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Lighting Hanukkaha Candles

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has made us holy by Your commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of Hanukka.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who performed miracles for our ancestors in days of old, at this season.

This blessing is chanted on the first night of Hanukka only:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has kept us alive and sustained us, and enabled us to reach season.
 

According to ancient tradition, when Judah and his brothers entered the holy Temple in Jerusalem after defeating the Syrian Greek army, they discovered their beloved sanctuary in ruins. After cleansing and purifying the Temple, the Judeans discovered that there was enough olive oil to keep the נר תמיד Ner Tamid—the Eternal Light—burning for only one day. But נס גדול היה שם nes gadol haya shahm{The letters נ ג ה and ש appear on the four sides of the dreydl, or s’vivon that is used for friendly low-stakes gambling games (usually nuts or chocolate gelt) on Hanukka. These letters originally stood for the results of a spin. If the dreydl landed on נ that meant the gambler took nichts (“nothing” in Yiddish); on ג he took gants (“everything”); on ה he took halb (“half”); on ש he had to shtel (“put in” to the pot). These four letters were subsequently reinterpreted to be the acronym of the expression נס גדול היה שם. Based upon this fanciful reinterpretation, Israeli dreydlach bear the letters נ ג ה and פ meaning נס גדול היה פה “a great miracle happened here”).} “a great miracle happened there”: the flame continued to burn for eight whole days, until a new supply of oil could be produced.

The stirring Festival of Lights teaches us that religious freedom is worth fighting for. Judah and his brothers took on the whole Syrian Greek army in a struggle they could not possibly win -- but they were fiercely determined to worship as Jews, and they ultimately prevailed.
• Lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness...
• struggling for freedom where it is absent...
• savoring freedom where it is present...
that's what Hanukka is about!

On the first night of Hanukka, the שַמָש shamash, or servant-candle, is lit. It then kindles candle #1, on the right-hand side of the חנוכיה hanukkiya—the nine-branched Hanukka candelabrum (often, and erroneously, called a מנורה menora by analogy with its “cousin,” the seven-branched candelabrum that used to stand in the ancient Temple). On the second night, the שַמָש lights a second candle to the left of candle #1… i.e., in the direction that Hebrew is read. Each night of Hanukka, a candle is added; the newest candle is always kindled before the others
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Each night of our lives, even if we are sunk in grief or despair—especially if we are sunk in grief or despair—it is incumbent upon us to continue, like Judah and his brothers, to add candles of hope to the חנוכיות of those around us.

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