Chanukah has developed a unique niche in the American smorgasbord of holiday cheer. It is used by merchandisers to gimmick shoppers into purchasing Chanukah sweaters and Turkey Menorahs. It is used by the entertainment industry to pack extra gags into films (note Chanukah’s not-so-subtle cameo appearance in Seth Rogan’s recent The Night Before), add multiculturalism to all manner of television, and liven up most stand-up comedians’ acts when they arrive in New York in December. In today’s day and age, it would almost be surprising if the White House didn’t have a Chanukah party; rest assured, President Obama will be hosting it again this year (date to be announced). In fact, he even solicited recommendations for a “special and unique” Menorah that “tells a story” to be a part of the nation’s Chanukah party.
But is all of this cultural publicity a good thing? Our first, and maybe only, response should be an unequivocal “YES!” The proof may be that the quintessential religious rite associated with Chanukah is lighting a Menorah. While that particular act is laden with all manner of meaning, foremost among them is the concept of Pirsumei Nisa, publicizing the miracle. Even as we light the Menorah, we proclaim to the world in the second blessing our thanks to God “SheAsah Nissim LaAvoteinu BaYamim HaHeim BaZeman HaZeh” “for doing miracles for our fathers in those days and in these.”
There are all manner of Halachot described in the Gemara and stretching through millennia of rabbinic discourse that seems to support this idea. The Gemara (Shabbat 21b) states that Chanukah candles are ideally lit outside one’s door between sunset and the time that the last people leave the marketplace. This would seem to indicate that the goal of lighting a Menorah is directed at the general public. Likewise, Rav Yechezkel Yakovson of Yeshivat Sha’alvim understands Tosafot (ad. loc s.v. VeHaMehadrin Min HaMehadrin) as supporting the idea that Pirsumei Nisa is directed outward to the general population. Tosafot note that while Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree as to whether to increase or decrease the number of candles lit on successive nights, they both agree that there is only one lit Menorah: Neir Ish UBeito, a single Menorah per household. This is because additional candles confuse those who pass by the household. If, as it seems Tosafot is saying, the goal of Chanukah is to communicate a message to people in the street, then the work that music groups like “the Maccabeats” and “Six13” have done to spread the Chanukah cheer is entirely on-point.
It’s challenging to consider, however, that the message of Chanukah is truly a universal one, conducive to being spread throughout the broader culture. Certainly there is a cheery holiday narrative to be told of good triumphing over evil, light vanquishing darkness, and monotheism defeating pagan idolatry. But there is just as compellingly a particularistic story of Chashmona’im rejecting Hellenism, of Judeans reclaiming a specific religious and ethnic identity, and Jews throughout history clinging to a holiday, often in the face of tremendous persecution, to assert their uniqueness on the face of this earth. While this particularistic narrative is likely found in the minds of many Jews lighting Menorahs, it is, more likely than not, the last thing on the minds of so many city mayors who attend Chabad’s giant Menorah lightings on the steps of city hall.
Delving deeper into the Mitzvah of Pirsumei Nisa, though, enables us to see that the Pirsumei Nisa of the Chanukah Menorah encompasses the ethnic particularisms of Chanukah’s narrative as well. Rav Moshe Taragin of Yeshivat Har Etzion points out that the only other Mitzvot with expressions of Pirsumei Nisa are the reading of Megillat Esther on Purim and the drinking of four cups of wine on Pesach. Neither of these Mitzvot is directed to anyone other than fellow Jews. Megillat Esther is ideally read in the presence of a Minyan and the four cups are consumed sitting with one’s family, or perhaps an assemblage of families, participating in the Seder. At their core, both Purim and Pesach, like Chanukah, celebrate a particularistic Jewish triumph over our foes. Yet, we do not celebrate either of them by publicizing that triumph with our neighbors down the block; instead, that act of publicity occurs in a relatively private setting.
The private element of the Menorah lighting has its place also in Jewish law, as highlighted by Rabbi Yossi Slotnik in his article on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Medrash (http://etzion.org.il/vbm/english/chanuka/a-chan3.htm). Rabbi Slotnik directs us to the laws governing the lighting of the Menorah during times of danger which instruct adherents of the holiday to light indoors away from would-be persecutors. The shift inward, albeit performed under duress, sheds light on the parameters of Pirsumei Nisa on Chanukah. Interestingly, almost all laws about the timing and placement of the Menorah disappear during a time of duress. Instead, candles need to be lit only a short while in order for those present to acknowledge the miracle. Tosafot echo this sentiment, stating that “Nowadays we have to show it only to the people in the home because we light inside.” While some Posekim (such as Rashba ad Ra’avia) argue that the Mitzvah of Pirsumei Nisa falls by the wayside when the focus is turned inward, the parallels to Purim and Pesach seem sufficiently compelling for us to argue that Pirsumei Nisa is limited to the family or Jewish-national level.
This year, when Chanukah is neatly sandwiched between Thanksgiving/Black Friday and Christmas, it is easy to lose sight of the unique narratives and family importance that lie at Chanukah’s core. But amid the explosive sales and non-stop, media-fueled holiday cheer, maybe Jimmy Fallon’s nod to Chanukah in his holiday mashup with the all-star case of Rashida Jones, Queen Latifah, and Ed McNally isn’t something about which we should be particularly excited.