Hanukkah: Holiday of Hearth and Home


In Memory of Munir Murdoch z”l, who transformed the Schechter Institute into a Home.

Traditionally, Hanukkah celebrates two distinct events: the victory of the Maccabees and the restoration of the Temple after its desecration. The military victory is stressed in the Al Hanissim prayer, while the Talmudic passage concerning Hanukkah (Shabbat 21b) emphasizes the rededication and the related miracle of the oil. Another motif was apparently added to the festival during the reign of Herod: the kindling of the Hanukkah lights in ascending order, in honor of the winter solstice, which marks the lengthening of the daylight hours (see Moshe Benovitz, ” Hordos veHanukkah “, Zion 68 (2003), pp. 5-40).

It would seem, however, that the collective consciousness of the Jewish people has associated yet another motif with Hanukkah. In addition to all the above reasons for celebration, many of us naturally celebrate Hanukkah as the festival of hearth and home, of “coziness” and family, blessings for which we are especially grateful as winter sets in. It is true that families gather together at home on other Jewish holidays, especially on Passover, but then the emphasis is on food and on discussion, learning and ritual that center around the dining room table. What is unique about Hanukkah is that its candle lighting ritual celebrates the very gathering of the family under one roof: the ritual takes place in the living room, not necessarily at the dining table. Lighting the Hanukkah lights is one of the few Jewish home rituals that are not conducted at the dining room table. Hanukkah has come to symbolize the importance of shelter and the warmth of the family and the home as winter begins.

This motif may seem contemporary, but it is not unique to our generation. Not only is the connection between Hanukkah and the home alluded to in traditional sources; it is alluded to in sources from three different periods in the history of Hanukkah. Allusions to this theme can be found in the basic law regarding the kindling of the Hanukkah lights as formulated in the Talmud, in the way in which the Hanukkah lights were customarily kindled from medieval times onward, and the way in which Hanukkah was celebrated by the Hasmoneans themselves, according to the earliest extant record of specific rituals: the sixth chapter of the second book of Maccabees.

I. Talmudic Halakhah: “A single candle for the individual and his home”

Most Jewish rituals are of the type known as hovat gavra , “personal obligation”; they are meant to be performed by each and every individual. This is true both of commandments mandated by Scripture, such as wearing tefillin and eating matzah at the Passover seder, and of practices ordained by the Rabbis, such as washing hands before a meal or hearing the Megillah reading on Purim. Lighting the Hanukkah candles is an exception. Even though many Jews today make it their business to light the candles themselves each night or to be present when a member of the family lights them in order to “fulfill the obligation”, this is strictly speaking unnecessary. Hanukkah candles are a hovat habayit , “an obligation incumbent on the home”, and not the individual; in the words of the Talmud: “The Hanukkah commandment is a single candle for the individual and his home ” (Shabbat 21b). A person who is not home on any given evening of Hanukkah, or even one who is away from home the entire festival week, is not required to light candles or participate in a candle lighting ceremony elsewhere, so long as “they are lighting for him at home” (Shabbat 23a). In this sense, the mitzvah of Hanukkah candles is akin to that of mezuzah: every Jewish home must have a mezuzah, but the individuals living in that home need not be present when the mezuzah is affixed. Similarly, every Jewish home must publicize the Hanukkah miracle to passers-by by lighting candles, but the participation of each individual in this mitzvah is not required.

As a matter of fact, the Talmud associates the Hanukkah lights with the mezuzah explicitly: Hanukkah candles were originally lit in front of the house, and according to the Talmud (Shabbat 22a) they were to be kindled on the left side of the doorway, so that the doorway is surrounded with mitzvot – the candles on the left and the mezuzah on the right.

Now mezuzah is by nature a “home” ritual: scriptural verses are to be written “on the doorposts of your house ” (Deuteronomy 6:9). By contrast, Hanukkah candles are reminiscent of other holiday rituals, and other holiday rituals – such as eating matzah on Passover, hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and hearing the Megillah on Purim – are personal obligations which devolve upon the individual. Why should the Hanukkah candles be different from these other festival rituals? The central rituals of Hanukkah and Purim – the candles on Hanukkah and the Megillah on Purim – are especially similar: both festivals were instituted during the Second Temple period, and both the candles and the Megillah reading were designed to “publicize the miracles” of Purim and Hanukkah respectively (Megillah 3b, Shabbat 23b). However, while the mitzvah to publicize the miracle of Purim by participating in the Megillah reading as either reader or listener is incumbent upon every individual, the mitzvah to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah by kindling lights is incumbent upon the household as a whole, and individuals need not even trouble themselves to be present at the ritual as observers, as long as some member of the household is lighting at home. Why is that?

