At this season we might for a moment contemplate one of Shakespeare’s more intriguing but often overlooked characters, the French nobleman Lafew. The light of this man’s counsel and reason shines brightly, guiding others in the production and illuminating the action for the audience. Though his wisdom sometimes flickers and the other characters are forced to endure sporadic moments of darkness, he is an apt figure for this time of the year. His name can be said to mean “the fire,” and the play is called “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
Shakespeare probably wasn’t Jewish, though some recent scholars have suggested he might have been, and in his landmark book, “Shakespeare and the Jews,” the Columbia professor of English and comparative literature James Shapiro sets out to explain “How Jewish questions were understood in early modern England.” But the imagery of light throughout this play might lead us to some December reflections on the meaning of the Hanukkah holiday that continues through nightfall Dec. 18 – and of the light the holiday provides in the darkness of the week approaching the darkest day of the year, this year just three days after the end of Hanukkah.
So much of this holiday is misunderstood that it stands almost as an autumn bookend to equally misunderstood Thanksgiving, which may have had its North American origins not in Cape Cod Bay but in Frobisher Bay – in the faraway icy waters of what is today the Qikiqtaaluk Region of the Canadian territory of Nunavut – in 1579, more than four decades before the Pilgrims held their harvest celebration of thanks in Plymouth.
Hanukkah isn’t the Jewish analogue to Christmas, an early winter celebration of the season marked by gift-giving. That is a coincidence, not a corollary. Moreover, it isn’t really, or solely, about a jug or a flask of oil lasting eight days instead of only one, but is also, or maybe primarily, about what was regarded as a concomitant miracle, the victory of the underdog Maccabee warriors over the formidable Greek-Syrian army. Indeed, consider the reflections of Rabbi Hyim Shafner, now the spiritual leader of Kesher Israel in Washington:
“Perhaps the true miracle of Hanukkah was not the oil lasting for eight days but the war to keep our religion that we won against such a vast Greek army, the few against the many, the persecuted against the persecutor. That we could remain Jews was the true miracle. We must appreciate this miracle for all times, much more so that the oil lasting for eight days.”
It may be perplexing that such a benign holiday should prompt so many controversies, but there is nothing quite so Jewish as being perplexed or examining controversies. Here are some of them to ruin your settled ideas about this holiday:
• Should it be spelled Chanukah, or Channuka, or Hanukkah? The Jewish Journal prefers the latter, but let’s remember that the English word is a transliteration so this dispute is essentially meaningless. Relax.
• Should the menorah be full with all eight candles on the first night and then, night by night, should the number of candles dwindle? This debate raged for centuries. The sage Hillel wants us to go with one at first. You probably should.
• Why, if there was enough oil for one night, do we celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights when the miracle was not that it lasted that first night but that it endured for seven more nights? It’s complicated. Ask a rabbi, not a reporter. But stick with the eight. It makes a nice holiday longer.
• Plus this one: What does the word Hanukkah really mean?
Not so easy, either. It can mean dedication, as in the rededication of the Second Temple after the war. It can mean beginning, as in the beginning of a new era following the Maccabees’ triumph. And it can mean education, as the three letters of the word signify the Hebrew word for education (chinuch).
Now a little aside to our own family tradition, the only element of this essay that I can write with confidence. It was always my parents’ custom to give us books for Hanukkah. They were not especially learned in Jewish ways, and the phrase “People of the Book” never passed their lips nor lingered even in their most private thoughts. But they were people of the book in a more general way: readers, both of them, always with a book on their nightstands. We have kept alive the tradition they began a generation ago.
Books for Hanukkah! What a concept! This year the family offerings include “The Last Kings of Shanghai,” the remarkable story of the Baghdad Jewish families who were prominent in China up until the 1940s, a compelling tale by Jonathan Kaufman, the director of the Northeastern University School of Journalism. It’s a great tale, beautifully told.
So what does all this mean for us, in pandemic America?
It means we are marking a holiday in which we actually spread the light at a time of darkness. It means, if we adopt the Hillel ruling to begin with a single candle (along with, of course, the shamesh) in the menorah, that we add a little light every day. It means, again with Hillel as our guide, that our prospects are growing rather than declining. It means, if we return to Lafew and Shakespeare, that after this difficult passage – after all this darkness – that all things might end well.
David M. Shribman, previously the Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the paper’s coverage of the Tree of Life shooting that earned the Pulitzer Prize.