Hanukkah – Public or Private Judaism

The signature observance of Hanukkah is the lighting of the Hanukkiah. It’s most dramatic component is its placement in a visible location, whether in a doorway or in a window facing a public thoroughfare. While most other Jewish observances are conducted in the privacy of the home or in the synagogue, this mitzvah is intentionally celebrated in view of the public eye. It captures the very nature of Hanukkah itself. More than anything, this holiday celebrates our religious freedom. The Maccabees fought against religious oppression more than for political autonomy. Therefore, we mark their miraculous success through observing Judaism in a manner free from fear.

1730 Hanukkiah at Shearith Israel

1730 Hanukkiah at Shearith Israel

Maimonides (Hanukkah 4: 8), however, states that if one is fearful of repercussion that it is even permissible to light the Hanukkiah in private. While the mitzvah can therefore be technically fulfilled in relative seclusion, how sad it would be to have to do so. Hanukkah is a time of marking and celebrating our Jewish identify with pride.

Surely though, this public observance challenges what for many of us is a usually private Jewish identity. Generally speaking, we are not noticeably different from those amongst whom we live, either in dress, language or often even in name. We are not always comfortable wearing our Judaism on our sleeve. One week a year, however, we are called upon to openly assert our Jewish identity, and that can be exhilarating, while also uncomfortable.

I think this raises the question as to how we should generally conduct ourselves. While we are not obligated to flaunt our Judaism, and if endangered we certain shouldn’t, perhaps we should generally identify our affiliation, whether through dress or jewelry. If we feel uncomfortable doing so, is that a product of our own insecurity, or an honest perception of how we are treated by others when we do so? I am blessed to live in a country, and in particular in a city where we are so comfortable to live as Jews. I wonder if at a time in history when there are places like this if Jews should only choose to live in those locations, or if it is ok to remain in towns and countries where Judaism must be kept obscured from public notice. These are questions that may not have clear answers, but on Hanukkah when we so publicly celebrate our religious freedoms and convictions, perhaps it is worthwhile to give them some thought. Ultimately, Hanukkah is a time to give thanks to God for our freedoms, of which we thankfully have so many. Indeed, may this be a year of religious freedom and security for Jews around the world.  Happy Hanukkah!

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