Tonight, I will not be counting my money by the light of the Chanukah candles. Nor will I do so on any of the remaining evenings of this eight day festival. Unlike the Sabbath candles or the candles for other holydays, these Chanukah flames must not be used for any other purpose. For instance, you cannot read a book in the room containing the Chanukah lights unless another light is present. By way of warning, ancient Jewish wisdom insists that the light of the Chanukah candles may not be used even for as important an idea as counting one’s money. Excuse me! Shouldn’t it have said for learning Torah or studying with one’s children? Who would have thought of counting money in the first place?
In one further apparent nod to monetary awareness Chanukah is the only occasion in the Jewish year on which it is customary to give money as a gift. Unique to this holiday, children are given gifts of money as an incentive and reward for studying God’s word. Though the precise origins are shrouded in mystery, there are even grounds for seeing the first syllable of the word Chanukah as the etymological source of the English word ‘coin’.
In another apparent recognition of the importance of earning money, ancient Jewish wisdom marks the correct time for the lighting of the candles in an unusual manner. While tradition usually mandates observances according to sunset or using other clock-related ways, we are told to light the Chanukah candles, the holiday's main observance, while people are in the streets heading home from their day’s work.
What is this Chanukah connection with money and work? We get a clue from the fact that it is the only Jewish festival of the year on which there is no religious restraint or even suggestion against working at one’s everyday job.
The answer becomes clearer when we realize that not only must the main religious ritual, the Chanukah lights, be singularly dedicated to the holiday itself, but the name of the holiday even means dedication.
One of Chanukah’s central themes is the fundamental idea that dedication to God must come first. Everything else in our lives needs to be judged through that prism. However, dedication to God does not mean isolating oneself from other people or divorcing oneself from economic effort and achievement. Rather the contrary. God is delighted by the sight of humans connecting with each other, establishing families and communities. He also delights in seeing us serving the needs of other humans just as we thrill at seeing our own children taking care of one another. On Chanukah, we integrate those parts of our lives which we sometimes mistakenly see as conflicting rather than complementary.
People are usually comfortable and even proud when talking about how they help others through charitable giving. And giving charity is wonderful. Yet providing others, in an ethical and open marketplace, with things and services they need is also praiseworthy. Providing for one’s family through honest enterprise is noble and part of God’s plan for humanity. During Chanukah we weave money and the marketplace into our celebrations. So, though I won’t be counting my money using the Chanukah lights, it is perfectly reasonable that I might have thought of doing so.
P.S. Last week in the Thought Tool entitled “No Thank-you” I wrote that nowhere in the Five Books of Moses does anyone say the words, thank-you. As many alert readers pointed out, a perfectly legitimate translation of Genesis 29:35 has Leah giving thanks to God and naming her fourth son Judah. Of course, as the Thought Tool indicated, this naming of her son was also an action rather than merely a verbal utterance.
My wife and I would like to take this opportunity of wishing all our Jewish subscribers a joyously happy Chanukah, a time of light defeating darkness, a time for gratitude and praise to God, and a time for economic success.
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