A Note to My Catholic Friends about Hanukkah

(AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, Pool)

Hanukkah greetings from the Catholic News Service provoked bittersweet amusement from Jews, who observe that it features the relief from the Arch of Titus celebrating the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in C.E. 70. The image shows the looted Menorah of the Temple, the seven-armed candelabra that sustained the Eternal Light of the Temple. This is an image that seems more suited to the 9th of Av, the Jewish national day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, than it does for the Festival of Lights. Some Jews have long suspected (with no evidence) that the Menorah remains hidden somewhere in the Vatican vaults.


There is a deeper side to the story, though. The eight-branched candelabra of Hanukkah is not a mere remembrance of the Eternal Light of the destroyed Temple. It is actually the flame of the Temple, relocated to the Jewish home. Every Jewish home is a temple in minature.

Ten years ago I met then Archbishop, now Cardinal Dolan at a reception for First Things magazine, where I was senior editor. He asked me: “I never quite understood how Temple Judaism became rabbinic Judaism. Just how did that happen?” I answered: “Excellency, the altar of the Temple was smashed into millions of pieces, but each of them became the Sabbath table of a Jewish home. Come to my house any Friday evening, and I will show you the Temple.”

I wrote about this at the time at the First Things website. The Catholic News Service’s well-meaning but awkward tweet encourages me to return to the subject.

Jewish authorities note that the lighting of Hanukkah candles began only after the Temple and its Eternal Light were destroyed. Rabbi Isaac Judah Trunk of Kutno (1879-1939) noted that in the famous Talmudic discussion about the origin of Hanukkah it is noted that the victorious Maccabees established it as a holiday “’with Hallel and Thanksgiving” without any mention of the institution of the lighting of candles in each and every home.”

Rabbi Trunk wrote,

Since it is explained in the derasha of Hazal [the sages of late antiquity] cited by Ramban [Nachmanides] (Bemidbar 8:12) that the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles is an extension of the mitzvah of the lighting of the Menorah in the Temple, that through the lighting of Hanukkah candles, the lighting in the Temple is continued eternally, it is not far from (reason) to conclude that in truth, as long as the Temple stood, Hazal did not institute the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles, for at that time the Menorah in the Temple was still functioning . . . and only once the Temple was destroyed were Hazal concerned that the miracle might be forgotten for the lights of the Temple Menorah had been extinguished. Therefore, Hazal instituted the mitzvah of lighting on the doorsteps as a continuation of the mitzvah to light in the Temple.

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot explained in a 2009 comment:

This novel, some might say radical, suggestion yields an interesting view of the neirot [candles of] Hanukkah. In contrast to other rabbinic practices that are termed zeikher le-mikdash [remembrance of the Temple], no such terminology is used in the halakhic literature to describe the lighting of the candles. In short, in this conception, the candles are not a zeikher [remembrance], but actually a continuation of the original mitzvah. In this reading it emerges that the home, the house itself, becomes the mikdash [Temple] in an intense fashion with the menorah perched in its outer “chamber”. We usually think of the synagogue as serving in the role of mikdash me’at [Temple in minature], but in this reading the home itself has taken on that role.

The power of the Eternal Flame of the Temple should be not be deprecated. I grew up in a secular home. My mother was not an observant woman, but the lighting of Hanukkah candles was a solemn event in our house, and the first Hebrew prayer I learned was the Hanukkah blessing of God “who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time of year.” The Shekhinah, the Indwelling of God’s presence on earth, is present when a Jewish mother kindles the Temple flame before her children upon the eight-branched candelabra of her home.

The Catholic News Service inadvertently taught us a Hanukkah lesson: the Menorah that the Romans ripped from the Temple bore an eternal light that lives on in Jewish homes. The Jews remain the bearers of that sacred flame.

So, my Catholic friends, no hard feelings.

But we want our Menorah back.