The only plausible explanation is that there is an innate connection between Hanukkah candles and the home. The home is responsible for lighting Hanukkah candles, because Hanukkah is a celebration of the home. At least subconsciously, the Sages seemed to have realized that the lighting of candles in front of the home on Hanukkah represents, among other things, the shelter and warmth provided by the home in the face of the oncoming winter, and therefore they ordained the Hanukkah lights as the responsibility of the household, not of the individual.

II. From Medieval Times Onward: “For Members of the Household Only”

As we have seen, the Talmud ordains that each household light Hanukkah candles in front of the home to publicize the miracle in front of passers-by. In Talmudic times, the candles were not lit indoors except in times of danger, when the gentile authorities forbade the public kindling of Hanukkah candles (Shabbat 21b). In our day, this ruling regarding times of danger has become the norm: Hanukkah candles are lit indoors as a matter of course. It would seem that this development occurred in Medieval Ashkenaz (see Tosafot Shabbat 21b, s.v. de’i la adliq; Rosh ad loc., section 3). The reason for this is unclear, but a number of possibilities suggest themselves: it may be that the Jews of medieval France and Germany faced an actual threat from their gentile neighbors, or perhaps the European winter made it impossible to light the candles outdoors. Another possibility is that the houses of medieval European Jews were laid out in such a manner that candles lit in front of the house would in any case not be visible to passers-by. Nor should we rule out the possibility that the lighting the Hanukkah candles indoors was influenced by Christmas customs.

Whatever the original reason, common practice has become to light the Hanukkah candles indoors rather than in front of the house. This change in practice led to another change in halakhah: according to the Talmud, the Hanukkah lights must be lit “from sunset until the people are gone from the marketplace” (Shabbat 21b), in order to publicize the miracle to passers-by. However the Tosafot and the halakhic authorities who followed the Tosafot ruled that nowadays there is no time limit, and the Hanukkah lights can be lit any time during the night, so long as someone is home awake, because nowadays the candles are lit indoors and are meant to be seen and appreciated “by members of the household only” (Tosafot and Rosh, ibid.). Lighting the candles in the context of the family has become a unique ritual, in which the family gathers in religious celebration without sitting down to a meal. When, in accordance with post-Talmudic practice, the family huddles under a single roof around a candelabrum blazing with light and fire at the beginning of winter, the “home” motif is paramount. Hanukkah has become the holiday of hearth and home not only in the theoretical sense, that the ritual of candle lighting is incumbent upon the household and not the individual; it is actually practiced inside the home in the presence of family members, who publicize the miracle of Hanukkah to one another by lighting candles.

III. Hanukkah in II Maccabees: “Barracks-style”

The earliest and clearest expression of Hanukkah as the holiday of the home is found in II Maccabees. Both books of Maccabees were written in Hasmonean times, and both tell of the way in which Hanukkah was celebrated in those days. But while the reference to the Hanukkah celebration is couched in most general terms in I Maccabees, “that these days of the dedication of the altar be celebrated on time each year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, in joy and gladness (4:58), II Maccabees 10:6-7 tells of specific rituals. These verses are normally translated: “(6) They celebrated for eight days in the manner of Tabernacles ( skenomaton tropon ; literally: ‘barracks-style’), remembering that a short time earlier, on the festival of Tabernacles, they were grazing in the hills and caves like beasts of the field. (7) Therefore, with thyrsoi and seasonal branches and dates in their hands they sang praise before him who granted them success in purifying his place”.

