The Jewish Tradition Unfolds in Fire. Here's How, and Why

What are we to make of the fiery images, stories, and rituals that inform Jewish liturgy and Jewish self-understanding?



Dec. 29 2016
About the authors

Eric Cohen is CEO of Tikvah and the publisher of Mosaic. He is also one of the founders of Tikvah’s new Lobel Center for Jewish Classical Education.

Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin is the academic director and dean of Tikvah’s new Lobel Center for Jewish Classical Education. He is also director of the Jewish classical education concentration track at the University of Dallas.

Stories of fire, images of fire, rituals of fire—the Jewish tradition unfolds in flames. During the Hanukkah festival, fire is central. For eight days, Jews commemorate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by kindling the flames of the menorah and by recalling the fire of the altar, ever-present and never to be extinguished. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks beautifully describes:

Even after the Temple was destroyed more than two centuries later by the Romans, the Hanukkah lights bore witness to the fact that after the worst desecration, something pure remains, lighting a way to the future. The Hanukkah lights became one of the great symbols of Jewish hope.

But Hanukkah is hardly unique in putting fire at the center. The Passover story begins with a burning bush that remains unconsumed. At the Passover seder, Jews compare the ten plagues of Egypt with “blood, fire, and pillars of smoke”; discuss the fires that rained down upon Egypt in the midst of a hailstorm; invoke the paschal lamb and the obligation to roast it in fire, an action that preceded the exodus from Egypt when God protected the Israelites by means of a “pillar of fire.” And the seder concludes with a blessing for the retelling of the exodus and the hope for a restoration of burnt offerings and the rebuilding of Jerusalem with fire. On the final day of Passover, in the midst of a celebratory time, Jews light candles of remembrance for the departed.

Nor is Passover unique. On Lag Ba’omer, Jews throughout the world—and especially in Israel—light bonfires in memory of Rabbi Simon bar Yoḥai, symbolically commemorating the light of Jewish teaching that survived the Roman attempt to blot out the political existence of Israel. The holiday of Shavuot recalls the divine fire that descended on Mount Sinai at the giving of the Ten Commandments. In the final prayer of the Tisha B’Av liturgy, Jews echo the words of the prophet Zechariah, declaring that just as God destroyed Jerusalem with fire, so He will use fire to rebuild it: “And I Myself will be a wall of fire around it, says the Lord, and I will be its glory within.” On the final day of Sukkot, Jews pray for salvation in an ancient poem that recalls the Israelite story, forged in the many fires of God. It is worth quoting in full:

For the sake of the patriarch Abraham cast into flames of fire;
For the sake of Isaac his son bound on the wood for the fire;
For the sake of Jacob the mighty who wrestled with a prince of fire;
For the sake of Israel’s hosts whom Thou didst lead by cloud and light of fire;
For the sake of Moses taken up on high and exalted as the angels of fire;
For the sake of Aaron Thy minister among the hosts of fire;
For the sake of the Ten Commandments, a gift from out of fire;
For the sake of the tabernacle covered by curtains and cloud of fire;
For the sake of Mount Sinai whereon Thou didst come down in fire;
For the sake of the beloved shrine which Thou didst love more than the heavens of fire;
For the sake of Moses who remained in prayer until sank down the fire;
For the sake of Aaron who took the censer and allayed Thy wrath of fire;
For the sake of Phineas who flamed with a zeal as of fire;
For the sake of Joshua at the wave of whose hand there descended stones of fire;
For the sake of Samuel who placed on the altar a suckling lamb as an offering burned by fire;
For the sake of David who stood at the threshing-floor and won grace by fire;
For the sake of Solomon who prayed in the Temple court until there descended fire;
For the sake of Elijah Thy messenger taken by chariot and horses of fire;
For the sake of the three holy men cast into a furnace of fire;
For the sake of Daniel who beheld myriads of angels and streams of fire;
For the sake of the desolations of Thy city burned by fire, O save, we beseech Thee.
For the sake of the generations of princes of Judah whom Thou wilt make as a refining furnace of fire, O save, we beseech Thee.

