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Hanukkah: Lighting a New Kind of Candle
By Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz
The holiday of Hanukkah commemorates the revolt, wars and victory of the Hasmoneans against Greece. Hanukkah is not the only holiday instituted to commemorate victories in the Jewish wars during the Second Temple period. But, while all the other days have been forgotten, the holiday of Hanukkah has remained. Furthermore, the Rabbis tell us that even if all other holidays were to disappear, Hanukkah will never be abolished.
There are other explanations, historical accounts and stories about the miracles of Hanukkah but – as explained clearly in the special Hanukkah prayers that have been embedded in Jewish liturgy from ancient times — these victories are the main reason for the holiday.
The victories themselves are not the distinctive feature of Hanukkah; rather, it was the very nature of these wars that make the holiday so unique. Until the Hasmoneans, all wars were intrinsically simple affairs: people went to war because of real or imaginary threats, out of greed for somebody else’s possessions, or due to personal and national desires for glory. This aspect of war has not changed very much: to date, most of the wars in the world – be they aggressive or defensive – erupt because of these political and economic factors.
The Hasmonean wars were the first ideological wars in history. They were fought because the Jewish people rejected foreign ideology and were willing to march into many bitter battles in order to maintain their ideological independence. Of course, national and economic elements were intermingled, but they were secondary to the main drive that created this revolt and kept the wars going. However, the notion that a people’s attachment to their religion is not merely sentimental – that religion and lifestyle are important enough to fight and die for – was something completely unknown before.
On a deeper level, the importance of the Hasmonean wars is not only the fact that they introduced a “new reason” for fighting. It is that they triggered a basic change in people’s perspective. From then on, religion and belief were no longer a mere matter of habit and convenience. They became a vital component of life.
These wars were a symptom of a more profound change – namely, a change in the perception of what is important and what is not. If people now go to war to protect or disseminate their faith, it means that faith has become a central motivation in people’s lives. If people are willing to die for their religion, it means that they are more than ready to live for it.
It may seem that this is all a matter of the past, but I assert that the message of Hanukkah is still just as pertinent today. In many parts of the world, war – as well as life – has reverted to the most basic corporeal needs. In the present time, there seems to be a pandemic deluge: the world is shaking, the future is uncertain.
At such times, it is important to devote a great amount of thinking to the fundamental drives of society. A tsunami or a volcanic eruption cause changes in the environment. After a deluge, there is an even more profound change. Now is the time for re-thinking and re-assessing the values that have been governing our society.
Times like ours create at least the possibility for finding new paradigms for society. The easy way out – which the powerful elements of our time uphold and preach – is to keep the old order as it was and make some minor corrections as the need arises: providing funds for big banks or major corporations in trouble, or even assisting some of the unfortunate who were caught in the deluge. Such changes and amendments may keep things in place for a while, but what we have here is an all-embracing earthquake. Putting plaster on cracked walls may keep a building from collapsing for some time, but for thorough reparation, one must penetrate the surface and re-examine the foundations.
In the past and present, the overwhelming enveloping attitude has been that only two things count: money and individual advancement. It seems that now, these two elements have cracked to such an extent that mere whitewashing will not help.
The time has therefore come for us to begin thinking in altogether different terms. The notions of good and evil should replace those of legal and illegal – not only from the moral point of view, but also from the practical one. The common good and the re-structuring and rebuilding of notions such as family and community should push aside the overwhelming desire for individual success.
This revision should also include giving much more room to the “vertical” relationship – namely, that between man and Heaven, rather than to the “horizontal” one which has been governing the lives of many individuals for quite some time. These ideas are not entirely new. One may say that in some way, the Hasmonean wars were the death signals of pagan society, which since then has been replaced by other types of ideology. The events of our time may also help demolish the nouveau-pagan western-style society and instill in it values of right and wrong instead of feasibility and practicality. Perhaps now, as was the case at the time of Hanukkah, the time has come for lighting a new kind of candle.
This essay first appeared in The Times of Israel in December 2014.
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Talmud pages on Hanukkah, from Tractate
21a-b: The Miracle of Hanukkah
As we learned on yesterday’s daf, the second perek of Massekhet focuses on Shabbat candle lighting. This discussion leads the Gemara to turn its attention to another set of laws regarding candle lighting, specifically the rabbinic enactment requiring that candles be lit throughout the holiday of Hanukkah.
The holiday of Hanukkah was instituted primarily to commemorate the re-dedication of the altar in the Temple. The Baḥ explains that the Sages instituted kindling lights as the mitzva of Hanukkah to underscore that the Maccabees went to war to preserve the sanctity of the nation and the sanctity of the Temple, not to defend their lives.
