It is Hanukkah this week. This seems to be a favorite holiday for Israelis. From what I can tell, the most important components of this holiday are candles and donuts.
As one person here on campus explained to me, a lot of Jewish holidays are very restrictive and require a lot of preparation. The rabbis have highly regulated those holidays in order to ensure that the people keep them properly. For example, at Passover, they have to clean their houses from top to bottom and follow a lot of guidelines for celebrating properly. Shabbat is another good example. It comes every week with a whole list of restrictions of what they cannot do on that day.
Hanukkah is a much newer holiday in celebration of a second-century BC miracle. Antiochus III, a Seleucid king, had taken over Judea and desecrated the Jerusalem temple. The Jews, led by the Maccabees, revolted and regained control of the temple.
The story goes that when they went to light the temple menorah, they found that most of the oil had been defiled by the Seleucids. They could only find enough undefiled oil to last for one day. They would need to make more oil, but since they were soldiers returning from the battlefield, the Mosaic law required them to purify themselves for seven days. They would not be able to make more ritually pure oil until the eighth day. Miraculously, the one-day supply of oil kept the menorah lit for eight days until the they were able to make more oil for it.
Today, Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah for eight days in remembrance of the eight days that the menorah miraculously stayed lit. Each day, they light one more candle than the day before, until on the last day of Hanukkah, the whole menorah is lit. Unlike the holidays prescribed in the Law of Moses, Hanukkah does not come with a whole list of restrictions and requirements. It is a happy time: a joyous celebration of light and miracles. The only requirements for Hanukkah is that you light candles and eat – preferably donuts.
A few days ago, I attended a Hanukkah candle lighting that the university hosted for their international students. They had a speaker who explained the story of Hanukkah and created an analogy between the lighting of the candles and the research that we students are doing.
He said that when we first arrive, ready to begin our research, it is like the first day of Hanukkah, when only one candle is lit on the menorah. We come with a spark of knowledge about our topic of choice, but much of the information is still in darkness. Then, just as a new candle in the menorah is lit each day, we expand our understanding of the topic a little at a time, until finally we have gained a comprehensive knowledge of the topic.
This analogy reminds me of an archaeological principle. It states that in an excavation, we move from the known to the unknown. We don’t go around digging random holes and finding things out of context. We systematically work from what we know, and gradually expand our knowledge of the unknown.
So, here I am, a brand new PhD student at Ariel University. I want to study the transition between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age in the hill country of Israel. I know a little bit about the topic – a solitary candle flickering in the darkness of what I don’t know. But that candle casts enough light for me to see that there is another candle next to it. Once I perform the research necessary to light that candle, I’ll be able to see the third candle, and so on, moving systematically from the known to the unknown, until hopefully, in a few years, I’ll have shed light on the entirety of my research topic.