The Hanukkah lights are traditionally positioned at the window, so that they illuminate the darkness outside of our homes. This mitzvah speaks of our obligation to brighten the lives of those outside the nucleus of our family and our own community.
The Talmud in tractate Shabbat explains that the mitzvah of Hanukkah can be fulfilled by one person lighting a candle on behalf of their household, but suggests that the optimal ‘mehadrin’ fulfilment is for each individual to kindle their own light. This obligation includes women, as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi states: ‘women are equally obligated, as they too were part of the miracle’. The formulation in the law of Hanukkah suggests that while we can get away with just one light per household, each individual is nonetheless encouraged to set aside some oil – a metaphor for the energy and passion that fuels our activity – required to kindle their personal Hanukkah light and illuminate the outside world.
This a lofty ideal, but in practice most of us, in particular women, experience an ongoing tension in trying to balance the energy we devote to the personal versus the public spheres.
TheTalmudic sage Rava addresses this tension saying: ‘’If one must choose between a house-light (for Shabbat) or a Hanukkah light, the house-light takes priority’. While Rava speaks of a case where one’s monetary budget doesn’t stretch to buying oil for both Shabbat and Hanukkah lights, we can apply his principle to situations where our time, energy and emotional resources are limited. In such cases our priority should be on the inner circle of our family.
But having clear priorities to our family may not be enough.
While work is permitted on Hanukkah, women have the custom to abstain from domestic chores while the lights burn. According to the mystics, abstaining from work enables us to absorb the holiness of the moment. This custom speaks of the importance of investing in spiritual self-care. Taking time to internalise the holiness of the Hanukkah lights is crucial if we are to illuminate external darkness.