What are we to make of all the burning, fire, and flames that predominate throughout Jewish liturgy and Jewish self-understanding, and what is the Jewish tradition trying to teach through its many incandescent revelations? Such questions, relevant at nearly every moment in the liturgical calendar, are perhaps never more pertinent than during Hanukkah.


The Four Faces of Biblical Fire


Begin with two obvious realities. First, fire is not foremost a symbol but a natural force; second, fire has a special place not just among the Jews but in many (perhaps all) cultures and civilizations.

Natural fire is wild fire: a power that often appears without warning, a blind and relentless agent of destruction. (As Robert Alter describes, only the language of fire seems adequate for describing the biblical Samson, “a blind, uncontrolled force, leaving a terrible swath of destruction behind it, finally consuming itself together with whatever stands in its way.”) For the lower animals, fire is neither servant nor symbol; it is a sight to behold, and perhaps a danger to life and limb. Yet man can tame fire, and man alone. For man, even as it remains a potential destroyer, fire is both a servant and a symbol. Armed with fire, men have committed the most evil acts, even systematically gassing their fellow humans and burning their corpses in ovens, thereby demonstrating a capacity to be beastlier than the beasts. With fire, the same burned bodies are lovingly mourned in candles of remembrance, tiny flickers that connect the living and the dead with the possibility of the eternal.

In Aeschylus’ famous tale of Prometheus, fire is the source of man’s ascent out of “wretchedness,” stolen from the god Zeus who sought to keep it for himself. Without the art of fire, human civilization is unimaginable. Indeed, the rabbis of the Talmud held that the taming of fire was, after clothing our nakedness, the first act of human creation. This explains the Jewish practice of thanking God for fire during the Havdalah service separating Sabbath and holidays from ordinary weekdays.

Yet fire also points beyond the utilitarian—from the fires of hell to the Olympic torch to the fireside chat. A fire burns in the human soul, and man’s soul often burns for the divine. Throughout human history, fire has served as the medium for the human quest to know, appease, and sanctify the divine through sacrificial ritual. Pagan man would offer up his most valuable possessions to be consumed in fire, or pass through fires in a symbolic approach to the service of a god. In Carthage and elsewhere, some men would burn their own children in attempts to incur divine favor.

The Israelite way rejects God-seeking human sacrifice, lighting a different path. Four distinct meanings of fire take shape in the Hebrew Bible; examining them can help us understand that theological path.

The first and perhaps predominant biblical face of fire is reverential: the fire that demonstrates man’s reverence for the divine, typically in the form of the burnt sacrifice of animals. It is easy for moderns to dismiss the ancient practice of agricultural and animal sacrifice as a form of primitive transactional religion. In this spirit, one might understand biblical sacrifice as a partial accommodation of man’s pagan past—or of man’s bloodthirsty nature. But instead of simply reducing biblical sacrifice to a mere stage in the education of man that ought to be overcome and then dismissed, we might at least ask: are there truths that the sacrificial system aimed to embody, in physical, tangible, fleshly forms?

Within the biblical system, the sacrificial burning of animals—choice animals, ordinarily available for man’s use—demonstrates the human capacity to honor goods that transcend the utilitarian. Man is the only animal capable of offering a sacrifice, of setting aside eatable flesh, of seeing a beast of prey as a gift to be given to the Source of all life instead of a possession to be consumed for sustaining life. As Meir Soloveichik has pointed out, the act of sacrifice—of seeing the mortality of animals, bloody and in the flesh—reminds us of our own animality, and of our mortality. Yet it also reminds us of the human difference: that we alone among the animals are fully aware of our mortality and therefore able to offer ritual thanksgiving for the gift of life itself.

Only man can sacrifice while hungry, depriving himself in recognition of and in service to his divine Master. And only man could pass the test of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, by agreeing as Abraham did to offer his beloved son to the Source of human life and thereby coming to understand that God seeks the ultimate depths of human devotion but not the physical giving of the son made in His image.

