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Thoughts on Chanukah Candle Lighting

As Chanukah approaches next week, beginning on Sunday evening, December 18th, I thought it might be appropriate to review the traditions surrounding the lighting of the Chanukah lights.  This holiday’s origins are post-biblical, so naturally we do not find any instructions in the Torah regarding the mitzvot associated with the festival.  Its laws and customs are taught by the sages and found in the Talmud tucked away, for the most part, in the tractate of Shabbat in the second chapter which deals with the appropriate fuels and wicks for Shabbat lamps.


On Shabbat, we light lamps or candles to bring joy into the house and to provide light for household activities and, since one may not extinguish the fire nor relight it if goes out on Shabbat, the rabbis wanted to make sure that one chose fuel that would provide a clear and bright light and wicks that would not easily be extinguished.  Thus they provide a whole list of fuels and wicks that are not acceptable for Shabbat lamps.  They contrast these laws, however, with the laws for lighting Chanukah lamps.  One may use any fuel and all kinds of wicks for the lights of Chanukah, though Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught that olive oil is the most appropriate for it provides a clearer and brighter light.  We might add that It also is a reminder of the original light of the Temple menorah that utilized pure olive oil, shemen zayit zach.  Of course, nowadays wax candles can provide a clear light as well. The reason one may use any oil or wick is that, unlike Shabbat lamps, we are not allowed to use the Chanukah lights for any secular purpose.  They are intended purely to publicize the miracle of this season and if a light goes out prematurely, one need not rekindle it.  Since we are not allowed to use the Chanukah lamp for any other purpose, we need to light an additional lamp (or candle) to use for any other secular purpose. In earlier times, the fire in the hearth might suffice for one who could not afford to light another lamp.  Those who could afford it though, were expected to have another lamp burning to use for other household purposes. Lighting a Shamash candle next to one’s Chanukiah provides light for secular purposes as well as serving to light the other Chanukah candles..  While most Chanukiot have nine spaces for candles, some old menorahs I’ve seen have ten spaces, providing two spaces for extra lights one to light the other candles and the other for secular use in the house.  One is not required to have a special Chanukah menorah, a Chanukiah.  One can use other types of lamps.  The Talmud speaks of filling a container with oil and putting multiple wicks in it and, provided that one covers the container, each wick can serve as a separate light.  Nowadays, one can find all kinds of Chanukiot available, from very expensive silver candlelabra to very cheap metal stands, and all kinds of decorative menorahs for adults or for children with cartoon characters or Maccabees, depending on your personal taste.


The mitzvah of Chanukah can be fulfilled minimally by lighting one lamp in each household each night of the holiday, “ner ish uveito.”  However, this mitzvah is a special one and thus we are told that one can perform it in a way that makes it more beautiful. mehadrin.  In that case, each member of the household can light his or her own lamp each night of the holiday, “ner l’chol echad v’echad.”  Indeed, women are equally obligated to light the Chanukah lights as are men, since both men and woman benefited from the miracles and participated in their fulfillment.


The Talmud also mentions those who most fervently pursue the mitzvot, “hamehadrin min hamehadrin.”  Here we have two different opinions on how to proceed.  According to the School of Shammai, one should light eight candles on the first night of the holiday and then each succeeding night, decrease them by one, until on the eighth night only one candle is burning.  The opposing School of Hillel, provides a more familiar scenario.  The say one should light a single candle on the first night and then add candles one by one on each succeeding night until there are eight burning on the last night of the holiday.


The Talmud provides two explanations for these differing opinions.  One sage suggests that the School of Shammai wants to indicate the days remaining in the holiday, in a sense, to cross days off the calendar as they pass.  The School of Hillel counts up the days that have gone by.  In this way, the School of Hillel wants to make the miracle seem greater day after day, building miracle upon miracle, while the School of Shammai wants to imitate the miracle, as the light continues to burn, even as the supply of oil goes down. The opinion of the Hillelites follows the pattern we see for counting the omer between Passover and Shavuot, where we count up the days and weeks that have passed rather than counting only the days remaining.


