The Hanukka ceremony on each of the eight nights commences with the rabbinically ordained kindling of the Hanukka candles or oil-burning lights, preceded by three benedictions and ending with two succeeding liturgical texts (hannerot hallalu and ma’oz tzur). The Hanukka lights were originally kindled only in the home, but were later introduced into the synagogue as well. There, it occurs immediately following the minḥa (afternoon) service on weekdays.
The benedictions and liturgy are generally sung at home with the assembled family and guests. However, additional public candlelighting ceremonies are well-established events often associated with Hanukka concerts. The tradition of annual Hanukka concerts dates to pre-20th-century Europe and has been perpetuated and even enlarged in many American communities. Cantorial-choral settings of the candlelighting benedictions have thus been created by composers and arrangers throughout the 20th century, in a wide variety of styles.
Two benedictions are recited (preferably sung) before the lights are kindled. The first one praises and acknowledges God for enabling the Jewish people to attain holiness (closeness to God) through observance of His commandments, which in the context of Hanukka extend to the postbiblical legal requirement to kindle the lights. Since the Hanukka episode is itself postbiblical, there is no reference to it in the actual Torah. Yet the wording of the first benediction, “Who [God] has commanded us to kindle the Hanukka lights,” is a reminder that religious obligations ordained by the sages—beginning with the “men of the Great Assembly” (anshei knesset hag’dola), the spiritual leaders in the period of Ezra the Scribe who are considered the prophets’ successors—have the same force of divine commandment in Jewish law and practice as those stated in the Torah.
The second benediction praises and acknowledges God for His role in ensuring the victorious outcome of the Hanukka episode—for His having “wrought miracles for our forefathers in those former times at this same season” (i.e., this date on the Hebrew calendar for the rededication of the Temple following the Maccabean victory). On the first night of Hanukka, the kindling ceremony includes a third benediction that is also recited on other occasions out of similar sentiment. It expresses gratitude for having been sustained and preserved thus far, and therefore able to reach and witness the current season.
Unlike certain other parts of the Ashkenazi liturgy, there is no single authoritative melody for the Hanukka benedictions. The B’rakhot l'hanukka (Benedictions for the Kindling of the Hanukka Lights) heard here is a setting for cantor and choir by Raymond Goldstein that utilizes unrelated melodies by three traditional cantorial composers—Solomon Ancis; Joshua Lind; and Zeidel Rovner—the last two of whom were famous synagogue composers in the quintessential eastern European folk-oriented mold. Goldstein’s paraphrase here as a single unified setting evokes a typical traditional Hanukka concert or public candlelighting, but it is cleverly fused with a more contemporary harmonic character.
Sung in Hebrew
I. Praised be You, Lord (praised be He and praised be His name), our God, King of the universe, who has made us holy through His commandments and commanded us to light the Hanukka candles (lights). Amen.
II. Praised be You, Lord (praised be He and praised be His name), our God, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our fathers in their time at this very season. Amen.
III. Praised be You, Lord (praised be He and praised be His name), our God, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, preserved us, and permitted us to reach this [joyous] season and occasion. Amen.
Performers: Coro Hebraeico; Neil Levin, Conductor; Simon Spiro, Cantor
Publisher: Milken Archive of American Jewish Music
Translation: Rabbi Morton M. Leifman
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