Why We Display Menorahs In The Window During Hanukkah

They’re meant to be seen.

Hanukkah menorah on window background
Photo: farakos/Getty

Hanukkah yard decorations may not be as popular as jolly Christmas decor, but many Jewish Southerners adhere to one specific feature: a menorah in their window sill. Also known as a chanukiah, this eight-pronged candelabra is used to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Lights, during which those observing light a new candle each night to represent an ancient miracle that made a minuscule amount of oil burn for eight days straight.

Thanks to the menorah's positioning by the window, the light filters beyond the home for all passersby to see. This holiday window feature isn't just a cosmetic trend, though. Rather, the traditional act holds deeper religious and social meaning. Here's why we do it.

It's a Commandment

As pretty as the flickering candlelight is, the reasoning for the window-side display goes further than the aesthetics. Indeed, many Jewish people consider lighting the menorah by the window to be an obligation under Jewish law, not just a festive decorative choice.

"The reason the menorah is displayed in the window is because the rabbinic laws surrounding the lighting of the menorah require that we 'publicize the miracle' of [Hanukkah]," explains Sheila E. Jelen, director of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Kentucky.

"It's a mitzvah," meaning a commandment, agrees Rachel Gordan, assistant professor of religion at the University of Florida with a specialty in American Jewish culture. "It's a form of publicizing God's glory."

So, menorahs are lit in the window because they demand to be seen. "In fact, it's only permitted to light the candles at all from sunset until the hour at night when most people are already asleep," adds Joshua M. Shanes, associate professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. "Again, because people have to see it."

It's an Expression of Pride

For many though, what started as a religious obligation has taken on new meaning in modern life. In addition to fulfilling a commandment, menorahs lit in the windowsill may ring with alternate meaning, especially pride and solidarity.

"I imagine many Jews today—especially if they are not Orthodox—are less interested in the details of the law than they are in sharing to the world that they are proud Jews celebrating their own holiday at a time that their neighbors are proudly celebrating Christmas," Shanes says.

"Lighting the chanukiah in a place that can be seen by others has become even more important for Jews, as a way to signal their pride in their heritage and religion," agrees Gordan. "During the holiday season, when Christmas is getting most of the attention in our society (and yes, the Christmas lights and trees add so much beauty to this often bleak time of year!), it is also very meaningful for many Jewish families to make the celebration of their winter holiday more public by performing the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle, and placing the chanukiah in the window."

So the next time you see a menorah in a window, take a good look. It was placed there with pride, and it's meant to be seen.

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