The phrase skenomaton tropon is usually translated “in the manner of Tabernacles”, in the manner of the festival of Sukkot. Having been prevented from celebrating Sukkot two months earlier while living in the hills and practicing guerilla warfare “like wild beasts”, the Jews celebrated a delayed Sukkot on Hanukkah, singing Hallel and carrying plants for eight days. But this explanation is problematic, for the following reasons:

1. What did this delayed observance of Sukkot accomplish? If Sukkot is not celebrated on the correct date, of what value is its observance on another date? Moreover, if the Maccabees did think they could “make up” missed festivals, why didn’t they make up other festivals as well? They spent three years in the mountains, and thus missed each holiday three times over. They ought to have “made up” Passover and Rosh Hashanah as well by eating matzah for seven days and blowing the shofar one day!

2. Why did they find it impossible to celebrate Sukkot in the mountains and caves? It is precisely guerilla fighters living away from home in the mountains like “beasts of the field” who can, and indeed must, build temporary shelters! And it is they who have the most direct access to the four species that must be taken up on Sukkot!

3. The word “Tabernacles” appears twice in the translation of II Maccabees 10:6 provided above, once in the phrase “in the manner of Tabernacles” ( skenomaton tropon ) and once in the phrase “on the festival of Tabernacles” ( ton skenon heorten). However, while the second phrase, derived from skene , “tent, booth, tabernacle”, is the normal Greek term for “the festival of Sukkot”, the first phrase employs another variant of the word, skenoma , which is usually reserved for barracks and tents in which soldiers dwell, and is never used in the sense of a sukkah constructed for the festival of Sukkot. It should thus be translated “barracks-style” rather than “in the manner of Tabernacles”.

4. According to the usual interpretation, the Hasmoneans celebrated Hanukkah “in the manner of Tabernacles” not by building sukkot, but by taking up the four species. However, the three items mentioned in verse 7 are not the four species of Sukkot, and scholars have established that the branches and fruit mentioned in this verse was typical of Hellenistic victory festivals (see David Sperber, ” Mitsvat ‘ulqahtem’ behag haSukkot “, Sidra 15 (1999), pp. 167-179).

It would seem therefore that Hanukkah was celebrated in Jerusalem after the Temple was purified and rededicated not “in the manner of Sukkot”, but “barracks-style”, by constructing the type of barracks used by soldiers. They celebrated Hanukkah by building barracks-style buildings, remembering how they had just completed a three-year period of guerilla warfare, living outdoors, in mountains and caves, like the beasts of the field. They especially remembered the recent celebration of Sukkot in the mountains, during which the festival tabernacle took on special poignancy, since they were already living outdoors. The sukkot of Hanukkah were not an attempt to make up a missed holiday, but a recollection of the booths or barracks that were actually built in the mountains, which were especially appropriate on Sukkot, but which were also an expression of their daily lives as guerilla fighters.

The Maccabees remembered the temporary shelters in which they dwelt in the mountains, which were similar to festival sukkot , and in commemoration of their experience they built sukkot when they returned to Jerusalem on Hanukkah, and celebrated Hanukkah, barracks-style. In addition to commemorating their recent experience, the building of barracks also was a means of expressing gratitude to God for providing them once again with permanent shelter as the winter set in. In a sense, the rededication of the Temple, the “tabernacle of Salem” (Psalm 76:3), and the complementary construction of barracks both symbolized the need for shelter, for the Divine Presence and for people. It is interesting that Josephus, writing in Greek, like the author of II Maccabees, explains the original commandment to construct booths on Sukkot as a symbol of the human need for shelter as winter approaches (Antiquities III, 244).

Hanukkah was thus originally celebrated with the building of shelters, barracks, homes. Even after this ritual was replaced with the candle lighting ceremony, the Rabbis understood that Hanukkah was the festival of the home, and insisted that the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles is the responsibility of the home or household, and not of the individual. Medieval Jews took this a step further, and brought the Hanukkah candles indoors, establishing that the lighting of the candles is not only the way in which each household publicizes the miracle, but that the family, household or home is the audience before whom the miracle is publicized. This turned Hanukkah into the holiday of hearth and home – the festive occasion on which the family thanks God for his miracles of yore, but also his miracles that are with us daily, including allowing the family to gather under one roof as winter sets in.


Moshe Benovitz is a Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Photo: The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus. By Peter Paul Rubens and workshop – Muzéo (pic), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20067479

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