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Home » Chanukah

Chanukah: Light in the Dark

Submitted by on December 2, 2018 – 9:50 pmNo Comment | 1,929 views

The Chanukah candles usher light into darkness and warmth into cold. They are kindled as the sun sets and they are placed strategically in the window or doorway to catch the attention of passerby. This point is essential to Chanukah candles. After the streets have emptied of foot traffic, one may no longer light the Chanukah candles. (One may light them without reciting a blessing.)

The purpose is not only to light up the dark street, but to cheer up the lonely heart trudging through the cold. The message of the Chanukah candles is that even in the darkest of times, even in desperate circumstances, as was the case during the Syrian Greek occupation of Israel, one may never give up hope. Just as G-d performed miracles for us then, so will G-d provide for us again.

It is interesting that although the Chanukah candles commemorate the miracle that occurred when Jews lit the candles in the Temple (when a single cruise of oil lasted for eight days) the Chanukah candles are not kindled at the same time of day as the Temple candles. In the Temple, the candles were kindled in the late afternoon. Yet the Chanukah candles are kindled after the sun sets. This demonstrates that the Chanukah candles are not a reconstruction of the candles in the Temple. They stand for an entirely different concept.

Two Paradigms

There are two philosophies in life. One is to be drawn like a moth to light. This is the person who flees from controversy, avoids complications, escapes from danger, and aspires to live a stable, secure, and happy life. Then there are those who are drawn to the world’s trouble spots because they are driven to help those who are desperate.

The former always strive to live in the light. The latter always strive to bring light to those who live in the dark. Both are legitimate ways to pursue life. The Temple candles were kindled indoors during the daytime. These lights were not designed to light up the night, they meant to make a bright day even brighter. The Chanukah candles are kindled in the night where they can be seen outside. Their entire thrust is to bring light to those who are in the dark.

So, which is the better approach, that of the Temple candles or the Chanukah candles?

It depends on your circumstances. If you live in a stable environment and have the luxury of remaining close to the light, it is foolhardy to go looking for trouble. But if you live in tumultuous times when people are suffering, and your community is falling apart, you don’t have the luxury of remaining in the circle of light, protected from the travails of the dark night. In that case, you must go to those who are in danger, those who are desperate, and bring them some light, some comfort, some help, and some hope.

The Chanukah candles commemorate a time, when Jews were in danger. The Syrian Greek occupiers persecuted Jews who observed the Torah and adhered to its laws. This was not a time to barricade oneself behind lock and key and light candles in a private circle of light. This was a time to venture forth into the darkness and extend a warm and helping hand. This is why the Chanukah candles are kindled at night and placed at the door or window where they can be seen by those in the dark.

Tarmod in the Market

Our sages taught that one may light Chanukah candles until the foot traffic of the Tarmod (or perhaps Tamrud, a region in Syria) people had ceased in the marketplace. The Tarmodites were wood sellers. They would hang around the marketplace as the night fell and homeowners in need of firewood would rush out to the market to purchase their wood. They were usually in the marketplace for a relatively short while—until they sold all their wood or until the homeowners were supplied.[1]

Even though the Tarmodites had plenty of firewood, they didn’t build fires to light up the marketplace. On the contrary, they would lurk in the dark hoping to increase the light in people’s homes. They worked to increase the light indoors, where it was already light, not outdoors, where it was dark.

The market represents plurality and multiplicity. A market is where many merchants run many businesses and sell unique wares. Holiness, on the other hand, is associated with G-d, and since G-d is absolute oneness, where there is G-dliness there is an inherent sense of unity.

The marketplace then, is the direct opposite of holiness. The marketplace is a place of cutthroat competition. There is little unity or overarching oneness in the market even though everyone is there for the same reason. That is why the marketplace is defined as a place of darkness.

Yet the Tarmodites don’t bother lighting up this darkness. On the contrary, they lurked in the darkness because they were creatures of the dark. I mean this metaphorically in the sense that they competed for business, turning firewood, a source of light, into a platform for friction and separateness.

The Chanukah candles are meant to be lit between sunset and the time that the Tarmdites leave the marketplace. On the literal level, the Tarmodites are used as a time marker because they are the last to leave the market. While most merchants pack up and leave when it grows dark, the work of the Tarmodites just begins when it grows dark.

But on a deeper level, the Tarmodites are the time marker for the Chanukah candles because they are the Chanukah candle’s target audience. They, the people who compete against each other in the marketplace, a center of pluralism, in the nighttime, a time that represents darkness and the absence of unity, are in the greatest need of the Chanukah candle’s message. The message says that no matter how dark our lives become, no matter how selfish and cutthroat we are, we need not give up on ourselves because G-d has our back. We can reach out to another and connect, we can turn the marketplace into a center of unity, we can flood the darkness with light, so long as G-d is on our side.


The truth is that flooding the darkness with light is only the first step. During this initial step, light and darkness are not natural allies. There can be either light or darkness, there can’t be both. If we flood the darkness with light, we effectively chase away the light.

The second step is to reveal that the core of all darkness is light. The core of all pluralism is unity. The core of all fighting is love. At their core, selfish people can be incredibly selfless. The key is this. Since everything was created by G-d, there is a spark of G-d in all things, even those things that appear to oppose G-dliness by their very being. They oppose G-dliness despite having a G-dly spark because their spark is well hidden. The more concealed a spark is, the more powerful it can be. And when we reveal the truth about this darkness, the spark is released in all its original glory.

This is not just about neutralizing the dark and filling it with light. This is about revealing that the core of all darkness is a light so powerful that we are unable to gaze at it directly. Ultimately, that is the secret of the Chanukah lights. That is what we mean when we say that Chanukah is the festival of light.[2]

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b. See Rashi there.

[2] This essay is based on Mishetishaka Hachamah, a Chassidic discourse by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Chanukah, 5738.

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