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) that precedes this hannerot hallalu is a setting for cantor and choir by Raymond Goldstein that utilizes unrelated melodies by three traditional cantorial composers—Solomon Ancis; Joshua Lind; and Zeidl 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.
Hannerot hallalu, which underscores the exclusive function of the lights in recalling God’s miracles and wonders and His deliverance, is sung immediately after the lights are kindled. The admonition concerning the sanctity of the lights—and the prohibition of any profane or practical use other than simply looking at them—necessitates the use of a separate ninth flame (the shammash) to kindle the others. The present choral setting, Hugo Adler’s Hannerot hallalu, with its contrapuntal sections juxtaposed against more homophonic treatments, is appropriate for a public candlelighting ceremony.
Sung in Hebrew
We kindle these lights to commemorate the miracles, the triumphs and wonders that You performed for our forefathers through Your holy kohanim (priests) in those days at this season. Throughout the eight days of Hanukka these lights are sacred; we are not permitted to make use of them, but to watch them, in order to give praise and thanks to Your great name for Your miracles, Your triumphs, and Your wonders.