It is explained in Kabbalah and Chassidut that the lights of Chanukah represent and ultimately reveal the hidden divine light of creation. This idea is based on many different reasons. Firstly, the chanukiah, the eight branched candelabra that we light on Chanukah, is clearly connected to the menorah in the Temple. We light eight nights to remember the lighting of the menorah in the Temple, and just as the menorah radiated divine light, so too do the lights of Chanukah.
Yet, there are other allusions to the infinite divine light clothing itself in the finite light of the chanukiah. The Talmud quoted above relates that before the light of the first day was hidden away it was made available to Adam and Eve. It is further stated that they used it for thirty-six hours before they were exiled from the Garden of Eden.
After Adam and Eve sinned they tried to hide from God, but He confronted them with one powerful word that has reverberated throughout the ages – eicha – where are you? This question is of course not in the physical sense, rather it is a much deeper existential challenge as to where have you gone; what have you done; who are you? The word eicha (איכה) significantly equals thirty-six, alluding to the divine light that would soon be hidden.
This same word is the first word and the name in Hebrew of the book of Lamentations which we read on Tisha B’Av to the light of candles. In anticipation of the destruction of the Temple, the menorah was hidden away where it awaits discovery in the future. Here is an instance of divine light being revealed in the menorah, only to be subsequently hidden.
During Chanukah we begin by lighting one light and each night add an additional one. Altogether we light thirty-six lights, a clear allusion to the infinite divine light of creation and a sign to us that it can be experienced even now.
Chanukah is celebrated on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev. The twenty-fifth word of the Torah is the first appearance of the word light, (“let there be light”). The word Kislev כסלו ,can be divided to read כס-לו , which means “36 (לו ) are hidden (כס ).” The thirty-six hours the divine light shone for Adam is hidden in the thirty-six candles of the month of Kislev.
The miraculous flask of oil that was used to light the menorah, was hidden away and was the only oil that had not been made ritually impure by the Greeks. The light of the menorah is first revealed and then hidden, while the light of Chanukah is first hidden and then revealed. In this sense, the lights of Chanukah are a revelation of the hidden light of the menorah, yet now residing in not just the Temple, but rather in every Jewish home.
According to Jewish law the lights of Chanukah are meant to be lit publicly in order to advertise the miracle. It is the only Jewish ritual we are taught to do in such an open, revealed manner. The root of the word Chanukah is chinuch, which means “education.” Perhaps more than any other mitzvah, the lighting of lights on Chanukah represents the quintessential mission of the Jewish people – to be a “light unto the nations.” The light of Chanukah is not merely a physical light, rather it is a spiritual light that is meant to be shared and revealed to the entire world.
There is a Jewish tradition that there are thirty-six hidden tzadikim, righteous people, in every generation, on whose merit the world exists (Sanhedrin 97a). A midrash relates that when God said “Let there be light,” this refers to the acts of the tzadikim” (Bereishit Rabbah 3:8). In every generation there must be a certain amount of the original light of creation in order to keep the world in existence. The hidden tzadikim with their good deeds keep this light from going out.
We are further taught that there is a spark of a tzadik within each and every Jew, as it says “And your people are all tzadikim…” (Isaiah 60:21). The small flask of pure oil hidden away from the defilement of the Greeks represents the hidden spark of a tzadik within each Jewish soul, no matter how far away one may wander from his or her roots. This spark is ready and waiting to be ignited and revealed to the world.
The clash of philosophies at the time of Chanukah was between a Greek world view based on cold logic and the superficialities of physical beauty and pleasure, and the Jewish world view that embraced not only logic, but a higher spiritual reality that is at times paradoxical and beyond human reason. The word for logic in Hebrew is הגיון, whose last three letters spell יון, Greece. It is very interesting to note that although we think of science as being the epitome of rationality and Greek logic, physics today is perplexedly counter-
intuitive and is based on one mysterious paradox after another, especially in relation to light, as we will discuss further on.
In Kabbalah and Chassidut we are taught that it is an especially auspicious time to meditate when gazing upon the lights of Chanukah. Although there are many different explanations as to the various symbolism of the light, they all revolve around perceiving in the various elements of the wick, the dark light around the wick, the body of the light, the glow radiating from the light, and the oil or the candle itself, varying levels of God’s revelation of light, as well as the light of the soul. One particular verse is used meditatively in this context: “The candle of God is the soul of man.”
Along with the thirty-six lights of Chanukah, each night we light a shamash, an additional “servant” light, in as much as it is forbidden to use the lights for any direct benefit. Together there are forty-four lights. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh explains that in the discipline of gematria, Kabbalisitc numerology, which reveals deep, inner meaning according to numerical equivalencies, one may add one for a word, or in this case an additional one for the overall concept of the Chanukah lights. Altogether, forty-five represents all the lights of Chanukah, the same number as Adam, man, in the above verse. Meditating on the lights of Chanukah and integrating the unity of the opposites the lights represent - physical and spiritual, infinite and finite, God and man - brings the heart and mind to great heights of awareness and a deep inner peace.
When taking the forty-four actual lights and multiplying them by two, (their inner and outer dimensions,) it yields eighty-eight, which equals the word stream, נחל. The Arizal, the great Kabbalist of Safed, when reciting the blessing for lighting the lights would say “who has commanded us with His commandments and commanded us to light Chanukah light (להדליך נר חנוכה) in order that there be thirteen words (other versions have fourteen words; to light the lights of Chanukah) and that the first letters of the last three words would spell (not in order) נחל, stream. He taught that one should envision when lighting the lights a stream of pure divine light coming from above washing over ones self like a waterfall.
The unity of water and light in this image reminds us of the word for heaven, שמים, being a combination of a shin, the letter of fire, and mayim, the word for water. In heaven the opposites of fire and water commingle in perfect harmony, which is not the case on earth. The lights of Chanukah unify the paradoxical opposites of light: infinite and finite, hidden and revealed, physical and spiritual.
Thirteen corresponds to the qualities of compassion God revealed to Moses. The Arizal sought in the lighting of the Chanukah candles to draw down God’s compassion and mercy into the world and upon the Jewish people like a waterfall of light. The first letters of the eighth quality of compassion, “Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations” (and the number of days of Chanukah,) also spells נחל, stream (נצר חסד לאלפים). Thirteen is significantly also the number of synonyms for light in the Torah.
One last idea revealing an intrinsic paradox of the lights of Chanukah is the well known disagreement between the House of Hillel and the House of Shamai regarding the order of lighting the lights. Hillel taught we begin with one and add each night till reaching eight on the last night, while Shamai taught just the opposite, to begin with eight the first night and to end with one. Although we follow the opinion of Hillel we are taught regarding this and similar types of arguments throughout the Talmud that “These and these are the words of the Living God” (Gittin 6b; Eruvin 13b). This type of paradoxical logic where two diametrically opposed opinions, mutually exclusive, are both seen to be correct is a particular Jewish way of looking at the world.