In Judaism, we kindle lights every Friday before the Sabbath arrives (and on the eve of every holiday), and during the eight nights of Hanukkah.
Yet there is a significant difference between the two. The Sabbath candles must be lit on Friday prior to sunset; the Hanukkah candles need to be kindled only after sunset (except on Friday, when we kindle the Hanukkah candles prior to sunset, before lighting the Sabbath candles). The former flames need to be burning during the day, the latter -- only after night has arrived. Why the difference?
The question can be stated more dramatically.
"What is Hanukkah?" asks the Talmud (1). The answer given is this:
"When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary [in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem], they contaminated all its oil. Then, when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious over them, they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil that was sealed with the seal of the High Priest — enough to light the menorah (candelabra) for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. The following year, they established these [eight days] as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving for G-d." Hence, during the eight days of Hanukkah we kindle a menorah to commemorate the miracle that occurred when the Jews kindled the menorah in the Holy Temple.
Now, the menorah in the Temple would be kindled each day around an hour prior to sunset (2). If our Hanukah menorahs commemorate the menorah in the Holy Temple, why did the sages not institute that we too kindle our Hanukkah menorahs prior to sunset?
Sunrise Vs. Sunset
There are times in life when our sun rises, other times – when our sun sets. King Solomon described it in Ecclesiastes (3), “The sun rises and the sun sets; then it rushes to its place, and there it shines.”
The paradox of this biblical verse is striking: How can we say that when the sun sets it rushes to its place and there it shines? By definition, when the sun sets, it doesn’t shine -- for all those located in the hemisphere where it set?
Some commentators explain the verse to mean, that once the sun sets, its rushes back to the East where it will shine again. Yet this interpretation seems to be imposed rather than literal.
Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of the Chabad school of Kabbalah, offers the most daring and original explanation to the verse (4). The sun, he says, is a metaphor for the light of G-d, As Solomon’s father, King David states in Psalms (5), “G-d is a sun”. Now, there are two phases in the expression of G-d’s light: When it “rises” and casts its radiance on its environment. This is the state of the highest spiritual worlds and the elevated states of consciousness, where G-d’s presence is all pervasive. Then there is the phase when the “sun” sets and its glow becomes eclipsed. This is the condition of our world, where the human ego reigns supreme, and G-d’s reality can seem like a “delusion” (in the recent title by Richard Dawkins).
“The sun rises and the sun sets; then it rushes to its place, and there it shines.” Ecclesiastes is stating that at the point when the sun sets, when the light of G-d is completely concealed -- that is when it reaches “its place,” its ultimate destiny, and there it begins to shine in its profoundest glory!
Light and Darkness
The explanation of this concept is one of the core principles of the Chabad school of philosophy.
Prior (conceptually) to the creation of the word, explains Rabbi Schnuer Zalman, there was nothing but G-d, the Reality of Reality, the ultimate truth and essence of all. G-d is undefined and indescribable, not even by the term “G-d,” yet this undefined reality “includes” within it all the light, prowess and possible expressions of G-d.
Thus, every dimension of Divine revelation, even in the highest spiritual words and states of consciousness where the Divine presence is revealed and expressed, is a dramatic descent from the state of reality prior to the creation of the universe. It is a diluted and compromised version of the truth that existed prior to creation. Then, there was nothing but G-d with all of His "light" and "potnetial" included in Him, in His essence; now, G-d’s light is “diluted” and contracted so that it can be expressed in the rlrvated spiritual worlds. The light has become profoundly “diminished ” relative to how it was in its source, in the Divine essence, prior to creation. Would G-d create a reality which is nothing but a “watered down copy” of a previous more perfected reality?
To describe the purpose of creation as the attainment of spiritual heights or the attainement of the Divine light is beg the question: What is the point of existence? As spiritual as one might become, one will never reach the state of spirituality that existed prior to creation, when all spiritual light was submerged in the Divine essence.
As long as we define the purpose of creation in terms of light, the question persists: Was it not far brighter prior to creation? Hence, Rabbi Schnuer Zalman reaches the astonishing conclusion that the purpose of creation is not in light but in darkness.
Why did G-d create the world? To achieve something that did not exist before creation. What didn’t exist then? Only one entity: Darkness. The self-centered ego of the human being and of the material universe, which experiences not even a glimmer of the Divine light. This darkness did not exist prior to creation, when only G-d existed and there was no space for anything outside of Him. This is the novelty which creation introduced – a reality in which G-d’s light is completely eclipsed by the “I” of man. And it is in this reality that the very objective of creation lays – that we take on the “I” of the self and align in with the Divine “I;” that we subdue the darkness and elevate it to the Divine.
Now we can understand the meaning of the verse, “The sun rises and the sun sets; then it rushes to its place and there it shines.” When the sun rises, in the states of consciousness where G-d’s light is exposed, the primary objective of creation remains unfulfilled; there is nothing novel in this state of reality, besides a dramatic compromise of the light as it was in the essence of G-d. But when the sun sets, when G-d’s light is eclipsed, allowing for the existence of mans’ “I” -- here the ultimate purpose of creation is realized. Here the Divine essence reaches “its place,” its ultimate destiny.
Sabbath Vs. Hanukkah
Sabbath candles need to be kindled during daylight, when the sun has not yet set. Sabbath is the time when we elevate our lives and our world to a higher state of consciousness, to a space where one can feel the warmth and the glow of the Divine light.
The menorah in the Holy Temple, too, was a place where one felt a glimmer of a higher, more transparent state of reality. The radiance of the menorah cast its glow on the environment, sharing with it a taste of the Divine "sun."
On Hanukkah, however, there was no glow, no radiance, no light, no revelation. There was darkness. The Jews of faith were few, weak, and demoralized.
Yet at that very moment, a new light emerged. “The sun rises and the sun sets; then it rushes to its place and there it shines.” On Hanukkah the sun has set. But that is precisely when the sun began to shine: the real light broke through; the light of G-d’s essence, which desires that we challenge the darkness and transform it.
So we light the menorah only after sunset; the flames of the Hanukkah menorah embody the sun that rises only after sunset.
(This essay is based on the discourses of the Chabad masters (6)).
Footnotes:1) Talmud tractate Shabbat 21b. 2) See Lechem Mishnah to Rambam Hilchos Tefilah 3:2; Sefer Hamammarim Melukat vol. 2 p. 17 footnote #12. 3) 1:5. 4) Beurei Hazohar (written by his son, Rabbi Dov Ber, known as the Miteler Rebbe) Parshas Vayeitzei (p. 17). Cf. referenced noted in footnote #6. 5) 84:12. 6) Or Hatorah Bereshis (vol. 5 pp. 1880-1882) by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek; Maamar Mitzvasah in Sefer Hammamarim 5630 (1870) pp. 43-47, by his son Rabbi Schmuel of Lubavitch; Maamar Mitzvasah in Sefer Hammamarim 5678 (1918) pp. 112-118 by his son Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch; Maamar Roni V’semchei and Mitzvasah 5735 (1974, Sefer Hammamarim 5735 (pp. 284-293) by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. For some of the concepts discussed in the essay, see also Tanya ch. 36 and Maamar Basi Legani 5711 (1951).