The act of lighting candles on Chanukkah is understood in halakha to be an act of pirsumei nissa, publicizing the miracle. If the candles are not able to be seen, then one does not fulfil the mitzvah. Through our lighting, we proclaim: The Maccabees had pride in their faith and were willing to stand up for it. It is for that reason that Judaism survived. We are proud to be Jewish and we want everyone to know it.
Except, not always. Already the Talmud states that at times of danger, the candles are to be lit indoors, away from the sight of the Gentiles. Due to perhaps justified fear, the mitzvah and the expression of one’s Jewishness must be kept private and hidden away.
For many centuries when Jews lived in hostile surroundings, candles were indeed lit indoors, visible only to the family. But for a long time that has not been the case in this country – at least as far back as I can remember. While candles are often lit indoors in America due to practical concerns of wind and the like, they are also intentionally lit in the window so that they will be visible to all, both Jews and non-Jews. We have been proud to declare our Jewish identity and felt safe doing so.
Tragically, that is changing. Already last year we saw a rapid growth of hate groups and hate speech, and more and more murderous anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues and Jewish locations. As a result, we heightened security and placed guards at our synagogues and schools. We have pulled a little bit indoors, where it is safe. But since October 7, anti-Semitism has truly gone mainstream – on college campuses, on the streets, it is everywhere around us. Many people are now even afraid to have their mezuzot on their doors for fear of their homes being targeted by anti-Semites, and my heart goes out to them.
In response to a question that I received from one of our rabbis in the field about whether it is permitted to take one’s mezuzah down in such a case, and what my general religious guidance would be, I wrote as follows:
Thank you for your heartfelt and anguished question. There is no question that as a matter of halakha, if there is a real concern for safety, obviously that overrides other mandates and the mezuzah may be removed.
But if you are asking me my advice here, then I would say that my religious response at a moment like this is that we should not give in to bullying and intimidation tactics. Doing such only emboldens those who would terrorize us or seek to make us into victims. We live in a country in which the government is mandated to protect us, in which there is recourse – civil and criminal – if we are attacked or our homes are vandalized, and in which we can organize ourselves in neighborhood watches and the like to protect ourselves. We need to have faith, and we need inner strength, courage and pride at a time like this. Otherwise, we lose and they win, and the problem only grows greater. To cite a Midrash that gives some expression to this (Midrash Rabbah, Shemot Ki Tisa, no. 42):
ויאמר ה’ אל משה ראיתי את העם הזה, מהו והנה עם קשה עורף הוא,, אמר רב יקים ג’ חצופים הם, חצוף בחיה כלב, בעוף תרנגול, ובאומות ישראל, אמר ר’ יצחק בר רדיפא בשם ר’ אמי אתה סבור שהוא לגנאי ואינו אלא לשבחן או יהודי או צלוב
And God said to Moshe: “I have seen this nation and they are a stiff-necked people.” (Shemot 32:9). What is meant by ‘a stiff-necked people’? Said Rav Yakim: “There are 3 who are brazen (chatzufim, have chutzpah): the chatzuf among the animals is the dog, among the birds is the chicken, and among the nations is Israel.”
Said Rav Yitzchak bar Radifa in the name of Rav Ami: “You might think that this is a disgrace, but it is in what makes them praiseworthy – ‘Either a Jew or death!’”
So while people must take necessary precautions in all matters, this Chanukkah, I ask us all to move outside. To reaffirm our Jewish pride, channel the Maccabees courage and say: “We will be safe, but we will not be afraid.” Let us not forget the message of pirsumei nissa, let us say, we will not be deterred. We are going to light those candles for everyone to see!
May this Chanukkah bring with it a true yeshua that will lead us out of these dark times bring us to a world filled with light and goodness.