Public menorahs seen as symbols of hope for Hanukkah
Outside a volunteer firehouse in northern Baltimore County, dozens of people gather for a ceremony that brings to life an old Jewish proverb: A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.
Shalom Zirkind, an Orthodox rabbi, presided over the lighting of a 12-foot-tall menorah at sundown, Dec. 2, as the annual Jewish holiday of Hanukkah began.
It is believed to be the first public menorah lighting north of the Beltway in Maryland – and the latest example of an increasingly popular practice that brings celebration of the Festival of Lights outdoors and into the public square.
Zirkind expected the evening to carry an appropriately outsize message, coming as it does in a year marked by an increase in faith-related hate crime in the United States, including the horrific mass shooting that left 11 people dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October.
Hanukkah commemorates a special event in Jewish history, but in a larger sense, Zirkind says, it signifies hope during times of trouble.
“The message of Hanukkah can be found in that old saying, ‘Darkness isn’t pushed away with a broom,' “he says. “The only way to combat senseless hate is with senseless love. The only way to combat darkness is with light.”
The lighting of the candles in the ninebranched candelabras called menorahs is the central rite of Hanukkah, the eight-day holiday on the Jewish calendar that commemorates seemingly miraculous events that took place nearly 2,200 years ago.
Around 160 B.C., leaders of the mighty SyrianGreek empire ordered the looting of the Jews’ most sacred place of worship, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and banned the practice of their faith.
These acts of repression sparked a revolt on the part of a cadre of Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, who defeated their powerful oppressors and reclaimed and rededicated the temple.
If that weren’t miracle enough, Jewish scripture says that when the victorious rebels attempted to light candles in the temple, they found only enough olive oil to last for a day, but the flames burned for eight days. That is remembered in the eight days of the holiday and eight of the candles in the ceremonial menorah. (A ninth, the shamash, is used to light the others at the rate of one per day.)
For centuries there- after, Jews lit small menorahs and placed them outside the front entrances to their homes every Hanukkah in celebration of the miracles.
As the generations passed, though, and Jews were repeatedly forced to live among people hostile to their faith, most brought the menorahs indoors “out of fear for their own lives,” says Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland, the state chapter of a worldwide movement whose mission is to preserve, share and teach the traditions of the Jewish faith.
The lighting of menorahs in public spaces didn’t come about until the 1970s, Kaplan says, when Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, then the powerfully influential director of Chabad-Lubavitch, decided it was time for Jews to stop concealing their religious practices and bring them into the open.
He initiated the first such event in 1974, when a handful of his followers fashioned a 4-foot menorah of wood and lit the candles in front of that enduring symbol of American freedom, Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
The tradition grew, as did the menorahs themselves. Concert promoter Bill Graham, a Holocaust survivor, donated a 22footer for a public lighting in Union Square in San Francisco, and in 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter lit the shamash of a jumbo menorah on the White House lawn.
Drew Zuckerman, 9, lights the candles on the menorah as members of the interfaith and Jewish community participate in the first ever menorah lighting ceremony in North Adams, Mass., to celebrate Hanukkah on Dec. 2.