The other explanation for the differing views is that the School of Shammai wants to compare the mitzvah of candlelighting to the sacrifices of the 70 bulls brought to the Temple for the festival of Sukkot.  On that festival, in ancient days, the kohanim offered 13 bulls on the first day of Sukkot, 12 on the second day, then 11 on the third day, decreasing the number of bulls offered until on the seventh day, they offered only 7, for a total of 70.  The rabbis connect these 70 bulls with the 70 nations of the world as they counted them in the genealogy after the flood. On one hand, we were offering these sacrifices on behalf of all the nations as we read of the messianic vision of Zechariah, the haftarah on the first day of Sukkot, when all the world will come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, a positive message.  Yet the decreasing numbers seem to represent a hope that the nations which have persecuted the Jewish people over the centuries might diminish in number, a less charitable thought perhaps.  Thus the School of Shammai, might have a similar thought in mind by diminishing the candles each night until only a single light is burning brightly on the last day.  As we read in the words of Zechariah at the conclusion of every service, “On that day the Lord shall be One and His name One.” (It is interesting to note that in the Apocryphal book of Maccabees, Chanukah was established to make up for not celebrating the eight days of Sukkot that year while the Temple was desecrated.)


According to the second sage, though, the School of Hillel has a very different approach.  There is a law in the Talmud that one can take a sacred object and use it for a higher sacred purpose, but one may not use it for some lesser purpose.  As they put it, ma’alin bakodesh v’ein moridin, one can raise something in holiness, but not lower it. One example might be making a Torah table cover into a Torah mantle, a higher purpose, but not taking a mantle and making it into a table cover, a lower purpose.  So here, by adding candles each night, the School of Hillel is following that principle by adding to the light, adding holiness to the celebration and not lessening it.  In a season of darkness, one wishes to add more light to the holiday and not decrease the light.  The ruling of the Talmud is that we follow the School of Hillel and, unless one cannot afford the extra candles, we add one more each night. In some homes, the second level of observance where each member of the household lights his or her own lamp is combined with this third level where one adds candles each night and thus, as Maimonides explains, if there are ten people living in one house, on the first night they’d light ten candles, one each, while on the last night they would need to light 80 candles, eight for each person.  Others believe it is sufficient to light just one Chanukiah for the whole household, but to follow the ruling of the School of Hillel.


Originally the practice was to light the Chanukah lights in the doorway of one’s home, placing the Chanukiah opposite the mezuzah so that one might be surrounded by mitzvot, with the mezuzah on the right doorpost as one enters and the Chanukiah on the left.  The lamps were lit at sunset.  Naturally some believe that means as the sun begins to set and others say only once it is dark at the end of sunset and when the stars are visible.  Regardless, there should be enough fuel in the menorah to burn long enough for everyone to go home from the market place and still see the lights burning as they return to their homes.  Thus we calculate that there should be sufficient oil or long enough candles to burn for about a half hour after dark.  On Friday night when we light Chanukah candles before the Shabbat candles, that must be done at least 18 minutes before sundown, so one needs a bit more oil to keep the flames burning after dark.  Later generations, as we know, moved the Chanukiah indoors, placing it in a window facing the street unless it was unsafe to publicize one’s Jewish practice so blatantly.  In that case, the Chanukiah got moved to the dining room.  I’ve seen in one Chasidic home the practice of lighting the Chanukiah in the doorway of the dining room, thus trying to have it both ways. Since we are attempting to publicize the miracle and no longer place the Chanukiah in the doorway, it makes sense to wait for the whole family to gather, if possible, before llighting it even if that means delaying somewhat past nightfall.


We place the candles or oil lamps in the Chanukiah starting from the right side.  Each new candle is placed to the left and we then light the newest candle first.  In this way, as we turn toward the right to light them, we imitate the movements of the kohanim in the Temple who were instructed always to turn to the right in their performance of their duties.  In mystical tradition, the right represents God’s merciful nature.  We place the Chanukiah in its proper position before lighting it and do not move it until the mitzvah has been completed.  The actual lighting of the menorah, the sages rule, constitutes the performance of this mitzvah.


On the first night, we place the first light all the way to the right and take up the shamash to light the candle, but first we say three blessings.  The first is the standard form for every mitzvah, be it a mitzvah from the Torah or, as in this case, a rabbinic mitzvah.  We praise God who sanctifies us through the mitzvot and commanded us to light the Chanukah lamp, ner shel Chanukah.  The Talmud asks “Where did God command us to do such a thing?” They answer that It comes from the passage where the Torah hands over authority in the book of Deuteronomy to the judges in every generation to instruct people in the way to act.  So the rabbis, in taking on this authority, have commanded us to do so each year.  A second blessing is said both on Chanukah and before reading the Megillah on Purim.  In it we thank God she-asah nisim lavoteinu, who performed miracles for our ancestors, bayamim hahem, in those days, bazman hazeh, in this season.  Some folks add the letter vav which means “and” before the word “bazman” to indicate that we thank God not only for the miracles He performed in ancient times, but also in our time as well.  Finally, on the first night only, do we thank God for bringing us to this season once again, the blessing of z’man or shehecheyanu, praising God who kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.  On subsequent nights we only recite the first two blessings.


