Hanukkah The First Night of Hanukkah: It Takes a Hidden Light to Know a Hidden Light
There’s a classical question that Jewish sources ask about the first night of Hanukkah. We celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights because one night’s worth of oil lasted for eight. If there was enough oil to burn for one day, if this first 24 hours of burning was not a miracle at all, why do we celebrate the first day of Hanukkah as part of this miraculous holiday?
A year ago, I read an answer to this question recorded by my ancestor Naphtali Tsvi Fish. However, before this answer, I want to give an origin story. This story goes all the way back to the first days of creation and all the way forward to last Hanukkah.
In a fit of COVID-inspired genealogical research, my mom and I spent last December looking through old boxes in her basement. We came across an ancient pile of papers with a handwritten note on top, addressed to my Grandma Fay. The note began:
Dear Distant Cousin Fay,
My name is Hilda Fish, and I am very tired . . . .
The note went on to explain that Hilda and Fay shared an ancestry and introduced a bundle of family trees and documents going back to the early 19th Century.
As I paged through that parcel, I found a note from another distant cousin, Sydney Fish, declaring that he had published a collection of Torah that his grandfather, my great-great-great-great uncle Naphtali, collected in the town of Dinov. In his introduction to our ancestor’s Torah, cousin Sydney gave the story of how his grandfather’s Torah manuscript moved from Poland to the United States:
Until the summer of 1925 the two manuscripts were kept in the library of Rabbi David Spiro . . . . [in] Sanok, the hometown of my parents. In the month of Elul of that year, before my mother’s departure to the United States, she visited Rabbi David to get his parting blessing. During this visit, Rabbi David took the manuscripts from his bookcase and returned them to my mother, saying that since the books were in his possession for a long time, he finds it difficult to part from them. However, since she and the children were about to leave Poland—and only God knows whether they would ever meet again—he felt obliged to return to my mother her ancestral heritage.
The Jewish communities of Dinov and Sanok were destroyed during the Holocaust. The manuscripts survived only because of this hand off to my great-great aunt.
Back in the basement with my mom, I googled the collection and found a printing of the manuscript that my ancestor’s Rebbe had given to my ancestor’s daughter, who took it out of Europe, whose son published it, whose distant cousin Hilda had referenced it in her note to her distant cousin, my Grandma Fay.
I opened my ancestor’s Torah for the first time a year ago. The first piece I learned from his collection concerned the Holiday of Hanukkah and asked the question: what’s the deal with the first night of Hanukkah? Why do we celebrate it at all if there was always going to be enough oil to burn for one night?
My ancestor’s answer to this question begins with the observation that the Temple in Jerusalem was a mess after the Greeks fled. The Maccabees couldn’t find anything, not even a little pot of oil to illuminate the menorah. Within this mess, my ancestor wrote:
It was a miracle that God illuminated light from Heaven most high, the Hidden Light of the Righteous, which located the little pot of oil that made possible the light (of the menorah).
This is an explanation that requires more explaining. According to rabbinic literature, there was an Or Haganuz, a hidden light, which was the first light that God created and gave to Eve and Adam in the garden. When they looked into this light—this is trippy—they could see past the illusion of space and time to see all things that would ever be at once. When Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden, the hidden light was taken away from them. God reserves this hidden light to give in small bursts to those who are seeking. And when the Maccabees needed to find a little pot of oil hidden in a huge ransacked Temple, God gave them, according to my ancestor, the Hidden Light. It was like a miraculous divine spotlight, pointing past the illusion of a torn apart Temple towards the reality of a pot of oil, of hope, of struggles, and of miracles.
There are so many layers of hiding and illumination in this story. A mysterious relative revealing a hidden manuscript, hiding a hidden heavenly light, that located the light hidden in the Temple. I think that these concealments and revelations suggest a truth: that you need a hidden light, something holy, primordial, and rare, to find hidden lights, to locate hope in bleak times and connection amongst disjuncture.
As we light the first candle of Hanukkah on Sunday, we have a chance to celebrate the miracles hidden in the mundane messes of our lives. In the light of that candle, we can see past the illusion of our individual strengths and struggles to the reality of ancestors, community, and caregivers, to all the hands and hearts that have shown us light and whispered blessings in our ears.
Joey Glick is in his final year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College. A proud native of Pittsburgh, PA, Joey is an alum of Colorado College and the Graduate Theological Union. Before starting at Hebrew College, Joey served Jewish students at Vassar College. Joey currently works as the rabbinic intern at Nehar Shalom in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts; Beth Jacob Synagogue in Montpelier, Vermont; and Beth Israel Congregation in Bath, Maine. Joey is passionate about interreligious dialogue, old-time fiddle music, and his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates.
He shared this story during a sermon at Nehar Shalom on Friday, November 26.
Top photo: Joey’s niece and nephew, Lila and Yasha, who are also decendants of Naphtali Tsvi Fish, lighting candles on the first night of Hanukkah.