Stuck in Traffic: Rethinking Chanukah

What are we celebrating on Chanukah? At the most basic level we commemorate the  Hashmonaim defeating the Greeks and reclaiming the Temple. According to the Rabbis after these Maccabees beat their enemy and rededicated the Temple they found one cruse of pure oil for the Menorah. This oil was enough to last for one day, but it lasted for eight days, which was enough time for them to produce more pure oil. To the Maccabees this miracle was proof that God approved and sanctioned their military efforts. It seems that at its core Chanukah is a victory of Particularism over Universalism. But was it really a fight between the Greeks and Jews or between the Hellenized Jews and religious zealots? Many believe that this was truly a civil war. How might the celebration of Chanukah help us rethink reconciliation after a civil war?

In order to answer this question we should explore the when and where of the commandment to light the Chanukah candles. But before we get to that we need to explore the phenomena of traffic. I happened to have just read a great book on the topic of Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. It is well worth the read. Vanderbilt points out many things, but one is that we all hate traffic. That is interesting that traffic has such a negative connotation today while it originally was a good thing. The word traffic comes from the Italian traffico (14c.) which comes from from trafficare “carry on trade”. It was only much later (1825) that traffic came to mean “people and vehicles coming and going”. As Vanderbilt writes

It originally referred (and still does) to trade and the movement of goods. That meaning slowly expanded to include the people engaging in that trade and the dealings among people themselves–Shakespeare’s prologue to Romeo and Juliet describes the “traffic of our stage.” It then came to signify the movement itself, as in the “traffic on this road.” At some point, people and things became interchangeable. The movement of goods and people were intertwined in a single enterprise; after all, if one was going somewhere, it was most likely in pursuit of commerce. This is still true today, as most traffic problems occur during the times we are all going to work, but we seem less likely to think of traffic in terms of motion and mobility, as a great river of opportunity, than as something that makes our lives miserable.


Traffic jam as a phrase is first recorded much later in 1908, ousting earlier traffic block (1895).

Vanderbilt goes on to define this traffic problem:

We say there is “too much traffic” without exactly knowing what we mean. Are we saying there are too many people? Or that there are not enough roads for the people who are there? Or that there is too much affluence, which has enabled too many people to own cars? One routinely hears of “traffic problems.” But what is a traffic problem? To a traffic engineer, a “traffic problem” might mean that a street is running below capacity. For a parent living on that street, the “traffic problem” could be too many cars, or cars going too fast. For the store owner on that same street, a “traffic problem” might mean there is not enough traffic.


At its core the traffic problem is the tension between meeting all of our needs on the road while trying to meet each of our needs. How does the system work best at the same time of me getting mine? This is not easy. Vanderbilt points out that this is not a new issue. He writes:

Blaise Pascal, the renowned seventeenth-century French scientist and philosopher, had perhaps the only foolproof remedy for traffic: Stay home. “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact,” he wrote. “That they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”


As Vanderbilt shows, driving is a provocatively revealing prism for examining how our minds work and the ways in which we interact with one another. Ultimately, Traffic is about more than driving: it is about human nature.

With this in mind we turn our mind to Chanukah and more specifically when and where we light the candles. In terms of where? We put them in a way so they can be seen from our windows. In terms of when we learn in the Gemara:

Its observance is from sunset ad sh’tichle regel min a shukuntil there is no wayfarer in the marketplace. Does that not mean that if it goes out [within that period] it must be relit?-No: if one has not yet lit, he must light it; or, in respect of the statutory period.

Shabbat 21a

We take take this to mean that we are trying publicize the miracle of Chanukah. To this ends we put them in the public view at the time when people are passing by our homes.

With Vanderbilt’s insight on Traffic in mind we might come to a deeper understanding of this. We light the candles at the time and in the place where the candles will be seen by and you can see the traffic of people passing by our homes. The way we negotiate traffic is akin to how we might think about reconciliation of civil strife and disagreement. How does the system of roads work best for everyone at the same time of helping me get where I want to go? This is a profound tension in a society between the needs of individuals, small groups, and the majority. Coming to a solution to meet everyone’s needs and desires is never easy. Traffic and Chanukah are about more than driving or miracles: they both give us insight into human nature. We are not just our imaginations of our best selves at home with our families, we are also the same people who are going about along on the road of life. May the light of Chanukah light our path so we can all get along without getting stuck in traffic.


1 Response to “Stuck in Traffic: Rethinking Chanukah”

  1. 1 ShiraDest December 18, 2021 at 10:54 pm

    And may we all avoid road rage.

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