The mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah lights begins at sunset.... They are to be placed in the outer doorway of one's home; if one lives on the second floor, one should place them in a window which looks out to the street.

Talmud, Shabbat 21b

Evening comes early in winter, filling the streets with darkness and cold. One by one the lights come on. Amid the electrical glare, a warmer, purer glow asserts itself. It is the last week of Kislev, and from the doorways and windows of Jewish homes, Chanukah lights illuminate the night.

"For a mitzvah is a lamp, and Torah, light" (Proverbs 6:23). The essence of our mission in life is to shed light: every time we fulfill a mitzvah we are lighting a lamp, illuminating a world darkened by ignorance and strife with the wisdom and harmony of the Creator.

Every mitzvah is a lamp, but there are two mitzvot whose actual form mirrors their quintessential function. These are the two mitzvot whose fulfillment involves the generation of physical light: the lamps of the menorah, which the Torah instructs to be lit each afternoon in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem; and the Chanukah lights, kindled at nightfall each evening of the eight-day festival of Chanukah.

Indeed, the Chanukah lamps are the offspring of those of the menorah. The mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah lights was instituted by our sages to commemorate the miraculous rebirth of light in the Holy Temple after its suppression, in the 2nd century bce, by the Hellenist rulers of the Holy Land.

The Temple's menorah was a five-foot high, seven branched-candelabra made of solid gold and topped with seven oil-burning lamps. Its seven flames, fueled by premium olive oil prepared under special conditions of spiritual purity, were the physical expression of the spiritual light which emanated from the Holy Temple. For the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was the epicenter of G‑d's manifest presence in the life of man, the point, says the Talmud, from which light went out to the entire world. In their endeavor to supplant the spirituality of Israel with the paganism of Hellene, the Greeks invaded the Temple, defiled it with their decadent images and rites, and contaminated the oil designated for the kindling of the menorah.

But one family refused to yield to the darkness. Matityahu the Hasmonean and his sons (the Maccabees) rallied a small but determined group of fighters and drove the Greeks from the land. After liberating the Holy Temple and rededicating it to the service of G‑d, they searched for ritually pure oil with which to light the menorah. They found a single cruse of oil that had survived defilement by the Greeks. Miraculously, the one-day supply burned for eight days, until new pure oil could be prepared.

Every winter of the more than 2,100 winters since, we remember and reenact the triumph of light over darkness with the eight flames of the Chanukah menorah.

A Different Menorah

There are, however, several marked differences between the Chanukah menorah and the menorah in the Holy Temple:

a) The Temple menorah was lit during the day (no later than 1-1/4 hours before sunset) and burned through the night. The Chanukah lights are kindled at night. (Immediately after sunset according to the custom of some communities, or after three stars come out, according to the custom of other.)

b) The original menorah stood well indoors, in the inner sanctum of the Holy Temple (called the Heichal). The Chanukah menorah is placed at the perimeter of the home, on the outer doorway of ones home or, if one lives on the second floor... in a window overlooking the street.

c) Seven flames burned in the Temple menorah. The Chanukah menorah holds eight lamps, all of which are kindled on the eighth and culminating night of the festival.

Why these dissimilarities? In Torah law, there is a rule-of-thumb that All rabbinical institutions are modeled after their biblical prototypes. So why, in instituting the practice of kindling the Chanukah lights, did our sages so differentiate between them and the lights they come to commemorate?

Standard Operating Procedure

G‑d saw the light that it is good, and He separated between the light and the darkness. And G‑d called the light day and the darkness He called night; and it was evening and it was morning, one day.

Genesis 1:4-5

In the beginning, darkness and light were one—a single, seamless expression of the goodness and perfection of their Creator. But G‑d wanted contrast and challenge in His world. So He separated between light and darkness, between revealed good and concealed good, challenging us to cultivate the day and sublimate the night.

On the most fundamental level, our task is to harness the light of day so that it extends to illuminate the night. We strive to preserve and develop all that is good and G‑dly in our world, and to direct these positive forces to overcome and transform the evil and negativity of the dark side of creation. This process was exemplified by the menorah in the Holy Temple: kindled in the light of day, its rays reached deep into the night; kindled in an inner sanctum brimming with divine light, it radiated its glow to the mundane world without.

But there are times when this standard operating procedure is no longer operative. Times when darkness invades the divine lighthouse, extinguishing the menorah and defiling its oil. Times when we can no longer draw from the day to illuminate the night.

At such times, we must turn to the night itself as a source of light. We must search for the hidden single cruse of pure oil, for the undefiled and undefilable essence of creation. We must delve below the surface realities of day and night to unearth the primordial singularity of light and darkness.

Therein lies the significance of Chanukah, when the menorah moves from within the Holy Temple out into the street, and from the daytime to the evening. Chanukah transforms the menorah from a tool that disseminates the light of day into a tool that extracts the luminous essence of darkness itself.

[More specifically, the lighting of the Temple and Chanukah menorahs, together with the third light-generating mitzvah, the lighting of the Shabbat lights, chart a three-phased progression of light through space and time.

[The Temple menorah stood in the holiest place on earth, in the edifice that was the seat of G‑d's manifest presence in the physical world. The Shabbat lights find a source of light in a less sacred environment—in the home, a place that embraces both our holy endeavors (Torah study, prayer, acts of charity, etc.) as well as our more mundane activities. Yet the home is our private sanctum; here we are in control, making the task of achieving harmony between the spiritual and material components of home life, if not always easy, then within reasonable reach. The Chanukah lights, however, test the very limits of our light-generating capacities. Placed in the doorway or in a window, they straddle the private and public areas of our lives, the boundary between the home and the street.

[In terms of their placement in time, the Temple's menorah was kindled in early afternoon, the Shabbat candles are lit eighteen minutes before sunset, and the Chanukah lights are kindled at or after nightfall. This also corresponds to the sequence of their appearance on the macro-historical level. The Temple menorah came first, in the luminous years when G‑d still communicated openly with man; commanded by G‑d at Sinai, the mitzvah to kindle the Temple menorah was written into the Torah (Exodus 27:20-21). The Shabbat lights came in later, spiritually darker times, a rabbinical institution designed to foster harmony in the home on the holy day (Jewish women, beginning with Sarah and Rebecca, kindled the Shabbat lights from the very beginning of Jewish history—see Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 24:67; Likkutei Sichot, vol. XV pp. 168-173; but as a halachic obligation they date from the time they were instituted as a rabbinical decree). Most recent in linear time are the Chanukah lights, instituted 21 centuries ago in commemoration of the miracle of Chanukah.

[So goes the journey of light: a journey through time and space to ever duskier vistas, to increasingly alien environments; a journey from midday in Jerusalem to the darkest reaches of a world awaiting redemption.]

Cycle and Circumference

This is also the significance of the difference between the number of lamps in the Temple and Chanukah menorahs.

Seven is the number of creation. G‑d created the world in seven days, employing the seven divine attributes (sefirot) which He emanated from Himself to serve as the seven spiritual building blocks of the created reality. Seven is thus the dominant number in all natural cycles and processes. Hence, the standard operating procedure to bring light to the darker corners of creation is associated with the seven-branched menorah of the Holy Temple.

If seven is the cycle of nature, the number eight represents the circumference (shomer hahekef) that defines and contains it, the pre-creation reality that both transcends and pervades the created reality. If the seven lamps of the Temple menorah embody the normative process of overriding darkness with light, the eight lamps of the Chanukah menorah represent the endeavor to access a higher reality—a reality in which darkness is but another ray of divine truth.