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December 2018 – Zot Hanukkah

As I wrote in the last edition of Kol, the Jewish calendar has particular ebb and flow to it.  Each season is defined by the Jewish holidays within. Passover begins the liturgical year, providing us with a combination of rituals that occur both in synagogue and home.  The rabbis replaced the centrality of the Temple rite with a three-pronged approach to maintaining the tradition: rituals for the synagogue; rituals for the home; and individual practice.  The Pilgrimage Festivals represent a clear realization of this approach, with prominent observances in all three spheres. At first blush, the High Holidays and Chanukah seem diametrically opposed in this regard.  The High Holidays take part largely in synagogue, with a massive liturgy and a distinct lack of home observance, or any rituals that occur apart from the liturgy. Even the waterside Taschlich service was a relatively late ritual addition, tracing its roots to Maharil in the late 14th century.  The tashlich custom was also a highly contentious one, considered heathenish by many authorities, including the Vilna Gaon! The rabbinic concern was that people would think that casting bread into the water would be seen as an alternative to the requirement of making true teshuva through prayer (presumably taking place in synagogue) and acts of lovingkindness.  One reason the Yom Kippur day prayers are so lengthy, in fact, is that the rabbis were concerned about keeping the “Jews in the pews,” lest they return home where they might be tempted to engage in prohibited activities.

Hanukkah, on the other hand, has a particular set of rituals that can be observed almost entirely in the home.  There are no prohibitions on work, eating, or anything else that happens on a “normal” day. We spin the dreidel, we sing traditional hymns in metered song, we light the menorah, we give out “gelt,” we make latkes and eat donuts.  To the extent that we have prescribed Jewish law on these days, most of it is focused on how and when to light the candles! While there are a few prayers added to regular service, there is no liturgical corpus, or Megillah specific to Hanukkah that we are required to read (unlike that “other” so-called “low barrier” holiday).  On Yom Kippur we say penitential prayers. On Hanukkah these prayers are prohibited. Hanukkah seems to be the polar opposite of Yom Kippur from a ritual perspective. And yet, the eighth day of Hanukkah is designated by a special name: Zot Hanukkah. The exact nature of this day is not clear, but it has come to be connected with Yom Kippur.  Though the Zohar identifies Hashana Rabbah, at the end of Sukkot, as the last day we might receive God’s divine mercy through teshuva, later Hassidic sources extend the potential for compassion all the way until this last day of Hanukkah. We can again marvel at the multifaceted approach of the rabbinic collective. It’s as though they are saying that in each season we have a different modality in which to encounter the divine and renew our souls.  In the fall we connect in the synagogue through deep, and sometimes lengthy, introspection and prayer, and in the winter we light candles and sing songs in the warmth of our home. In this way, every season holds the potential for renewal and each unique holiday observance represents a realization of our hearts’ most worthy aspirations.

Hazzan Randall Levin