Indeed, while the biblical God clearly seeks and receives the sacrifices men offer, there are also moments when God seems indifferent to sacrifice or dissatisfied with mere animal sacrifice alone. As Samuel says: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as much as in obedience to the Lord’s command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams.” Moreover, central to the biblical teaching about burnt offerings is the abomination of human sacrifice, of “causing sons and daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech.” Scholars debate whether the Bible is describing the actual burning of sons and daughters or a symbolic rite of passage involving walking through flames; but from the biblical point of view, both are forbidden.

This brings us back to the binding of Isaac. God seeks Abraham’s passionate devotion, even to the apparent point of human sacrifice. Yet He forbids and abhors the slaughter of innocent human beings as a mode of demonstrating reverence. The human being who is deemed worthy to stand in God’s Presence is never to be sacrificed as an offering to the divine. An eternal line is drawn between the “being who sacrifices” and the “beings who are sacrificed,” between the human animal made in the image of God and the other animals, beloved by God yet lacking the breath of His spirit. As the Talmud puts it, God wants people to follow His commandments while thriving in the world, “to live by them, and not to die by them.”

The Bible’s second face of fire is the illuminating and the protective. This might be called the fire of halakhah, the fire that shows the way—and not only in the legal sense. “The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light . . . and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.”

In other words: God’s fire abides. It leads the people Israel out of the wilderness to the land of holiness. Out of the mountain of fire, Moses emerges with the Ten Commandments—the holy law—that will show the people Israel what it means to live a righteous and God-seeking life. The book of Deuteronomy records how “the Lord came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them; He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came from the myriads holy, at His right hand was a fiery law unto them.” The talmudic rabbis believed that the Torah, which they described as black fire written upon white fire, could shape the paths that men take. As Rabbi Akiva put it, if water can slowly cut through rock, how much more so can the fiery Torah penetrate a soft heart of flesh.

Yet the image of God’s illuminating fire is overwhelmed, in the text, by the third face of God’s fire: the cathartic. This is the fire that purges and purifies, that destroys what is evil or unsavory in God’s eyes: the fire that burns Sodom and Gomorrah, melts the Golden Calf, consumes Nadav and Avihu, and devours Koraḥ and his 250 men. It is the fire that sets man’s cities of sin into flames; the fire of divine wrath; the fire that turns evildoers to ashes. Sometimes God’s fire and smoke are directed against His enemies; sometimes, against His own chosen beloved people—of whom, because of His unique covenantal love of them, He is at once demanding and jealous. When He encounters unfaithful or duplicitous behavior, His love kindles to anger, and He describes Himself in Deuteronomy as “a consuming fire, a jealous God.”

To us the cathartic fire of the Bible can seem shocking and even offensive. Does the world’s sin ever justify men and women being burned into nothingness? What kind of God burns sets aflame entire cities to punish their defiling inhabitants for their ways? How can a loving and personal God turn against His own people? The cathartic fire is terrifying: awakening nightmarish fears of God’s burning punishment for our own misdeeds, or the specter of apocalyptic annihilation in a world armed with force and counterforce of unimaginable destructiveness. In the age of Islamic State and Iranian extremism, we are also rightly terrified by the false wielders of cathartic fire—deluded beings who, convinced they are God’s true agents of purification in a world of infidels, exult in butchery and mass murder. And we remember, with a sense of horror, the firebombings of World War II, when ultimate human force was used to oppose ultimate human evil.

Cathartic fire seems like a necessary, perhaps inescapable part of human life lived in search of the divine: our sinful ways cry out for punishment and purification, and the powers of evil need to be confronted by the powers of light. Yet our encounter with the cathartic fire of the Bible is also a shocking reminder of how little we know and how easily we err in our judgment of God’s true will. To live in history, in a dangerous drama of human freedom and divine judgment, is to live with the burden of our waywardness. The cathartic fire reminds us that we are beings in need of atonement: atonement both for wrongful actions born of hubris and for wrongful passivity in the face of evil; atonement both for what we do in God’s name and for what we do when we come to believe that God is dead.

