I wanted to give the very basic Hanukkah story to start so we have some context for the contemplations to come:
It begins with Antiochus III, the King of Syria, who reigned from 3538 to 3574 (222-186 B.C.E.). When the Romans started penalizing him with taxes he passed the pressure down on his kingdom, including the Jews. He gets succeeded by his brother Antiochus IV who wants assimilation among the kingdom, so he forbids the Jews to study Torah and practice their traditions. The priest Matatthias and a group of dedicated Jews flee to the hills of Judea . The Syrians come after them and a battle ensues where many on both sides die. Mattathias elects Judah to lead the defense and calls him “Maccabee" a word composed of the initial letters of the four Hebrew words Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Adonai, "Who is like You, God.", usually translated as “hammer”. There are a series of battles (of the smaller Judean army against the bigger Syrian one) and the Maccabees triumph. They head to Jerusalem to liberate the temple, clean it up, find only one small vessel of oil deemed pure enough for the rededication and it burns miraculously for 8 days. The priests then appoint these 8 days for celebration and thanksgiving.
This is a deep and rich holiday. Let’s start with the 8 days - in Torah the number 8 is the number that refers to the world that is "above" nature - a higher consciousness. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hersch teaches that you can compare it to an octave on the piano - if you play the note C an octave above middle C it is the same not but in a higher reality. Turned sideways it represents infinity. The number 8 in Judaism refers to a higher reality world, the world beyond the created world, the world of eternal connection to God (we name and circumcise baby boys on the 8th day after their birth, Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate receiving the Torah, is the 8th week after Passover, 8 days of Hannukah, etc.). So Hanukkah connects us to this aspect of our awareness.
The Syrian Greeks of the Hanukah story were interested only in the physical, in what was visible on the outside and graspable with human intelligence. They brought in idols to decorate the temple, which is forbidden in Jewish practice, but are of course aesthetically pleasing. My teacher Diane Bloomfield says “Judaism (and yoga!) is dedicated to the connection of the physical with the spiritual and intangible. It teaches an alignment and connection of the physical with the spiritual.” What the Maccabees were fighting was the disconnect from the spiritual. The conquering Syrians didn't want to know the realm of the spirit, which is why they wouldn't let the Jews study Torah and practice their religion in other ways. They wanted to disconnect the Jews from the world of higher consciousness because it didn’t make sense to them. Hanukkah is really about returning to the realm of the spirit. Very interesting considering how we celebrate Hanukkah in America, right? Again, it’s not a bad thing to be concerned with the physical – we are embodied beings and neither yoga or Judaism support an ascetic lifestyle and yet both seek balance. It’s not a “bad” thing to have things, give gifts, dress up, and celebrate , it’s just that when those things become the temple that we pray at that we start to lose touch with our spiritual selves and our connection to the Divine. It’s like going to a yoga class that is too based in the world of the physical, concerned only with the physical practice – there is something missing.
The word Hanukkah is of course a Hebrew word. Hebrew is a really interesting language because every word has a 3 letter root and a number associated with it. We often learn a lot about the deeper meanings of Torah by breaking down the words themselves. When we break down Hanukkah down can mean several things:
Chana (the “ch” is not pronounced like the English, but a guttural sound in the back of the throat): to rest in, to dwell in, to settle
Chen: one of the 8 synonyms in Hebrew for beauty, it can also mean grace or favor – the aspect of beauty that expresses itself through the aesthetic of graceful symmetry (so yogic, right?!)
Cah: this is a word that hints at a higher realm, the un-contracted light of God. Its gematria (numeric value) is 25 which is an important number mystically: the 25th word of the Torah is light, Hanukkah is on 25th of the month of Kislev, the world was created on the 25th day of the month of Elul. So we take this to mean that it is the day that God began to create the physical world, and it began with creating “light”.
So putting that all together Chana-cah means: (time to) rest in/dwell in the (in-dwelling) light that is God, or resting in the grace of God.
On Hanukkah the main mitzva we practice is to light the menorah (a mitzvah is a practice designed to bring God into the physical world). And we are required to put the menorah in a window so the light shines outward into the darkness for the length of the holiday. The menorah represents the inner light of “cah”. The Torah teaches that on the first day God created light, but it wasn't until day 4 that God creates the sun, moon and stars. So what is this light then? Again from my teacher Diane Bloomfield: it is the or haganuz (hidden or concealed light) - an extract from the hidden light of the first day of creation. It is the light of wisdom and awareness and consciousness (like paramshiva in the Tantra philosophy we study and practice at Shree). We know that every one of us holds a spark of this light inside ourselves and this is the light we bring forth on Hanukkah when we light the candles. This is the light that can guide us in meaningful holiday practices of celebration with family and friends, of giving and receiving.
The great yoga teacher BKS Iyengar says "Alignment is the even distribution of consciousness through the entire pose." When we practice yoga and light up our bodies with awareness we become the embodiment of the or haganuz. The 8 days of Hanukkah are the celebration of the most essential Jewish teaching that the infinite God is penetrating and manifesting through the realm of this finite, created world. It is up to us to prepare fitting vessels for containing and revealing this light. The physical form creates the vessel to hold the light. We connect to the in-dwelling presence of the Divine, and through the practice we shine it out like the menorah in the window.
So as you celebrate this last day of Hannukah, or move forward towards Christmas and New Years, feel the inner light take the form of your outer shape on the inside and let it guide you in all you do. In the Anusara invocation we say satchitananda murtaye, which means my inner most brightness takes the form of my outer body. Let your inner brightness light up these darkening days of winter. Nurture the spark of the or haganuz inside you so it can burn a little brighter. Let your practice both on and off the mat be a rededication of the temple of your body, mind and heart.
Wishing you happy and blessed holidays!