Hanukkah in the pandemic

Hanukkah, the festival of lights, the eight-day annual Jewish festival commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC. This year Hanukkah 5781 falls during the pandemic. Just like on the Seder evening of the Passover feast one asks: “How does this night differ from the other nights”, this time we could ask similar questions. Every year we light the Chanukkah lights together in the synagogue and then each and every one of us at home. On one of the eight nightly lightings, there is also a Hanukkah celebration with pancakes, music and a good atmosphere in the large ballroom of the community center. And this year? 

The question arises: Because this time the celebration is canceled due to the pandemic, the lighting of the lights in the synagogue takes place in a smaller setting or is celebrated at home – is a command being exceeded or a custom violated here? 

Hanukkah is a festival for home and family, with lots of warmth and light. Our sages חז”ל have summarized the fulfillment of the commandment of Chanukkah in three terms: “ISH – NER – UBEITÓ” – a light is lit in every house. That is the first foundation. The second, i.e. a higher level in the fulfillment of the Mitzvá, the commandment, said the sages, takes place when not just one person, but married couples together and everyone light a light for themselves. And the third, the highest level of fulfillment of the mitzvá, as it is called mehadrin min hamehadrin, is when all members of the household light the lights. The entire family gathers around the Hanukkah lights at home. This is how we commemorate the miracle of Hanukkah, when a tiny amount of oil, only enough for one day, ultimately lasted eight days. We commemorate the heroic Maccabees uprising and we commemorate the bravery of Judith, daughter of Jochanan the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest. 

If the Chanukkah commandment is to be fulfilled, the sages have prescribed where the lights are to be lit. These must be set up al petach beitó mibachutz, i.e. on the doorstep. Although a celebration for home and family – why is the light not directed inwards but outwards? The answer is simple, the lights are supposed to herald the miracle, i.e. pirssum nissa. So could this public proclamation be taking place anywhere in town? The answer of the sages: it must be smuchá lapétach, i.e. be ignited very close to the front door. 

This year’s lighting in the house, with family or friends is no substitute. Nothing is missing. It is exactly what we are told to do in Chanukkah. And don’t forget: In memory of the Menorá, the seven-armed candlestick that was the object of the miracle in the Beth Hamikdasch, the temple in Jerusalem, we also light Chanukkah lights in the synagogue, our “little temple” (mikdash meat). 

Conclusion: Even with a pandemic, we are celebrating a kosher Hanukkah festival this year in 5781. In this spirit, we wish Chag Chanukkah Sameach!