Miracle of a Single Flame

by Rabbi Aaron Alexander

Unlike many other Jewish holidays, Chanukah is pretty much a one-pony show. There is no seder, no required festive meal, and no forbidden activities (melachot). There are a handful of liturgical additions, but the primary Chanukah ritual is lighting the candles. In fact, almost every chapter on Chanukah in Judaism's major law codes explicates various details about candles, answering the five basic W questions: Why do we light the candles? What kind of candles do we light? Who lights them? Where do we light them? When is the best time for lighting them?

Perhaps the most fascinating issue for me is the directive that the lights in our chanukiot should not be be modeled after a bonfire (Shulhan Arukh, Orach Hayyim, 671:4). That is to say, they should be in a straight line across, so every single candle can be seen individually when an observer looks directly at it. If the candles are arranged in a circle, or if the flames are combined, it would be impossible to differentiate between them. The underlying legal principle (and the legal principle behind almost all the laws related to lighting the chanukiah) is pirsumei nissa – publicizing the miracle. By allowing each person to see the distinct light of each candle we simultaneously recall the story of Chanukah and offer the chance, and the challenge, of experiencing the miracle anew.

The idea of an individual candle or a single flame in our tradition reaches beyond the Chanukah candle. Before Passover, our tradition commands us to remove all leaven (chametz) from our possession. It is an ancient practice to use a single candle to search each crack and crevice in our homes, a job that a large flame or torch could not accomplish easily. The individual candle is also a reminder that the spiritual cleaning for Passover, which demands that we remove our internal chametz – often understood to be excessive pride and hubris – cannot be done with a superficial once-over. The small flame, the dim light, takes us another step deeper to gain access to the space of our psyche that we are more hesitant to take on.

The 19th century sage Mei Hashiloach (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza) embellishes this point, exploring the difference between a torch and a single flame. He claims that while the Torah, represented by a torch, is capable of refining the whole person over time, an individual mitzvah – or a single flame – can penetrate the depths of a person’s immediate religious experience. He illustrates this point from the Talmud, “Concerning which mitzvah was your father most scrupulous? He answered that it was the mitzvah of tzitzit” (Shabbat 118b).

The The Mei HaShiloach comments that he needed this particular mitzvah – a candle, as it were – to replenish that place in his soul where he saw himself as deficient. By wrapping himself each morning in his tallit, with its tzitzit – fringes – he was reminded of where he needed to focus his energy, on the miracles of the tradition to which he needed to be awakened. The tallit was an impetus for growth.

Each of us may have a specific mitzvah that moves us in a unique manner and that forces us to open up to the world in a fresh way through the lens of Judaism and its minor and major miracles. Viewing the candles collectively arouses in us an awareness of potential for future growth. But taken individually, each Chanukah candle represents a specific moment in our lives, a specific mitzvah that penetrates us, or a miracle that we have yet to allow ourselves to experience. By keeping them separate and distinct the task of recognizing each one is realistic.

So I ask you: What will you recall as you light each candle this Chanukah? What miracle will the light help you recognize? How can each candle kindle your soul?

Chanukah sameach.

Rabbi Aaron Alexander is associate dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, where he teaches rabbinic literature and Jewish law.

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