The Hieroglyphs of Chanukah (or, Celebrating Chanukah as an Anti-Zionist Holiday)

Photograph by Elliot Sperber

The neighborhood in which I live, in Brooklyn, has a synagogue or two on every block. Almost all of these are incredibly modest. Usually, they aren’t adorned with any religious symbols at all. If they are, though, they’re decorated with either a minimal depiction of the pair of stone tablets Moses is said to have brought down from Sinai, the Star of David, or some representation of a menorah. So, the other day, as I was leaving Central Park and passed a large, opulent synagogue decorated with not just one, or two, but all three of these symbols, among others, I examined it for a bit. And, after a lifetime of looking at these symbols as discrete objects, I began to see them as a logically arranged succession of hieroglyphs of sorts, spelling out a message, an equation. This may sound a bit odd, but I hope the following interpretation makes it less so.

Regarding these symbols chronologically, the first in the series ought to be the pair of tablets. According to the stories from which these symbols emerge, Moses received these, the law, well before King David appeared. His eponymous star, then, is the second in the sequence. And, as the Maccabees appeared long after King David’s reputed reign, the third and final symbol is the menorah (this only applies to the Chanukah menorah, however, as the original, seven-branched menorah derives, according to the story, from Moses as well).

The tablets, of course, symbolize the law. And it is appropriate that there are two, as law is well known to present a duality. This is articulated in a number of ways. There’s the spirit of the law in opposition to the letter of the law. Positive law is opposed to natural law. The famous conflict between the written law and the unwritten law (expressed in the tragedy of Antigone and elsewhere) is another. Frederick Douglass referred to this double in his writings as the law of god as opposed to the law of man. Martin Luther King described this conflict in words that, in turn, echo Augustine of Hippo’s: the opposition between the just law and the unjust law. One can even express this, simply, as law versus equity, or as law contra justice, where law is the letter of the law and justice is the spirit of the law, the just law.Taking this further, this pair can also be seen to reflect the two mythic trees from the story of the Garden of Eden. The word code, after all, derives from the Latin word caudex, which means tree trunk.

The tree of knowledge of good and evil here, though, hardly represents knowledge in general so much as a particular, limited type of knowledge. If Adam and Eve had obtained true knowledge from that tree’s fruit wouldn’t they have had sufficient knowledge to not have been so ashamed of their nakedness? Rather, what this knowledge of good and evil refers to is simply custom, tradition; the knowledge the ancient Greeks referred to as doxa — as opposed to that other knowledge, which means something (etymologically and figuratively) closer to understanding, episteme.

So, the tree of knowledge can be called the tree of custom and tradition, which corresponds to the letter of the law; the rigid letter of the law famously defined by that zealously rigid servant of custom, Antonin Scalia (when speaking of his opposition to the idea of a living constitution), as “dead, dead, dead.”

The living law, on the other hand, then, corresponds to the tree of life (whose leaves are elsewhere described as being medicine, which brings health — the ultimate root of our word Justice, the Vedic word yos via the Latin ius). So, the tree of life can be seen as the tree of justice (in opposition to the rigid law of the tree of knowledge).

It’s significant, also, that the two tablets, these two aspects of the law, are depicted as equivalent. Side by side, they’re not only the same size and the same shape, but they’re oriented in the same way, too, facing the same direction. This contrasts with the next symbol.

Associated with King David, as well as with his scion Solomon, a new symbol emerges. Centuries after the time of Moses, the Star of David enters the symbolic picture. Comprised of overlapping triangles, one pointing up and one pointing down, as I looked at this familiar shape the triangles began to appear to me to be two extremely minimal, simplified trees, cedars or pine trees, each pointing in opposite directions.

Like the symbol of the tablets, this symbol also involves two figures that are the same shape and the same size. But, unlike the tablets, they are decidedly not facing the same direction. One is upright, while the other is upside down, as though recognizing that the two are contradictory. Yet it’s impossible to distinguish between the two. Which one is the right one?

That is, these two symbolic trees, or codes (ie, laws), are represented as being perfectly opposed to each other. (Or, are they arrows, pointing toward different paths? The Hebrew word for law, relatedly, is Halacha, which means “the way to walk.“)

Contraries, they are locked in place by this opposition. That is, this opposition, this contradiction, forms this symbol. But the two are stuck. Law and justice are not just locked in an apparently stable unity, they are deadlocked. And this is how they remain until the third symbol, the solution to this equation, appears.

The third symbol is the menorah, but only the eight-branched Chanukah menorah. The seven-branched temple menorah predates this, deriving, according to the story, from Moses. And though it is associated with trees, and has branches like a tree, with cups at their ends that are compared to flowers, it is not entirely clear which tree this is supposed to represent. Some maintain that it represents the tree of life (just as the Torah itself is compared, in the Book of Proverbs, to the tree of life). But since this menorah was used to represent the priesthood and traditional, patriarchal authority and order, and has been more recently adopted as the emblem of the State of Israel, an entity presently committing genocidal atrocities against the Palestinian people, one can see this seven-branched menorah as the tree of doxa, as the unjust law as opposed to the just law.

The eight-branched Chanukah menorah, on the other hand, which came into being as a result of a successful anti-colonial revolt, as resistance to violence, that drove out the imperialist power of the day, can be seen as liberating, generative power in opposition to coercive power. That is, it can be regarded as the tree of life, as justice. Standing alone, not interlocked with its anti-type, it can be seen as the reconciliation, or sublation, of this longstanding contradiction between law and justice.

Representing a radical justice and fairness, a regenerative power that would repair the world, that would make it anew and prevail over the order of empire and the nation-state (an order not only committing genocidal atrocities in Gaza, but waging war upon the world, extracting and exploiting and polluting it into a toxic wasteland), the Chanukah menorah can be seen as representing opposition to empire in general, and opposition to the law of force and exploitation that underwrites it.

As opposed to the coercive power of the tree of doxa, custom, order, traditional authority, empire, and the state, the Chanukah menorah, then, can be seen as symbolic of generative power, of the tree of life, and a world arranged according to justice and radical fairness, to a eutopia as opposed to the dystopia subjugating, exploiting, sickening and killing us all. In other words, Chanukah can not only be regarded as an anti-Zionist celebration (as it rejects all nationalisms), but as an anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist one, too. Indeed, whereas the seven-branched menorah represents the seven days of the week, the conventional order of traditional time ordering the social world, the Chanukah menorah, with its eighth day, can be seen as challenging this order, pointing to a new day beyond all this.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber