join Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, and other leading sages on their journey to the settlements of the New Yishuv, where they will engage the residents in a loving and respectful dialogue regarding the need to renew the light of Hashem in the sacred Land of Zion.


Have a light-filled Shabbos, and a light-filled Chanukah,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen


Related Insights and Comments:


1. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato was a leading sage of the 17th century, and in his classical work, Derech Hashem, he discusses the deeper significance of the holy days of the Torah, as well as the holy days which were later established by the Prophets and/or Sages of Israel, such as Purim and Chanukah. He writes:


“On each of these special days, something happened whereby at this time a great tikun (rectification) was accomplished and a great Light shone. The Highest Wisdom decreed that on every anniversary of this period, a counterpoint of its original Light should shine forth, and the results of its tikun renewed to those who accept it.” ( Derech Hashem – The Way of God, Part 4, Chapter 7).


The above teaching from Derech Hashem can give us a deeper understanding of why and when our spiritual tradition establishes festivals for our nation.


Feldheim published an English translation of Derech Hashem. The translation was done by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. For information, visit:  .


2.  It is written: “For the mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23).


The Hellenist oppressors in the Chanukah story not only outlawed the study of Torah, the “light” of our people; they also outlawed basic mitzvos which serve as “lamps” for this light, such as the observance of Shabbos and “Bris Milah” – the Covenant of Circumcision which dedicates male sexuality to a higher and loving spiritual purpose. (The Torah connects the fulfillment of this Covenant with the Divine promise of the Land; thus, we shall discuss the deeper significance of the Covenant of Circumcision at a later stage of our series.) The Hellenists were particularly threatened by this Jewish view of male sexuality, for they viewed the gratification of male sexual drives not as a means to a higher spiritual goal, but as the goal itself. For example, they worshiped a promiscuous goddess named “Aphrodite” – a goddess that satisfied the sexual lusts and fantasies of male mortals and gods.


During this period of Hellenist oppression, many loyal Jews secretly studied Torah and fulfilled the outlawed mitzvos. Our tradition records that Jewish women were often the most courageous in resisting these attempts to extinguish the light of our spiritual heritage, and their courage helped to inspire the Jewish men; in fact, it was often the women who had the courage to circumcise their sons.


3. The first night of Chanukah is on Friday night – Shabbos evening. We therefore light the Chanukah candles or lamps on Friday “before” sunset, so that we don’t violate the Holy Shabbos. We use additional oil or larger candles in this situation so that the light will last for at least a half hour after the stars come out. Even if just one candle or oil lamp lasts this long, it is sufficient. (Safety precautions should be taken to make sure that the fire cannot spread should a candle or lamp fall.)


4.  Much of the above information is cited in the recommended work, “Chanukah – Its History, Observance, and Significance” (Mesorah Publications). For information, visit:

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