16 Dec Solomon Schechter and the Meaning of Chanukah

Elisa, one of our Kindergarten teachers, asked her students, “Which day of Chanukah should we pretend it is?” as she brought out a chanukiah and box of candles. A student suggested the eighth day, and another cheered out an excited, “Yes!”, presumably because more candles are more fun. As Elisa placed the candles into the chanukiah, the Gan students counted them each, in Hebrew. They talked about why there would be nine candles on the eighth day of Chanukah. Ava explained that one of the candles is the shamash, that “makes the other candles glow.”

The sounds of Chanukah echoed through the halls of Schechter Manhattan this week. Even though the holiday will fall during our Winter Break, students throughout the school are studying about the holiday, reviewing the rituals, and singing the songs. (We look forward to an early Chanukah celebration with parents and friends at our annual Zimriyah, song festival, this coming Thursday, December 22).  As I listened to the Gan students practicing the recitation of the blessings over the Chanukah candles, I was struck by the words of the first blessing.

ברוך אתה ה’, אלקינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו להדליק נר של חנכה.

Praise are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who has sanctified us with divine commandments and commanded us to light the lights of Chanukah.

The blessing formula is familiar, as we recite it for the observance of numerous mitzvot, like putting on tzitzit or taking up a lulav and etrog on Sukkkot. The formula states affirmatively that the ritual is in fulfillment of a God-given commandment. This makes sense for mitzvot where we can point to a biblical source in which the command is ascribed to God, like tzitzit in Bemidbar 15 or lulav in Vayikra23. But the successful revolt against the Syrian Greeks and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem that we celebrate on Chanukah took place in 165 BCE, after the biblical period. There are no Biblical texts that contain any commandments about about Chanukah. So what does it mean that Jews around the world invoke God’s command for this ritual?

Solomon Schechter, the great scholar of Judaism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and, of course, our school’s namesake, offered an important conception of Judaism that touches on the meaning of the blessing on the Chanukah candles. Schechter subscribed to an historical school of Jewish scholars, who understood Judaism as developing through time. Schechter saw Judaism as an ongoing process of interpretation. He wrote, “It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history, in other words, as it is interpreted by Tradition.” Schechter argued further, that the primacy of interpretation in Judaism has important implications for how our tradition develops. “Since then the interpretation of Scripture or the Secondary Meaning is mainly a product of changing historical influences, it follows that the centre of authority is actually removed from the Bible and placed in some living body…This living body, however, is not represented by any section of the nation, or any corporate priesthood, or Rabbihood, but by the collective conscience of Catholic Israel as embodied in the Universal Synagogue.”  By ‘Catholic Israel’ Schechter meant what is called כנסת ישראל or כלל ישראל in Hebrew — the whole Jewish people, or at least the whole community of Jews committed to living by Jewish tradition, and not just rabbis and scholars. (He uses the word ‘Catholic’ not in connection with the Catholic Church but in the basic sense of this word in English, ‘whole, all-encompassing.’) Schechter asserted that Judaism maintained its authority to command not only in the Biblical texts, but in the people of each generation who interpret and live by those texts.

Schechter’s “Catholic Israel” is us, as we live our Jewish lives. And each generation of Jews, with its teachers, institutions, and practices hold the authority and responsibility to sustain and shape Judaism. “Liberty was always given to the great teachers of every generation to make modifications and innovations in harmony with the spirit of existing institutions…The norm as well as the sanction of Judaism is the practice actually in vogue. Its consecration is the consecration of general use, – or, in other words, of Catholic Israel.”

Schechter offered an example of the type of innovation that has happened throughout Jewish history- lighting the Chanukah candles. He wrote that the classical rabbis “would have no objection to introduce new festivals, e.g. the Lighting of the Chanukah Candles, and even declare them to be distinct commands of God, so long as they were, as it seemed to [them], within the spirit of the Law.” For Schechter, reciting the blessing over the Chanukah candles that states God commanded the mitzvah, even as there is no Biblical text that indicates such a commandment, is an affirmation of the primacy of Secondary Meaning making over Biblical religion and the authority of Catholic Israel to shape Judaism. In Schechter’s view, God can give a commandment almost as much through Catholic Israel’s interpretations as through biblical prophets, as much through Tradition as through Scripture.

Schechter’s conception of a Judaism that is shaped by the people who practice it has significant implications.  Such a religion needs people who are invested in it, who engage with texts and ideas to create new Secondary Meanings, who take responsibility for nurturing it within their particular historical settings, and who innovate in ways that sustain the spirit of the Tradition. I believe that this calls for Jewish education that empowers young people to own their Judaism. At Schechter Manhattan we aspire for our students to engage with their Jewish heritage in ways that encourage such ownership. We urge them to engage Jewish texts critically and to ask questions about what the texts meant to our ancestors, and what they mean to our students today. We teach them to identify the essential questions and enduring understandings within our holy texts and to connect those big ideas to their own lives. We create opportunities for them to experience Jewish practices and mitzvot and ask them to reflect on how those experiences feel. We structure community building moments in which they can connect meaningfully with each other, to Jews around the world, and to the larger community they live in. We aspire for our graduates to develop a strong sense of their Judaism and what Jewish commitments they will make so that they can become the future leaders of the Jewish community.  Like the shamash on the chanukiah, Schechter Manhattan graduates will lead a Judaism that glows.

I will have those aspirations and Schechter’s teachings in mind when I light the candles and say the blessing during Chanukah next week. The light of the candles fills me with optimism for the Judaism that our children will shape.

חג אורים שמח

Happy Chanukah

Benjamin Mann

Author’s Chair

Each week we will feature the written work of our students. We hope that you will stop by every week and see what they are writing and thinking about.


Kitah Aleph

In preparation for Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, students in Kitah Aleph wrote in Hebrew about a source of light they like. They then decorated their words with oil pastel-water color paintings. Students in Kitah Aleph reflected on ways that they can shine their light on to others.


Click here to see the original work by Aviya.

“Ani Ohevet et ha-ore shel aynayim shel yanshuf. Chag Urim V’Sameach!”
“I like the light of the eyes of an owl. Happy Festival of Lights!


Click here to see the original work by Avner.

“Ani Ohev et ha-ore shel ner Shabbat.”
“I like the light of the Shabbat candle.”


Click here to see the original work by Ethan T.

“I shine my light by being nice”
(I shine my light by be nise)
-Ethan T.


Click here to see the original work by Nava.

“I can shine my light by giving my friends pictures”
(I can shine my light by giving my FRes Pikchos)



Kitah Gimmel

Kitah Gimmel has started our unit on Native American Culture. The students have been researching the lifestyle of Native American’s in the Pacific Northwest and recording the information in their field books.

Click here to read work by AkivaAmelieIkeJoeyJory, and Sammy.



Kitah Heh

For the culmination of our Colonial America Unit, the 5th graders have been creating brochures based on their research for the purpose of persuading readers to relocate to their chosen colony. Here are some excerpts from the 5th grade projects.

Click here to read work by Jonathan, Odelia, Ronin, Jaden, Geffen, and Gabby.



Kitah Chet

As the capstone to our Torah unit on the death of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses), the eighth-grade students wrote a eulogy for him, from the perspective of Yehoshua ben Nun (Joshua). Here are three of their eulogies:

Click here to read work by Ben, Asher, and Bella.