Hannukah: The Many Blessings of its Blessings

Dec. 11, 2020

By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES

Hanukkah is here, and not a moment too soon: Bringing light into the darkness right now is most welcome. While we look up how to play dreidel, exchange low-fat latke recipes (just kidding, it’s a pandemic – fry the damn things) and schedule online get-togethers, we tend to gloss over a significant aspect of the holiday: the Hanukkah blessings. We recite the blessings every night for eight nights, but are rarely mindful of what we are saying.

The first blessing is so familiar, we don’t really hear it anymore: “Blessed are You, Adoshem our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, Your Commandments spark holiness in us as You command us to light Hanukkah candles.”

This blessing is interesting both because it recognizes our innate glimmers of holiness and because it references an old controversy. Historically, Hanukkah celebrates a military victory followed by the rededication of the Second Temple. But less than 200 years later, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, and Jews were exiled and scattered into the Diaspora. When the dust settled, Jews were faced with the obligation to celebrate a defunct victory – a bitter reminder of permanent loss. A heated debate ensued about whether to scrap Hanukkah completely.

Ultimately, our sages came to a compromise. Yes, Hanukkah would continue, but the miracle story would transform from a military victory into a gentle legend about a single day’s carafe of kosher oil lasting eight days. Our blessing mentions no military triumph; peaceful lighting of the darkness becomes the true legacy of this festival.

Next comes our second blessing: “G-d, Ruler of the Universe, Who is blessed and Who blesses us, in this season in ancient days, You performed miracles for our ancestors.”

We chant this blessing to celebrate the miracle of the oil. But wait: The miracle of the oil lasting eight days didn’t really start until the second day. The Maccabees knew the oil would burn for at least one day, so why do we bless the miracle of the first day?

It is true the Maccabees didn’t know the oil would last longer than a day, but they lit it anyway. They chose to take a chance, to have faith. The miracle of the first day isn’t the oil lasting, but the miracle of faith itself.

And lastly, on the first night only, we chant the Shehechyanu. This is the blessing we say when we arrive at a new occasion: “Blessed are You, G-d, Ruler of the Universe, Who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment in time.”

These days, being sustained to this moment is no small feat; the pandemic has made us all too aware of our mortality.

Rabbi Shefa Gold speaks of Shehechyanu moments – moments when something new and wonderful happens. Shehechyanu moments occur when our hearts are full and we feel the need to mark the occasion somehow; to acknowledge it and make it memorable.

Festive holidays are Shehechyanu moments, but so can be reuniting with a loved one, or a child’s first day of school, or noticing that we are genuinely laughing for the first time after grieving a heartbreaking loss. Our Shehechyanu moments may feel rare lately, but they do happen if we can be still enough to notice.

As Rabbi Gold wrote, the Shehechyanu blessing is said whenever we realize the miracle of the present moment.

May this Hanukkah bring us the miracle of the present moment. May the warmth of the kindling lights usher in a season of good health, abundance, and joy. And may the Hanukkah blessings bring a spark to our hearts and light to the darkness.

Chag Hanukkah Sameach.


Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller in Calgary. She is currently attending the online Rabbinic School, the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute (JSLI) in New York, and will be ordained at the end of December 2020.