Judaism Today: Shylock Redeemed?

Chanukah falls on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month of Kislev; this year, December 8. To most Americans, Chanukah is a vague Jewish analogue to Christmas. To many Jews, it commemorates a victory over Greek oppressors in 140 B.C.E. What gives Chanukah its enduring significance is not its history but its current message. This holiday reveals its relevance to those who examine its paradox: the first syllable of the word Chanukah, its root meaning, implies both education and commerce, neither of which seems to relate to a military victory.

The most visible feature of the eight-day holiday of lights is the daily lighting of the candelabrum or Menorah. Ideally, olive oil is used, though candles, which are solidified oil, are common today. On the first night one flame glows; an additional light is kindled each evening, culminating in a blazing Menorah on the eighth day. The lights of Chanukah represent not only the original Menorah in the Temple that the Greeks tried to extinguish, they also symbolize wisdom. For millennia, light has been our culture’s premiere image for understanding. As a light bulb marks a clever idea in a cartoon, so both the attainment of spiritual insight and the philosophies of progressive “enlightenment” have been imaged as illumination.

Water is another universal metaphor for understanding. We speak of someone being a fountain of wisdom, or having a thirst for knowledge. When these two paradigms of wisdom—light and water—combine, a rainbow is revealed. Literature’s first reference to a rainbow appears in the Bible (Genesis 9:14) Not surprisingly, we find it linked to Chanukah, in that Noah and his family emerge from the ark at the end of the second month of the year, two months after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year (Genesis 8:14). Soon after this, God greets them with history’s first rainbow during the third month—the month in which Chanukah falls—Kislev. As astrology students will know, the Zodiac sign the Greeks mistakenly labeled as Sagittarius the Archer was originally the rainbow, symbol of God’s covenant of peace with mankind. (In Hebrew, the words for a rainbow and for an archery bow are the same, keshet.) By falling specifically in the month of the rainbow, Chanukah’s observance reinforces and emphasizes Jerusalem’s love affair with education and knowledge.

The Talmud links two more images to Chanukah: the oil used for the Menorah and the number 8. Both oil and eight are metaphors for human enterprise. In a world without man, oil is a useless, smelly mess. Only man utilizes his Divine ingenuity to set oil aflame, achieving light, heat, and energy. In an elegant twist, it turns out that oil and the number 8 both enjoy the identical Hebrew root—shemen—indicating oil’s unique usefulness to man God ceases his efforts, as it were, upon reaching the number seven. For instance, He created the seven days of the week, seven colors in the rainbow, and seven continents. Man makes his contribution by adding one, as if man completes his efforts upon reaching eight. Although there are seven notes on the musical scale, we call it an octave because our human drive for completion demands that the first note be repeated; the number eight hints strongly at man’s transcendent need to contribute to the continuing drama of God’s creation.

Greeks and Jews argued about whether man and God were enemies or partners. The Greeks regarded the human form as perfect and glorified it through athletics and sculpture. In the Jewish view, of nature, God’s world needs human effort to achieve perfection. Hence circumcision, commanded by God in Genesis 17:12, truly perfects the body. Since it is a human contribution, it naturally takes place on the eighth day.

Chanukah celebrates man’s achievements in the world. As G.K. Chesterton believed, skyscrapers and temples are more marvelous than jungles and swamps. Still, the question must be pondered, Why does man alone construct skyscrapers and temples? Man’s strongest incentive to erect a civilization is the need of each individual to earn a livelihood. Chanukah reaffirms our commitment to commerce by an uncharacteristic insistence on relating the holiday to money. Coins are the traditional Chanukah gift, which would be insultingly impersonal at any other time. The word coin is itself derived etymologically from the first syllable of Chanukah, that same syllable that means education and commerce. Oil, that ageless source of light and wealth, is also the commodity selected for the process of anointing a king.

Furthermore, for the Sabbath and other holidays, the code of Jewish law usually prescribes times for rituals in terms of sunrise and sunset. But in the case of Chanukah, it specifies the lighting of the Menorah in terms of people’s income-earning schedules: the time they leave their place of business. Chanukah immunizes Jews against the infectious notion that money is tainted with evil and somehow vaguely un-Godly. Knowing that the rainbow symbolized Divine wisdom, Jewish immigrants have always sought the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow, a pot of gold that could and should be won without renouncing a relationship with God. While the Jewish affinity for money has been libelously distorted, as in Dickens’ depiction of Fagin or the colloquial verb “to jew,” wealth is traditionally regarded as one of life’s desirables. Few biblical heroes and almost no Talmudic sages were revered for being poor. The Talmud observes that it is a great blessing to live in an adequately comfortable home and to enjoy the wherewithal to be able to clothe one’s wife and family appropriately.

Shakespeare’s image of Shylock has been assailed as an anti-Semitic paradigm. If he is, it is only because the commitment to money must be secondary to the commitment to faith, not because the pursuit of prosperity is wrong. It is that very pursuit of prosperity that drives men to grow food, build roads, and otherwise “subdue nature” (Genesis 1:28). For eight days every year, Jews celebrate the uniquely human ability to mold and develop the world through commerce by utilizing rather than negating the Godly powers within us.

Chanukah is far less about a military victory than it is about the triumph of the idea that money possesses spiritual implications and was placed in the world by God in order to motivate men. Like all of our other powerful urges, it is capable of being frightfully abused. Chanukah stands astride that sad tendency. It reminds us that the divine spark of intellectual creativity which alone is responsible for our prosperity is also our link to God. A nation of faith will be a nation with fortune, but a nation with only fortune sinks into decadence.


Daniel Lapin (born 1947) is an American Orthodox rabbi, author, public speaker, and heads the American Alliance of Jews and Christians. He was previously the founding rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, California. and the former head of Toward Tradition, the Commonwealth Loan Company and the Cascadia Business Institute. Lapin currently hosts a daily television program with his wife Susan and provides spiritual advice to people through his website.

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