We love the symbols of Chanukah: bright flames on our hand-picked menorahs, dreidels to play with, latkes and sufganiyot to eat. It’s all too easy to lose the meaning behind these treasured traditions. Rabbi Ephraim Simon, director of Chabad House in Teaneck, and Rebbetzin Nechama Simon, former preschool director, shared their thoughts on how to add depth and restore authenticity to our Chanukah celebrations.
Why is Chanukah a holiday, and not just a historical event to be remembered?
Rabbi Simon: Following the actual events of the miraculous military victory over the Greek army, and the miracle of the lights of the menorah, the sages wanted us to publicize this miracle, specifically by lighting the menorah at night. In the beit midrash, it was lit during the day.
What is the lesson that we can apply to our times?
Rabbi Simon: The Greek philosophy was that “might makes right.” Judaism is the opposite. Societies built only on power, strength and war will always fade in history. A society that is built on caring for others, to be a light unto others, will exist for eternity. Those who bring light to the world will always defeat the forces of darkness.
Is this a message for today’s Israel—that might and power are not enough?
Rabbi Simon: Israel is surrounded by enemies. Its strength is not just the army but our spiritual strength too. We need both. We can’t forget who we are. That’s what we’re fighting for. It’s not just the physical land—but from this land, we can bring light and goodness.
How can we bring more light into our Chanukah observance?
Rabbi Simon: In our home, we light the menorah every night with our family. We repeat the story of Chanukah and talk about its relevance today and how each one of us can be a light unto others, from our youngest who is 12 to our oldest who is 24. On one night, usually the fifth, we give our children Chanukah gelt and encourage them to give a portion of it to a worthy cause, or person in need. We choose the fifth night as that is when there are more lit candles than unlit—more light overwhelming the darkness. It’s not enough just to bring light into your own home. If we would all celebrate in this way, we would be that light. It would be more meaningful for us and people around us.
What are age-appropriate ways a child can be a light unto others?
Rabbi Simon: School children can reach out to those who are less popular, or need social interaction. They can go to nursing homes and visit people who are lonely, give them chocolate gelt. Older teens can help in soup kitchens and deliver food packages. You can be that light by talking to and meeting people who are lonely and homebound or in nursing homes.
What is it about latkes, doughnuts and chocolate coins that is meaningful?
Rabbi Simon: Latkes and doughnuts come from the miracle of oil (they are fried). Chocolate gelt is a symbol of Chanukah gelt and you should give to a friend who doesn’t have.
What kind of menorah is best—oil, candles or electric?
Rabbi Simon: You are fulfilling the mitzvah either way. It is better with a natural flame, and the original was lit by oil. But if you are travelling, or in a hotel or hospital, an electric menorah is acceptable.
What message should we tell children about the Chanukah story?
Rebbetzin Simon: Children can understand from an early age that it is important to stand up for what’s right. They should be brave and courageous, like the Maccabees, and have pride in being Jewish. They should understand that Hashem is always taking care of us. An important part of the Chanukah story is that Antiochus (Greek emperor) decreed that Jews couldn’t learn Torah, so they hid in caves and learned. When they heard anyone approaching, they would take out dreidels and play games. Only once they understand the devastation can you talk about how terrible it was that we couldn’t light Shabbat candles and make challah.
Adults can still think of Chanukah as a children’s holiday. What is the adult way of thinking about Chanukah?
Rabbi Simon: Family parties are wonderful and important; you can never spend enough time with your family. But Chanukah is not just a children’s holiday. It speaks to you at every age. You are meant to be that light unto the nations. More than any other holiday, Chanukah personifies and exemplifies that in all stages of life. From pre-school to nursing home, we have to internalize the message and have it transform and change us. We don’t want empty rituals. We have to internalize ideas so they become a part of us and make the world better.
Rebbetzin Simon: We were a tiny people that overcame a big army. We are a minority in the world today but with our goodness we can overcome darkness. We were never strong in numbers, we’re a fraction of a percent of the world’s population, but we have changed the world. We have to take pride in our history and who we are.
How do we transmit that message to children?
Rabbi Simon: You have to be an example of what you are trying to tell. The best way to infuse values is like the common cold—values are caught not taught. Children catch them from how you behave. If you just lecture, it goes in one ear and out the other. Be an example. Do things with them. Visit classrooms, prepare for the other class, bring books to each other. Bring joy to somebody else.
What will Chabad of Teaneck be doing this year for a public Chanukah celebration?
Rabbi Simon: Chabad does public menorah lighting for all towns in Bergen County. We have our own Chabad house Chanukah lighting open to all. This year the party will be in Chabad House on the third night. Each year we build a unique menorah. One year we asked people to bring a can of food and we made a menorah out of them. After the menorah was lit, we gave the cans to a food pantry. One year we made a six-foot menorah out of chocolate bars and donated them. Another year we made one with Legos and then donated them to the children’s hospital in Hackensack.
What will the menorah be built out of this year?
Rabbi Simon (smiling): We’re still working on it…