I am very careful while walking to work these days to make sure to stay in the sunlight. Brilliant and clear and slicing at such a low angle, I know it won’t be there on my walk home. This week, two weeks before the winter solstice, we experience the earliest sunsets of the year. Although I grew up in New England and have lived here most of my life, the darkness at this time of year feels unnatural.
And at this darkest time of the year, the moon is not offering any help. Most of us live beneath the reliable illumination of streetlights and hardly notice the phases of the moon. The moon, though elegant, is too delicate and unreliable and so lost her job lighting the night to the electric company. This week she is waning, shrinking down each night until the new moon tomorrow night when there will be no visible moon at all. For this reason, the night of the new moon closest to the winter solstice is the longest, darkest night of the year. This longest, darkest night almost always occurs during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
The Jewish festivals are based on the lunar calendar. This means that the phases of the moon indicate where we are in the festival cycle with much greater precision than we can tell from the sun. By just looking at the sun, I can’t tell the difference between Dec. 13 or 20. In the lunar calendar, however, the difference of even a few days is obvious as the moon transforms from dark to full every two weeks. In the Jewish lunar calendar, the first of the month is the dark new moon and the 15th of the month is the full moon.
Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that spans a new moon that separates two lunar months. In observance of this eight-day holiday, we start by lighting one candle the first night, and then add a candle each additional night. Since Hanukkah begins at the end of the lunar month, the first five or six candles are always lit as the moon thins to a sliver and disappears. The last two or three nights of the holiday, the new crescent moon of the next month has reappeared and begun to thicken and light the night sky. This drama of returning light is most appropriate for Hanukkah.
The Hanukkah miracle described by the ancient rabbis was that a single small container of consecrated oil, only enough for one day, burned for eight days in the rededicated ancient Temple in Jerusalem. We light the lights today to recall, publicize and celebrate this miracle of unexpected abundance of light.
There is an interesting teaching about the light from the Hanukkah candles. Since the purpose of this light is to recall and celebrate the miracle of light, the light from the Hanukkah candles is not to be used for any other purpose. This light is not for reading a book, eating a meal or looking for lost car keys. Family and friends gather to light the Hanukkah candles on the longest, darkest nights of the year to celebrate a miracle of abundant light. We sanctify the lighting of the candles with blessings, and also by demanding that the light from these candles is only used to celebrate the miracle and for no other purpose. The holiday observance, of course, also includes gift giving and special foods — potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts are traditional — picking up on the theme of abundant oil. However, the truly special moment of Hanukkah is the moment just after candle lighting when we take a moment with family and friends just to enjoy and celebrate the miracle of light.
The candles of Hanukkah and our attention to their light are what carry us across that longest, darkest night to the other side where the days lengthen and light begins to return.
Rabbi Steven A. Lewis leads the congregation at Temple Ahavat Achim, 86 Middle St. in Gloucester.