What to do once those candles are lit? Sure, the latkes, doughnuts, burmuelos, and presents are waiting, but what about an opportunity to expand the Hanukkah experience into something to help us connect to the values of heroism that underpin the holiday? Consider this idea: Hanukkah ushpizin.
Ushpizin is Aramaic for “guest,” which aligns with a practice on Sukkot to symbolically invite Biblical figures into the sukkah. Let’s Hanukkah-ize this practice! After lighting the candles, announce the arrival of the evening’s guest. Encourage your family and friends to discuss the hero and their story. In what way does this person inform our celebration of Hanukkah and our understanding of heroism?
Welcome, venerable guest! Welcome to our celebration of Hanukkah. On this night we celebrate your story of heroism and commitment to our people and our beliefs.
First Night: Matityahu, Father of the Maccabees
When Greek officers arrive in Modi’in with the intention of forcibly implementing the ordinances of Antiochus regarding sacrifices to idols, Matityahu refuses. Together with his sons and fellow believers he launches the battle against the Greco-Syrians.
Second Night: Judith
A lesser-known heroine associated with the Hanukkah story, Judith secludes herself with an enemy general and, when he falls asleep, decapitates him, causing his leaderless army to flee.
Third Night: Yochanan ben Zakkai
The first-century sage who, faced with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the virtual obliteration of his community, extricates a promise from Vespasian, the conquering general, to save the Torah scholars of Yavneh.
Fourth Night: Don Isaac Abravanel
Though the 15th-century Torah scholar was a prominent member of the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, he opted to be exiled with the Jewish community in 1492. He heroically led them in the march out of Spain.
Fifth Night: Sara Bat Tovim
In the 1700s in Ukraine — still reeling from the Khmelnitsky uprisings — she wrote prayers in Yiddish specifically for women, with uniquely female themes. Her heroism is of a less dramatic nature, but deeply significant.
Sixth Night: Sara Schenirer
In the 1920s, living in Krakow, Poland, she realized young Jewish women had no formal Jewish education. She launched the Bais Yaacov movement, which is still alive and well today. By World War II, over 20,000 women were studying in her schools. Tragically, most were killed in the Holocaust.
Seventh Night: Women Whose Names We Do Not Know
On October 7, 1944, several hundred prisoners relegated to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz were able to blow up a gas chamber with explosives smuggled in by two young Jewish women assigned to an armaments factory. The women were hanged.
Eighth Night: Natan Sharansky
After 10 years in Soviet prisons on trumped-up espionage charges, he was released with great celebration. When asked how he had survived, he quoted the book of Psalms: “Though I walk through the valley of death I shall fear no evil,” which became part of the title of his autobiography.