The Longest Darkest Night of the Year

Although the significance of Ḥanukah is masked by both its commercialization (in competition with Christmas) and its status as a “minor” or post-biblical Jewish holiday, there are important reasons to believe that it is ancient, poorly understood, and quite deep.

Before he passed away this past year, Rabbi Zelig Scharfstein of blessed memory, taught me a very special Ḥassidic vort (bit of Torah) concerning the fifth night of Ḥanukah. To review it, I sought the teaching online at Sichos in English, a site providing translations of the teachings of the Ḥabad Lubavitch ḥassidic tradition. The following is very similar to what I remember Rav Scharfstein teaching me.

The fifth day of Ḥanukah can never occur on a Shabbat. When Ḥanukah occurs on days that are even only potentially Shabbat days, the light of Ḥanukah combines with the light of Shabbat for a powerful illumination. So the fifth night, which can never be Shabbat, represents great darkness relative to the other nights.

Thus, the fifth light of Ḥanukah has the unique task and power to illuminate and instill spirituality even in such a time of darkness. [source]

To really grasp the intensity of this tradition, one has to imagine themselves in a time and a place where artificial light and electricity are not as ubiquitous and familiar as they are in our nighttime world. The ḥassidic teaching describes a spiritual darkness that can be imagined, but the darkness of the fifth night is one that can also be observed. This is because the Hebrew calendar follows a lunar cycle. The first night of Ḥanukah always begins on the 25th of the month of Kislev, the fifth night corresponds with the 29th of Kislev, the Eve of the New Moon. While the winter solstice is the longest night of the year, the nights of the waning moon are the longest darkest nights of the year. Without the moon’s illumination, and without the joy of the Sabbath, the 29th would be profoundly dark — if not for the light of our Ḥanukah lights. Ḥanukah, aka Ḥag Urim [Festival of Lights], ends with the light of the sun increasing as well as the waxing of the moon’s strength.

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes. He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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