The Gemara teaches that the year following the miraculous victory over the Greeks the Sages instituted an eight day holiday of lights. Some point out that since there was sufficient oil to burn for one day, the miracle lasted only seven days. Why, then, is Hanukkah celebrated for eight days? Many answers to this question have been suggested.
For one, Rabbi Yosef Karo maintained that only one eighth of the oil burned on the first day, so it was immediately clear that a miracle had been performed. Others explained that, from the outset, the priests placed only one-eighth of the oil from the cruse in the candelabrum, and it miraculously burned all day (The Me’iri). Yet others suggested that Hanukkah commemorates two miracles; first, the discovery of the cruse of pure oil on the first day, and second, the fact that it lasted seven additional days (She’erit Kenesset HaGedola). There is also an opinion that the eight days commemorate the reinstating of the mitzva of circumcision, banned by the Greeks, which is performed on the eighth day after birth (Sefer HaItim).
Another question was raised regarding the need for an eight day holiday. Why couldn’t a supply of pure oil have been procured sooner? The Ge’onim suggest that the pure oil came from Tekoa in the tribal territory of Asher in the upper Galilee, and the round trip from Jerusalem took eight days. Others say that all the Jews were ritually impure from contact with corpses, and therefore they were required to wait seven days to complete the purification process (Rabbi Eliyahu Mizraḥi).
22a-b: The Sanctity of Hanukkah Candles
The Gemara on today’s daf continues the discussion of the laws of lighting Hanukkah candles.
R Yehuda said that R Asi said that Rav said: It is prohibited to count money opposite a Hanukkah light. R Yehuda relates: When I said this before Shmuel, he said to me: Does the Hanukkah light have sanctity that would prohibit one from using its light? R Yosef strongly objected to this question: What kind of question is that; does the blood of a slaughtered undomesticated animal or fowl have sanctity? As it was taught in a baraita that the Sages interpreted the verse: “He shall spill its blood and cover it with dust” (Vayikra 17:13): With that which he spilled, he shall cover. Just as a person spills the blood of a slaughtered animal with his hand, so too, he is obligated to cover the blood with this hand and not cover it with his foot. The reason is so that mitzvot will not be contemptible to him. Here too, one should treat the Hanukkah lights as if they were sacred and refrain from utilizing them for other purposes, so that mitzvot will not be contemptible to him.
In principle, we must distinguish between tashmishei kedusha– items that have inherent sanctity – like the vessels used in the Temple, a Torah scroll, phylacteries, and the like, and tashmishei mitzva – those items that are used simply to perform a mitzva. The principle is as follows: Sanctified items no longer in use maintain their sanctity and must be buried. However, items used to perform a mitzva may be discarded. The Ramban explains that on that basis, Shmuel expressed surprise when the Gemara insists that Hanukkah lights be treated with the level of respect usually reserved for sacred items. Rav Yosef answered that while a mitzva is still being fulfilled, one must treat the items used for the mitzva with added deference, despite the fact that they do not retain their sanctity after the fulfillment of the mitzva.
23a-b: Blessings on Hanukkah Candles
The Gemara on today’s daf teaches:
R Ḥiyya bar Ashi said that Rav said: One who lights a Hanukkah light must recite a blessing. And Rabbi Yirmeya said: One who sees a burning Hanukkah light must recite a blessing because the mitzva is not only to kindle the light but to see the light as well.
Ultimately, the Gemara concludes that two blessings are recited on every night of Hanukkah, with an additional blessing recited on the first night. In delineating the different blessings, the Gemara says that one of the everyday blessings that is recited is:
Who has made us holy through His commandments and has commanded us to light the Hanukkah light.
To which the Gemara asks:
And where did He command us?
The mitzva of Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah, so how is it possible to say that it was commanded to us by God?
This question is often asked with regard to blessings recited over mitzvot of rabbinic origin. Two answers are offered by the Gemara:
Rav Avya said: The obligation to recite this blessing is derived from the verse: “You shall not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto you, to the right, nor to the left” ( 17:11).
From this verse, the mitzva incumbent upon all of Israel to heed the statements and decrees of the Sages is derived. Therefore, one who fulfills their directives fulfills a divine commandment. Next:
Rav Neḥemya said that the mitzva to heed the voice of the Elders of Israel is derived from the verse: “Ask your father, and he will declare unto you, your Elders, and they will tell you”( 32:7).
Here, the Gemara cites two sources. The first, “You shall not turn aside,” which is both simple and accepted halakha, was sufficient. The Gemara preferred a source from a positive rather than a negative mitzva and therefore cited the verse: “Ask your father” (Rabbi Elazar Moshe Horowitz).
This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.
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