by Rabbi Jill Borodin and Rabbi Paula Rose
Congregation Beth Shalom
During Chanukah, we often talk about the value of spreading light, both literally, with our chanukiyot, and metaphorically, with our actions. Yet we rarely explore the actual economics of that value. Inspired by a colleague, Rabbi Rachel Zerin, I listened to an old Planet Money podcast episode, called The History of Light (available here). The hosts describe the time-intensive and difficult processes that went into making oil or candles in the ancient world. It’s worth a listen, but the main takeaway is that for most of human history until quite recently, light was expensive. It was used carefully and intentionally, not to be wasted.
That economic value makes the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles an interesting one. Our tradition also has Shabbat candles (or less anachronistically, Shabbat lamps), but the point of those was to ensure that people had enough light to eat their celebratory Shabbat meal once Shabbat had begun (and thus it was already dark). Their light is intended to be highly useful. The rabbis are very clear, though, that the light from Hanukkah candles may not actually be used. Its purpose is to remind us and our neighbors of the miracles of this season; it is not to be used for reading by, or eating by, or any other activity. Under other circumstances, lighting lamps or candles in the ancient world would have prompted a need to be productive, to use and take advantage of the precious and costly light. Yet Chanukah celebrated the very existence of light itself, and taking part in that celebration by lighting un-useful lights would have been a powerful statement and an act that required commitment and sacrifice.
Today, we can buy a box of Chanukah candles, enough for the whole holiday, for less than two dollars (or those taller, fancier ones for less than ten). Even at night, light surrounds us everywhere– from lightbulbs, backlit screens, streetlamps, and beyond. The relative inexpensiveness of light today, along with its pervasiveness, may lead us to take the miraculous beauty and preciousness of a tiny flame for granted. But this Chanukah, let us put ourselves in our ancestors’ shoes, and remember the value of each light. May our noticing and appreciation of that light in a literal sense lead us to search for, ignite, and spread moments of metaphorical light with through our actions as well.