Having finished reciting the blessings, we immediately light the candles, thus moving from the blessing directly to the action, o-ver l’asiyatah.  As we light the lamps from left to right, the newest first and the oldest last, we recite the passage of Hanerot Halalu.  “These candles that we light are for the miracles (nissim) and the wonders (niflaot), for the saving acts (teshuot), and for the victories in war (milchamot) that You performed for our ancestors in those days at this season through Your holy priests (kohanecha hakedoshim).  And all the eight days of Chanukah these lights are holy (kodesh heim).  We are not allowed to use them, but only to gaze on them, that we might offer thanks and praise to Your great name for Your miracles, Your acts of salvation, and Your wonders.”


Customarily, we sing the hymn Maoz Tzur right after the candlelighting.  I’ve written about its content in some detail in an earlier piece.  The opening stanza which is well known, speaks of offering thanksgiving offerings in the rededicated Temple after God’s victory over our enemies.  As we know, “Chanukah” means dedication and the Torah readings added for Chanukah are those in Numbers that speak of Chanukat Hamizbeach, the dedication of the altar in the desert tabernacle. The English version, Rock of Ages, is not a precise translation  of Maoz Tzur, though it carries the same message of thanks to God for saving us from our enemies.  The original Hebrew poem proceeds with several stanzas recalling earlier times of persecution under the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Persians, before turning, in the fifth stanza, to the events in the days of the Maccabees.  That stanza summarizes the history commemorated by the holiday as follows, “Greeks (i.e. the Hellenized Seleucid Empire of Syria) gathered against me in the days of the Hasmoneans (the Maccabees) – they broke down the walls of my city and defiled all the sacred oil.  But from a few remaining vials, a miracle greeted the rosed people (shoshanim, the roses, used poetically to describe God’s special people).  Wise elders (b’nai binah) fixed eight days as a time of songs and hymns of praise.”  A final stanza appears in some prayer books.  It might have been removed by censors from others since it calls on God to “bare His holy arm” and bring the ultimate redemption, by bringing down the kingdom of Admon, generally taken to mean Edom, the rabbis’ name for Rome and its various Christian successors in Europe who were oppressing and persecuting the Jews in medieval times when this hymn was written.


Liturgically, the service for each day of Chanukah includes the addition of the Al Hanisim passage in the blessing for thanksgiving in the Amidah and in the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, and the recital of the entire Hallel, psalms, 113 – 118, with their accompanying blessings before and after, as well as the special Torah reading as mentioned earlier.  Many people add Psalm 30, even though it is already recited at the end of the introductory morning blessings each day, to the end of the service after the Psalm of the day, since it is entitled, Mizmor shir Chanukat HaBayit L’David, a Psalm, a song, for the dedication of the Temple (dedicated) to David.


As we know, it is customary to serve foods that are fried in oil in remembrance of the miracle of the oil. Most commonly, we have potato latkes (pancakes) and sufganiyot, jelly doughnuts, to mark the day.  Some make it a point to have dairy products also, recalling the rabbinic association of the story of Judith, found in various versions in the Midrash and in the Apocrypha, to Chanukah.  The heroine, Judith, is said to have fed dairy products to the enemy commander, causing him to get drowsy and fall asleep, allowing her to cut off his head and win a victory for her people.  This is one of several tales that link the miracles of Chanukah to the valor of women as well as the victory of the Maccabean men.


What about the presents?  That seems to be a modern day phenomenon, though we do hear of the giving of Chanukah gelt, a few coins to our parents or grandparents, before the commercial spirit took over the holiday in modern times. In retrospect, one can homiletically associate the gifts with the daily gifts brought by the heads of the twelve tribes mentioned in the Torah reading about the dedication of the altar. Chanukah gelt nowadays seems to mean chocolate coins, dairy or parve, and now one can find these coins made from free-trade cocoa as well.  Games with dreidels and various card games are also part of the holiday fun, but the most enduring element of the festival has to be the lighting of the Chanukiah, in order to offer thanks and praise to God’s holy name for all the miracles we experience.


You can find the words and melodies for Chanukah candlelighting on the TBI website under Home Prayers if you scroll to the bottom.

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