And this leads to the Bible’s final and most profound face of fire: the humbling. This is the fire of the burning bush, the fire of Horeb and Sinai, the fire of revelation: the fire that awakens human awe and that shrouds God’s presence in mystery.

This fire is described in a famous passage from Exodus:

An angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am,” He said, “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

A distant God, a Prime Mover who merely sets the world into motion and then turns His divine attentions to other things, would never reveal Himself in a burning bush or call the prophet Moses by name. And yet the very God who shows an interest in man, after calling Moses by name, next says to him: “Do not come closer.” The man worthy of being called by God is so humbled that he hides his face in fear. Man is at once elevated and demoted, reminded of his distinct place, at one and the same time.

We see this trope again and again in the text—God partially revealing Himself in fire, man turning his face to the ground in pious awe. Here it is in Leviticus:

When [Aaron and Moses] came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.

And here it is in Second Chronicles, the final book of the Hebrew Bible, in a passage that brings together “reverential fire,” “abiding fire,” and “awesome fire,” all coming immediately after a reminder to the people that “there is no person who does not sin,” and therefore no person who does not need a “catharsis”:

When Solomon finished praying, fire descended from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the house. The priests could not enter the House of the Lord, for the glory of the Lord filled the House of the Lord. All the Israelites witnessed the descent of fire and the glory of the Lord on the House; they knelt with their faces to the ground and prostrated themselves, praising the Lord, “For He is good, for His steadfast love is everlasting.”


The Israelite Difference


Part of the genius of the Hebraic vision of human life is the way it builds upon—and then completely transforms—certain pagan rituals, motifs, and ideas. Earlier we presented the ancient poem that Jews traditionally recite on the final day of Sukkot, in which the unfolding of the Israelite drama is recalled and re-enacted with images of fire encapsulating every line. This poem is attributed to Rabbi Elazar Hakalir (ca. 570-640 CE), and shows signs of being influenced by ancient Stoicism’s emphasis on the recurrent extinguishment and renewal of the universe by fire. This cycle of destruction and rebirth was thought to occur every 10,000 years—a so-called “cosmic year.”

In the Jewish vision, fire is similarly a symbol—and sometimes an agent—of divine destruction. Yet the poet’s rabbinic vision responds to this awareness of life’s fragility by invoking the merits of biblical ancestors, who in the face of great threat were saved by placing their faith in the truly salvific fire of the God of Israel. In the biblical worldview, purifying fire holds out the ever-present possibility of redemption as well as destruction, and the poem reminds us that the course of events is not simply premeditated and repetitive: “For the sake of the generations of princes of Judah whom Thou wilt make as a refining furnace of fire, O save, we beseech Thee.” Even a God of fire, an immensely powerful God, walked with Abraham and walks with the Jewish people throughout the ages. The Jewish story is not a cyclical drama of creation, destruction, creation, destruction—leading endlessly nowhere. It is a story, instead, of a forward drive toward redemption.

Marduk and other gods of the ancient Near East were conceived as fiery and destructive. By contrast, the God of the Bible is unique in combining apocalyptic power with self-limitation. While God often comes and goes in fire, He also withholds His wrath in His quest for man’s covenantal faithfulness. The Israelite God of fire recalls the merits of His creations, respects their errant freedom even when it causes Him pain, and withholds or moderates His fire to teach and guide them.

In capturing the complexity of the divine spirit as revealed to the Israelites, the story of the prophet Elijah is instructive. Elijah was “very jealous for the Lord, God of Hosts” and furious at Israel for abandoning their God. But in a display of divine moderation that starkly contrasts with pagan mythology, the biblical God of fire responds not in warranted anger, not in a whirlwind or in earthquake or in fire, but by appearing to Elijah as a “still small voice.” Yet Elijah does not grasp what God is trying to teach Him—and because he does not seem able to moderate his righteous anger in the service of God’s righteous purpose, he is no longer the right man for the mission ahead. He is instructed instead to anoint the more soft-spoken Elisha, who is called upon to advance God’s purposes in a different sacred key. And in a scene that no dramaturge could engineer, God Himself descends to earth in fire to reclaim his former messenger, bringing Elijah to heaven on a chariot of fire, there to remain close with the fiery, jealous God he knew so well.

