Sunday, December 25, 2016

Eight Kinds of Light

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
(This post first appeared in Shalom Magazine.)

Each night for eight nights one more light is kindled, at the darkest time of the year, until nine candles burn brightly in our windows or on our tables. Candlelight is the heart of Hanukkah.

What do the eight lights over the eight days mean? What do they represent? What might be the meaning of the increasing light throughout the holiday?

The potential answers are myriad. One way to answer the question is to consider each candle as representing a different source of external light in partnership with a different aspect of inner light, creating eight pairs of physical/spiritual light to consider during Hanukkah.

Here’s one such set to consider:

First Lights: Sunlight and Gratitude (Hodayah)
The light of the Sun provides all the energy needed to fuel life on Earth. The light and heat of the Sun make it possible for all kinds of life—algae, grass, elephants, maple trees, humans, and everything in between—to exist and to thrive. That’s a lot to be grateful for!

Second Lights: Starlight and Faith (Emunah)
The Universe contains roughly a billion trillion stars (1 with 21 zeros after it!) that burn as fiercely as our Sun, or more so. The stars’ apparent tininess is a result of their distance from us, for many are far larger than our Sun. Stars are a reminder of the enormity of the Universe through both space and time. The candle burning in our window is but a blip on the screen of billions of years and trillions of miles. We are miniscule in comparison to the vastness of time, space, and substance that is beyond human comprehension. In this context, stargazing can bring forth a sense of deep faith.

Third Lights: Moonlight and Humility (Anavah)
Despite shining brightly in the nighttime sky, the Moon does not give off any light of its own. The moonlight perceived here on Earth is primarily light from the Sun that is reflected off the Moon’s surface, with a little bit of reflected starlight added in. We can learn from the Moon about moving away from the brightest spots in order to reflect light from others, fostering humility.

Fourth Lights: Firelight and Wisdom (Chochmah)
Fires can be lit intentionally or accidentally or can result from lightning strikes or lava flows. Fires burn hot and can be dangerous and destructive, but fire also provides needed warmth, as well as heat for cooking. Knowledge, experience and thoughtfulness wrapped up into wisdom can help keep the fires in our lives, both literal and figurative, within meaningful and safe parameters. 

Fifth Lights: Lightning Light and Strength (Koach)
Lightning is an electrostatic discharge that leaps from cloud to cloud or from a cloud to the ground, causing the familiar flash of bright light and deep rumbling sounds. Lightning is potent; it can split a tree or start a fire, and a single bolt contains enough energy to power about 50 houses for a day. Personal strength can come from many sources, some slow-moving and some sudden and powerful, like a lightning blot, and can provide the wherewithal to keep going through the myriad challenges of life.

Sixth Lights: Candlelight and Compassion (Rachamim)
A candle gives off very little light, but is usually kindled with intentionality and a search for meaning, comfort, connection, or inspiration. Even the light of one small candle dissipates the darkness. So, too, the compassion of our hearts can light up the dark days of those around us, transforming their experience and awakening them to previously hidden blessings.

Seventh Lights: Lamplight and Integrity (Osher)
Most lamps are fueled by electricity, and most electricity is formed through the burning of fossil fuels, extracted from beneath the surface of the Earth and then sending carbon into the atmosphere when burned. Awareness of the source of the energy for our lamplight can foster a sense of integrity as we become more thoughtful about the amount of light allowed to be given forth in our homes, cars, and businesses.

Eighth Lights: Firefly Light and Love (Ahavah)
Fireflies contain a compound in their abdomens that reacts with incoming air to create the memorable glow of a firefly. By regulating the airflow, these nighttime insects create a pulsating pattern. One function of the light is to signal a firefly’s search for a mate – a light-filled insect love message. We, too, can spread love when we allow ourselves to light up from within.

This is just one example of finding meaning in the Hankkah candles beyond what is readily perceived. What other external/internal or physical/spiritual light pairs are meaningful to you this Hanukkah?

Rabbi Katy Allen is a board certified chaplain and serves as an Eco-Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit. She is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long. She is the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network, and a hospice chaplain at CareGroup Parmenter Hospice. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY. 


  1. I love this, Rabbi Katy! There is so much to be grateful for and so much inspiration to be taken from the light all around us. Happy Hannukah!


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