The gentile public are used to the Jews placing hanukkiyot in public places – in busy streets, shopping centres, city parks, central squares. Hanukkah lights are kindled by civic dignitaries. Doughnuts are given out to all and sundry. Hardly anyone is unaware that the Jews have a holiday with a universal message.
Why not similar celebrations for other festivals, especially Pesach which also has rousing tunes, a major message, and special foods that would be a hit with the public?
In one sense, the attraction of the Hanukkah parades is connected with the time of year since it is generally December when the mood is already associated with celebration.
From the internal Jewish point of view there is an element that almost dictates a public event – the principle of pirsumei nissa, “publicising the miracle”. Because of pirsumei nissa, the Hanukkah lights have to be visible from outside the house. Not just because of Mattityahu and the Maccabees, but because Hanukkah stands for the right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Celebrating in the streets also symbolises freedom of association and freedom from fear.
There could be a case for making Pesach a more public event, though it might not be politic because of the christological associations of that time of year. Yet Pesach – maybe even more than Hanukkah – has a global message, not specific freedoms (of speech, religion, etc.) but freedom itself. Man, everyman, has a right to be free... to be himself.
What happened the following year?
There are various ancient accounts of the inauguration of Hanukkah, but here and there something seems to be missing. The Talmud (Shab. 21b) describes the miracle of the oil and, while adding that in the following year the people celebrated with Hallel and thanksgiving, says nothing about kindling Hanukkah lights. It appears that the kindling of lights developed over time, first as an individual or family practice and then made obligatory by rabbinic ordinance.
There are various discussions in rabbinic literature about how, when and where the lights should be kindled, leading to a major controversy between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel (in the later part of the 1st century CE) as to the sequence to be followed – starting with eight lights on the first night and then reducing to one, or vice-versa, starting with one and building up to eight.
The status given to the lights by the sages showed their wish to focus, not on the military victory but on the spiritual aspect.
The dichotomy is reflected in the Al HaNissim prayer which is said on the festival and alludes to both aspects.
Ed. note: Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik says that the seven branched holy Menorah in the Temple was lit every night of the year and during Hanukkah, served to remind Jews of the Hanukkah miracle that allowed its rekindling in 165 C.E. After the Temple's destruction in 70 C.E., the eight branched hanukkiyah began to become the norm.