Lighting the Hanukiah (“menorah” or Hanukkah lamp) is the central aspect of Hanukkah observance, but in antiquity lighting lamps at home would have been a regular evening occurrence, not restricted to Hanukkah. The Talmud promises that anyone who is steadfast in lighting a “light” will merit children dedicated to Jewish learning. The question is what act of providing light is being referred to here? Some commentators, noting the context of the Talmudic passage, explain that the text refers to the Hanukkah light. Others, noting that Hanukkah is not actually specified in the promise, comment that the reference is to ordinary lights that are lit upon dark.
According to the view that ordinary lights are meant, the promise of the Talmud may mean that going to the trouble of providing light in the home (a bit of a luxury before electricity) in order to read is educational. Children who see that their parents love reading may (eventually) value it themselves. After a stressful day, parents are tired and understandably feel that they deserve a break. It often takes extra effort to “turn on the lights,” but doing so to study justifies the expectation that one’s children will internalize similar patterns of discipline and dedication.
According to the view that the promise of studious children depends upon lighting the Hanukiah, the above reasoning cannot apply. The Hanukkah lights are wholly dedicated to publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah; it is forbidden to use their illumination for any other purpose, including to read by! Perhaps the answer is hinted at in the blessing recited over the ritual lighting.
According to the text of the blessing, God “commanded” us to light the Hanukkah lights. The rabbis ask how this is possible. There is no such command in the Torah (the events commemorated by the holiday happened centuries after the Torah was written). The rabbis answer that the Torah grants permission to innovate, and so Hanukkah lighting becomes a subsequent commandment. In lighting for Hanukkah, we affirm the richness and elasticity of our tradition that allows for adaptation and growth. It is through this mechanism that Judaism finds expression and even flourishes despite ever changing cultural contexts and challenges. When our children see that we embrace the capacity of our tradition to innovate, they will begin to understand its enduring relevance. This will inspire a life of learning.
Rabbi Mitch Levine