Hanukkah Candles at the Door of the Home and the Victory of Holiness and Modesty of the Jewish Home
The mitzva of lighting Hanukkah candles is a unique and beloved mitzva that we fulfill at the entrance to our homes. By being meticulous about this mitzva, we will certainly prepare ourselves to absorb the intense light of the Hanukkah candles, which will illuminate within and upon our homes, inside and out.
The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) expresses the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles in a singular fashion:
"The Rabbis' taught: The mitzvah of Hanukkah is one candle for a man and his household. The fervent light a candle for each person, and the extremely fervent, etc."
- R. Yehoshua Falk asks in his P’nei Yehoshu’a:
What is different about the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles that the obligation is placed upon the household and not upon the person who is lighting in order to publicize the miracle?
He offers an answer, but remains unsatisfied with his own answer.
The Talmud continues by citing the following beraita:
The Rabbis taught: The mitzvah is to place the Hanukkah light by the door of one's home, on the outside.
It then asks for further specification of the proper place for the Hannukah candles, and answers:
Rav Acha says: on the right. Rav Shmuel says: on the left. The halakhic conclusion is: on the left, so that the Hanukkah candle can be on the left and the mezuzah on the right"
The placement of the candle in the doorway is explained rather simply: the door offers the greatest publicity for the miraculous victory over the Greeks. Yet it may still be asked: what is the miracle that needs to be publicized? What was the decree, and how did the miracle nullify it? Furthermore, is the doorway merely the most public place in the home, or is there an intrinsic connection between the door of the home and the miracle (a connection that is part of what must be publicized)? And what is the link between this and the mitzvah of mezuzah?
Rav Kook explains that the decree of the Greeks and the miraculous victory of Hanukkah are related to modesty and the sanctity of the Jewish home (Eyn Ayah, Shabbat I, p. 61):
The victory that God granted was through his servants, the Kohanim. They prevailed over the Greeks, who wished not only to destroy the physical essence of the Jewish people, but also to annihilate the essence of life that Israel makes known in the world, namely, that purity and modesty are the primary objectives of family life; all other traits and philosophies follow from these.
The Greeks hated this and viewed it as the mortal enemy of their culture, which championed the joy of life, physical and imaginary pleasures. Therefore, the Greeks greatly despised Israel’s Torah.
The destruction of modesty was a central pillar of Greece’s strategy for converting Jews away from their religion and ideology. This is explained in an early Hanukkah midrash (Otzar Hamidrashim Eisenstein p. 185):
In the days of the Greeks, they decreed that any Jewish person who makes a bolt or a lock on his door would be put to death by the sword. Why did they make such a decree? To cause the Jewish people to lack dignity and privacy (modesty). Any house that does not have a door does not have dignity or modesty; anyone who wants to enter, whether day or night, may enter.
When the Jews saw the decree, they broke off their doors and could not eat, drink, or have marital relations. They said to God: Master of the world, how much can we suffer? He said to them: because of the sin of the mezuzah… The Jewish people were living without doors…
The sin of contempt for the mitzvah of placing a mezuzah at the entrance to the home is what caused the horrible decree of the Greeks forbidding homes from having doors and compromising the modesty and sanctity of the Jewish home. The midrash goes on to describe the development of the decree until the outbreak of the revolution against the Greeks. When they defeated the Greeks and nullified their decrees, the Sages enacted that the Hanukkah candles be lit at the entrance to the home.
In light of this midrash, we may add: the entrance to the house symbolizes the modesty and sanctity of the Jewish home. Our homes have entrances that are sometimes locked. They are opened and closed based on need. The house is the private domain of the individual, where the family can have intimacy and privacy for those things that require it. Not everything needs to be exposed to the public domain. A home open to everything is a home that makes no distinctions between the private and public spheres. The public display of activities that demand privacy opposes the Jewish value of modesty.
The mitzvah of mezuzah – disrespect for which led to the Greek decree against modesty – is also related to the door of the home and the sanctity of the Jewish household. The very name “mezuzah” derives not from the parchment or its case, but from the doorpost, the part of the house where the scroll is affixed. The mezuzah is a visible sign and expression of the sanctity and modesty that resides within.
Laxity about the mitzvah of mezuzah no doubt undermined the sanctity of the home and brought about the decree of the Greeks, who tried to take advantage of the Jews’ laxness and leverage it toward causing them to abandon their religion and ideology entirely. Therefore, the mitzvah of Hanukkah candles, like the mitzvah of mezuzah, both apply to the home and to what it symbolizes.
The identification of the door as a symbol and measure of a Jewish home’s modesty and sanctity first appears in the story of Bilaam who, looking out over the Jewish encampment, declared:
How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel. (Bamidbar 24:5)
He saw that their doors where not directly across from each other.
- R. Ephraim Luntshitz, in his commentary Kli Yakar to Shemot 38:8, further develops this principle, relating it to the women who donated their mirrors towards the construction of the laver (kiyor) that stood in the courtyard of the Tabernacle:
Scripture states: “[the mirrors] that they used at the door of the Tent of Meeting.” But the Tent of Meeting had not yet been constructed!? Some explain that this refers to Moshe’s tent, which was also called the Tent of Meeting. However, it seems to me that the issue is all about the modesty of women, as Scripture states (Bereishit 18:8): "She is in the tent," and Rashi comments, "she was modest." The same is true for the mirrors that were used at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting – the Torah means that the women used them in their own tents. The reason it says “door” is because with regard to a prostitute it says: "she sat at the door, in view" (Bereishit 38:14). Therefore, the Torah refers to the entrance to the tent with regard to modesty…"
Recently, a firestorm has erupted regarding the intentions of the "Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance" organization to hold a gay pride parade in the streets of Jerusalem. It seems to me that there is no need to waste words articulating the Torah's approach to this phenomenon. With a deeper look, however, it is clear that the issue at stake is the identity of the Jewish home. It would seem that there is nothing that runs more contrary to a Jewish home than to turn it into an "open house" to all.
There is an argument going on in Israel with an organization trying to install and legitimize alternative types of families. This organization calls itself "the open house." From a deeper perspective, it is clear that the bone of contention with them is about the holiness of the essence of the Jewish home. In light of what we have learned, that the door is a symbol of spirituality and modesty, it seems that there is nothing more opposed to the character of the Jewish home than opening it to the public. On Hanukkah, The holiday of the Jewish home, let us go out to the doors of our homes and light the Hanukkah candles, symbolizing the victory of the modesty and sanctity of the Jewish home