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Why There’s A 30-Foot Menorah on the National Mall

The tradition of the National Menorah was begun under President Jimmy Carter in 1979

A photograph of the National Menorah from 2011. (Ted Eytan)
smithsonian.com

Every year, the White House has two holiday symbols on the Ellipse:the White House Christmas tree and the National Menorah.

The tradition of the National Menorah dates back to 1979, and to an Orthodox Jewish leader in Washington named Abraham Shemtov, who thought the nation’s capital needed a menorah as well as a Christmas tree.  

Then, the secretary of the interior initially denied him a permit to put a menorah on government property, on the grounds that it would violate the First Amendment, writes Rebecca Cohen for The Washington Post. What happened next was a classic piece of Washington insider work. Shemtov, she writes, "called his friend Stu Eizenstat, an adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Eizenstat gave the secretary a choice: Either approve the permit or deny the National Christmas Tree’s permit too. If he disobeyed, Eizenstat would take the matter straight to Carter, who would side with Eizenstat—a major embarrassment for the secretary."

Shemtovgot the permit, and a tradition was born. That year, President Jimmy Carter participated in the lighting of the menorah, mentioning the Iran hostage crisis in his speech. Today, the menorah-lighting duties are generally given to a prominent Jewish politician, Cohen writes.

For the first few years, the ceremony was held in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. Only a few dozen people came to the first one, writes Cohen. But the annual event grew. Abraham Shemtov’s son, well-known Orthodox rabbi Levi Shemtov, has continued the tradition, Cohen writes. He started helping in the 1980s, taking the event over in 1991. In that time, the event has blossomed to thousands of attendees and a much larger digital audience, according to the website of American Friends of Lubavitch, the organization that oversees the National Menorah.

In 1982, after Ronald Reagan had taken over the presidency, he called the symbol of Hanukkah the National Menorah, “thereby equating its lighting with the National Christmas Tree lighting,” writes Rabbit Joshua Eli Plaut for RJ.org. Five years later, according to Histories of the National Mall, the Menorah moved to its current location on the Ellipse.

Its size is regulated by Jewish law, writes Stacey Samuel for CNN. “It’s got to be visible, so it has to be at least two and a half feet off the ground minimum,” Shemtov told her, “and not higher than 30 feet, because rabbinical authorities deem that to be the height at which a person has to crane their neck to see it.”

The Menorah will be lit this year starting on the evening of the twenty-fifth. One candle will be lit for each of eight nights.

“The first chapter of the Hanukkah story was written 22 centuries ago, when rulers banned religious rituals and persecuted Jews who dared to observe their faith,” President Barack Obama said in the year’s White House Hanukkah party, held on December 14. “Which is why today we are asked not only to light the menorah, but to proudly display it—to publicize the mitzvah.”

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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