Much later, the prophet Malachi will forecast Elijah’s return from his fiery abode at a time when human sin appears to demand apocalyptic intervention “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Elijah, who demonstrated God’s fiery presence and deadly vengeance on Mount Carmel in his standoff with the prophets of Baal, will one day be called upon to turn “the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest [God] come and smite the land with utter destruction.” But until the day of the ultimate redemption, God will emphasize the need to limit His fire and walk softly among His people.


The Real Meaning of Hanukkah’s Fire


Perhaps part of the reason Hanukkah is such a profound Jewish festival—and why it has assumed so central a place in the Jewish imagination—is that it brings together so many dimensions of the Jewish meaning of fire and thus the Jewish understanding of man and God. Indeed, the four sacred faces of fire are all present in the Hanukkah celebration. The menorah recalls the reverential fire that was used for sacrificial rituals in the Temple, rededicated on Hanukkah after a successful Jewish campaign against the Hellenizers. The menorah itself is a reminder of God’s illuminating fire, provided to show His path. In the wars of Hanukkah, Jews fought against decrees forbidding them from following in God’s ways. A small, brave army—a cathartic force, burning with passion for the Jewish way of life—meted out justice against the tormentors of God’s chosen people. Finally, the miracles of Hanukkah invite reflection on the mystery of God’s saving hand in the world. The fully lit menorah—a sacred symbol carved on countless Jewish gravestones, emblem of the modern Jewish state—properly awakens awe and humility among the carriers of God’s purpose in the world, a purpose humans can never fully fathom.

The rabbis of the Talmud identified only two holidays—Passover and Hanukkah—on which a Jew is required, if necessary, to sell his own clothing in order to observe them properly. Passover is obviously a holiday of paramount importance, involving a reaffirmation of the fundamental covenant between God and the Jewish people. Hanukkah, a post-biblical holiday, seems insignificant by comparison. But the rabbis understood why it needed to be elevated within the Jewish liturgical imagination.

If Passover is grand, Hanukkah is subtle. The fire of Passover, embodied in the obligation to roast a paschal offering, evokes God’s grandeur in intervening in the affairs of the human world. The miraculous exodus from Egypt, with God’s might on full display, is recounted every year at the Passover seder. In the Hanukkah story, God’s fire is more indirect. God will not always fight openly for His people as He did in Egypt. Most of the time, the Jews will be called upon to fight for their own freedom against other free human beings, to rescue and preserve temples of the divine in a world that forever seeks to profane them. The God of Hanukkah is not absent, but He often works through man with small miracles—the miracle of the oil for the Temple menorah—instead of great fires. This truth about God is captured in another rabbinic teaching: that while all of the other lamps of the Temple menorah burned out each day, the westernmost lamp miraculously remained lit throughout the year, standing alone as a sign of God’s quiet but eternal spirit in His earthly abode.

Every year, Hanukkah provides a visual pointer of what is paramount in ensuring Jewish survival: the miracle of Jewish persistence within history, and the divine purpose of Jewish life that transcends history. Interestingly enough, that reminder is perhaps most salient during the one or two Sabbath days that fall during the Hanukkah festival. On that occasion, both Sabbath lights and Hanukkah lights must be lit, but if one has only enough oil for one, the Sabbath lights take priority.

On Hanukkah, a single large family—the Hasmoneans—led the effort to save the Jewish people from assimilation. The Sabbath candles represent the Jewish family—the individual Jewish family as a microcosm of the entire Jewish family—at peace, engaged in the sacred mission of sustaining a God-seeking way of life from generation to generation. In the words of the Midrash, when all is well with a Jewish family and between husband and wife, the divine presence dwells among them. When all is not well, they are consumed as if by a destructive fire. The Sabbath candles are thus a reminder that the battle for Jewish continuity will be won or lost not only or primarily in moments of great peril and great courage, but in the hearth of normal life. Shining more brightly than any other fire, the Sabbath candles are a weekly sign that the God of the Burning Bush glows eternally within His people.

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