Last night, Jewish families marked the start of Hanukkah by lighting the first candle. By the end of the eight-day holiday, each Jewish household will have lit at least 44 candles -- more if they use more than one menorah (or Hanukkia).
Now a group of Israeli environmentalists has launched an Internet campaign encouraging Jews the world over to light at least one candle fewer. The suggestion, made to cut down on damage to the atmosphere, has not been welcomed by some Jewish leaders, who say candles are an essential part of Hanukkah observance and that there are better ways to help the environment.
According to the Jerusalem Post, the founders of the Green Hanukkia campaign determined that each candle burning all the way down produces 15 grams of carbon dioxide (it didn't say how much output came from oil and wicks or electric bulbs, which some people use instead of candles). Multiply that output by 44 in a million households in Israel alone, they said, and it adds up.
"The campaign calls for Jews around the world to save the last candle and save the planet, so we won't need another miracle," Liad Ortar, a founder of the campaign, told the Post. (Hanukkah commemorates the retaking of ancient Jerusalem from Greek and Assyrian rulers, and rededication of the temple, where a tiny vial of oil miraculously burned for eight days.)
Cofounder Tom Wegner told the newspaper that the idea is not anti-religious because people could forgo using the shamas (the candle that is used to light the others), which is not required for fulfilling the mitzvah (commandment).
One religious member of the Knesset, Avraham Ravitz, told the Post that the environmentalists are "crazy people" and that "they should encourage people to light one less cigarette instead."
The response of several Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh was summed up by Rabbi Danny Schiff, community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning.
"You've got to be kidding," he said, after hearing about the campaign for the first time. He went on to call it "an absurd notion."
"If you're serious about the environment, you have to look at who the big polluters are -- major corporations and countries that have no controls. The challenge is not going to be lost or won by how many candles 13 million Jews around the world light on Hanukkah, especially since a large proportion won't light any at all. I'd like to see a comparison on how far you have to drive your car to create the same amount of carbon dioxide as one candle."
Jeff Cohan, director of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh's environmental committee, had a similar reaction.
"I understand the symbolism, but the effect on the environment would be almost nil," he said. "The other projects we have going will have much more impact and significance than lighting fewer candles."
Last year, in keeping with the holiday's Festival of Lights theme, Pittsburgh joined Jewish communities across the country in a campaign to replace inefficient light bulbs at home with low-energy models. That effort is ongoing, Mr. Cohan said.
This year, the committee will be distributing 5,000 reusable, custom-designed shopping bags for synagogues to sell to members at $2 each. That will cut down on use of paper and plastic, and the proceeds can be put toward environmental projects.
In addition, Mr. Cohan said, the committee is working with synagogues and organizations to conduct energy audits, with the goal of reducing consumption.
"Jewish tradition commands us to be concerned about the environment, but I am confident that fulfilling the commandments of Hanukkah does not conflict with our environmental responsibilities," said Rabbi Yisroel Miller of Poale Zedeck Congregation in Squirrel Hill.
Rabbi Stephen Steindel of the conservative Beth Shalom Congregation in Squirrel Hill had mixed feelings about the fewer-candles concept.
"There is an ancient Jewish tradition that a single candle can fulfill the mitzvah of Hanukkah, so if someone chooses to light fewer candles for environmental concerns, there is precedent for that," he said.
But, he added, "Religion takes so little of people's focus as it is, I would want to go slowly in giving up obligations and traditions when there are so many other ways to protect the environment."
If anyone does decide to cut down on candles this year, he added, "I would suggest they light the full menorah on the last night as a way to join their fellow Jews around the world who will be doing the same thing."
First Published December 5, 2007 5:00 AM