HanukkahWriting about the meaning of Jewish symbols, Erwin Goodenough (an important historian who helped to uncover the significant role of art in Jewish history) once explained that a symbol is an “image or design with a significance, to the one who uses it, quite beyond its manifest content.” He went on to add that a symbol “operates on men, and causes effect in them, beyond mere recognition of what is literally presented in the given form” of the image or symbol itself. It turns out that, though a nuanced understanding of symbols may appear largely pedantic, the myriad existence of symbols in Judaism makes such knowledge anything but.

We have a perfect example of this reality just on the horizon: Hanukkah will begin on the evening of December 12, and at that time Jews around the world will begin an eight-night ritual of lighting a special, symbolic lamp- the menorah. The menorah is, of course, “just” a lamp. Its — to use Goodenough’s phrase — “manifest content” is merely to hold candles which can be burned to produce light.

If we think about it, the lighting of such candles could comprise a perfectly benign, non-religious action, especially during the short and cold days of November or December. To this effect: If we were to imagine a person completely unfamiliar with Judaism seeing a menorah in use, there is no reason to expect that they would recognize that its purpose was anything except light production. However—in light of our knowledge about the menorah (pun definitely intended!)—we know that this is a woefully incomplete view of this symbolic object and its ritual purpose. In fact, the light which the menorah produces is something that Judaism specifically forbids us to use for any purpose other than ornamentation (that is, Jewish law forbids us to use the use of light from a menorah for anything practical, such as for illuminating a book to read). Instead, the light from this special lamp is meant to be purely symbolic.

Up to here, I don’t think I have suggested anything particularly radical. However, the second part of Goodenough’s definition is something I find striking: Symbols are meant to “operate” and “cause effect” on us in a way completely unrelated to their literal form. How should we interpret this? I think that what Goodenough is suggesting is that for an object properly to be called a symbol, it must move us. If the light from the menorah is something we appreciate only as pretty light, then it has not accomplished its purpose and it is not truly a symbol.

For the lights of Hanukkah, the question becomes: What are the lights on the menorah moving you to do? How have they inspired you to act differently? To make the lights from Hanukkah meaningful, we must make ourselves remain continuously aware of their deeper meaning: They are meant to remind us of an historic event during which our people triumphed over forces powerful and numerous enough that victory, to the Jews, seemed impossible. They are, additionally, meant to be symbolic of the ways that Jews, Jewish history, and the unique Jewish approach to moral issues can make the world a brighter place.

To paraphrase the words of one American rabbi who sought to explain the political significance of the menorah in today’s trying times, this is a holiday which is meant to inspire us to show hope in the face of fear and light in the face of darkness. It is meant to remind us that, even as a small religious minority in the United States, we have a voice and must speak out in fights essential to maintaining our religious moral standing. Perhaps most importantly, too, the menorah and its lights—which we are supposed to put into a window, shining as a reminder to all, Jewish and non-Jewish, of the miracle of Hanukkah—are a symbol which remind us that Judaism’s charge is for us to engage in the world and to engage with it. We aren’t just supposed to personally be moved by this particular symbol, but, instead, we are meant to use it to move others.

Wishing everyone a chag urim sameach,

Rabbi Ari Ballaban