The Language of
As the short days of winter begin, my
thoughts turn to light and the approach of Hanukka, the Festival of
Lights. Hanukka is a welcome break that drives away the winter shadows.
Though the usually sun-drenched Mediterranean region doesn’t suffer from
really long dark winter days, light has always been important, as can be
seen from its prominence in the Torah, the many Hebrew words for
different aspects of light, and lighting implements dating back to
The Hebrew word for light is or.
It appears right at the beginning of the Book of Genesis: “And God said,
“Let there be light (yehi or): and there was light. And God saw
the light, that it was good.”
Light comes in many forms. Or hamma
is sunlight and or yareah is moonlight. Light can be hidden (or
ganuz), to be sought after by saints and holy men; it can be
spiritual – or hanefesh, the light of the soul. It can keep us on
the straight and narrow if we follow it – or adonai (the light of
God), or torah (the light of the Torah).
Because we can expose things by bringing
them into daylight (or hayom), a publisher is a motzi la’or
– a bringer into light. If you are enlightened, you are an adam na’or.
If you are happy, your face lights up with or panim.
Artificial light is made with esh
(fire). Esh is kept burning with a wick, which is held by a
ner (a candle or a lamp). Candlelight is or haner. Great
scholars, such as Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, the founder of Jewish
mysticism, are called nerot Yisrael (lamps of Israel). When
someone dies, a ner neshama – a candle of the soul – is lit in
his or her memory. In synagogues, as in the Jerusalem Temple, there is a
ner tamid – an eternal light. A sage’s words to his disciple are
a ner leraglav – a guiding light (literally, a candle for his
feet). And if you are talking about a living person you respect very
highly, you will say after his name, nero ya’ir – “May his light
The ner – be it a candle or an oil
lamp – can be kept in a candelabrum (menorah). The most famous
candelabrum is the golden menorah that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem.
God gave Moses detailed instructions as to its design. It had seven
branches – a central branch and three on each side – and the bowl of
each one was shaped like an almond blossom. When Solomon built the
Temple in Jerusalem, he installed another 10 menorot in addition
to the one commanded by God. The golden menorah was among the spoils of
war taken by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
The Second Temple, built after the return
of the Israelites from Babylonian exile, had only one menorah – also a
golden one – that came to represent the Temple itself. In 167 BCE, the
Temple was desecrated by the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes, sparking
the Maccabean revolt.
In 164 BCE, Judah Maccabee liberated the
Temple, rekindled the lights and fires of the menorah and altar, and
resumed the daily worship. This dedication (hanukka) of the
Temple marked the start of an eight-day celebration. According to
tradition, during the celebration, the menorah was kept kindled by a
single container of holy olive oil, which was discovered in the Temple
and whose contents miraculously lasted for eight days.
The festival of Hanukka is celebrated to
this day, with the lighting of a special menorah known as a hanukkiya,
the reciting of a special blessing, and the singing of traditional
Hanukkah songs. Candles for each day – one on the first, two on the
second, three on the third, and so on – are lit with the flame of the
ninth candle, the shammash.
It is customary to place the lit
hanukkiya in a window so that the candles can spread their light and
remind people of the miracle of the rekindling of the light of the
By Yadin Roman