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The Language of Light

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 ancient times.

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 shine.”

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 Temple.

By Yadin Roman



Other Language Corners:
Kayitz - Summer Extremes
Tisri - The Head of all The Months

Above:  A hanukkiya designed by artist Ilana Goor.





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