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From Sufganiyot to the Sublime

Posted on 12/06/2013 @ 12:19 PM

It’s Wednesday as I write this, 1:29 PM PST. There are four more hours of the seventh day of Hanukkah and then it has to happen. I won’t be able to light Hanukkah candles for another 377 days, and it’s killing me. Some part of my fondness for lighting my hanukkiah is no doubt a result of operant conditioning, the most primitive human educational method: repeatedly perform the desired action to be internalized (lighting candles) alongside an immediate positive reinforcement (chocolate gelt, jelly donuts, and fried potatoes, all lovingly prepared by my mother). My attachment to this mitzvah doesn’t seem to be unique, however; Maimonides, writing in 12th-century Spain, elaborates on the laws of Hanukkah:

The mitzvah of lighting a Hanukkah candle/lamp is an extremely well-loved mitzvah and so one needs to be very careful to do it in order to proclaim the miracle and to add praise to God and gratitude for the miracles he did for us. Even if one has nothing to eat except from tzedakah (handouts), one should borrow money or sell one’s coat in order to purchase oil and lamps to light. (Laws of Hanukkah 4:12).

Maimonides never refers to any other mitzvah as ‘extremely well-loved’, offers no explanation as to why he feels this way, and is not quoting any other source. What is so compelling about this holiday and its rituals that it holds such a unique status for him, that one should even sell the clothes off their back to ensure they can perform it? There is no way to access what Hanukkah entirely meant to Maimonides, but his enthusiasm for it may have well been the precursor to the holiday’s revival in the 20th century. Hanukkah found new enthusiasm after Zionism restored some sense of Jewish sovereignty and power, only to be reinvented many times over, become a strange contender with Christmas in the minds of Jewish Americans, and have its problematic origins unearthed.

Though I was conditioned to love Hanukkah on its sugary yet shallow trappings, my adult self needed something more to keep me interested, and so just as the holiday has evolved in our modern times, it has become for me a meditation on and a vehicle for my own personal transformation. Our jobs as Jewish educators of emerging adults must be to constantly try to bridge that gap, from the celebratory to the sublime. So although there is no hanukkiah lighting tonight, there are still 377 days of opportunities to bring more light and life into the world.

This Shabbat Message was written by Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE of the Western Hub

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