Sunday, May 29, 2005

Shabbos: Better to Light a Candle?

What is the reason for the Rabbinic Yom Tov of Chanukah? On account of which miracle did the Rabbis establish it? (21b4).
If there has to be a special Torah reading for Chanukah, I'd make it Deuteronomy 17:11:
You shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you.
Why? Because when the Gemara asks if the commandment to kindle the Chanukah lights is Biblical or Rabbinic, Rav Avya argues that the Hanukah commandment is Biblical because when the Torah says, “You shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you,” they are the rabbis.(23a).

It seems what Rav Avya is REALLY arguing is that there is a Biblical basis for placing Rabbinically mandated mitzvot on the same level as those that are Biblically mandated. This is the Biblical origin of the commandment to kindle the Hanukah lights: that it is Rabbinically mandated.

The purpose of this text is to put the obligation to light candles on the same level as the obligations outlined in the Torah itself; to elevate this seemingly minor holiday to a Biblically mandated status. Of course, Hanukah is in fact the only holiday with mitzvot obligations that is not Biblically mandated, so elevating it creates more questions than answers.

For example, if a person only has funds for purchasing oil for one light, should he buy for a Sabbath light or a Hanukah light? Rava would have us choose oil for Sabbath because that light brings peace to his home. If a person only has funds for oil for the Hanukah light or wine to sanctify the Sabbath, what is the law? Which should he obtain? Rava says that kindling the Hanukah light is preferable since its purpose is to publicize the miracle.

Hanukah is all about publicizing the miracle, but which miracle? The Gemara asks this very question (21b). There is no consideration of commemorating the military victory or fetishizing the martyrdom story associated with this holiday. Over and over again the Talmud talks only of the miracle of the light and the commandment to publicize it.

Rav Huna required a Hanukkah light by each doorway of a house if the doorways were on different sides of the house lest passersby see only the side that is not lit. If you live on an upper floor, place the lights in windows facing the public domain. The purpose of the lights is to publicize the miracle.

Hillel and Shammai argue over whether we increase the lights over the eight days from one to eight or decrease them from eight to one. Hillel argued that “in matters of sanctity we never decrease the degree of sanctity.” Shammai argued that we suspend this general rule to dramatize that which we are publicinzing—- that the true nature of the miracle is that the one-day portion of oil gradually diminshed over eight days.

An important exception is made. In times of danger, you should place your light on your table and that is sufficient. “But if the light is inside, you should also light another lamp so it will be discernible that the Hanukah light was kindled for the sake of the mitzvah.”

The candles are not sanctified; they’re not holy. There is no obligation to use special oils or wicks. There is no prohibition against benefitting from the light, but over and over again the rabbis caution that to appear to treat them as ordinary objects or use them for personal benefit, such as to read by, may look to others as diminishing the majesty of God’s commandments. In other words there is an elusive ambivalence to this holiday: not quite Biblical, not quite sacred, important to publicize but not to put oneself at risk for. It is meant to be joyous and umcomplicated, but can be quite complicated.

The holiday is more than anything a celebration of visibly being Jewish people. It is the holiday of being out there; making our light shine. Civil laws are bent to make sure we make this happen:
If a spark flies out from under a blacksmith's hammer and went and damaged another's property, the blacksmith is liable. If a camel laden with flax was passing through the public domain and its flax protruded into a shop and was ignited by the shopkeeper's light and the burning flax set a mansion outside ablaze, the camel's owner is liable for all damage to the building. If, however, the shopkeeper placed his light outside the shop in a public domain, the shopkeeper is liable. R'Yehudah says: in the case of a Chanukah light, the shopkeeper is not liable. . . . This ruling of R'Yehudah indicates that the requirement is to place the Chanukah light within ten tefachim of the ground, for if it enters your mind that one may place it above ten tefachim even in the first place, let the damaged party say to the shopkeeper: "You should have placed your Chanukah light above the height of the camel and its rider, for you knew that the lower placement is hazardous." Since the damaged party is denied such a winning claim, we may conclude that it is indeed a mitzvah to place the Chanukah lights within ten tefachim of the ground. (21b).
So, a word to the wise should be sufficient: if you should be passing my shop during the eight days, hold your camel’s head down.


Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Temporary Insanity of a Litvak

Ah, Deuteronomy 17, the Rabbis' favorite chapter. Why do we have to listen to them? Because the Torah tells us to (although there's some fudging of "the priest" and "the judge" -- it comes down to whoever is in charge "in those days").

On the subject of Shammai, whose opinions we will follow after the coming of the Moshiach, his method of lighting the Chanukiah -- which sounds like a downer -- is the deeper approach, according to the Kabbalists. Using his method, we are ascending the ladder of emanations to return to the origin of all lights in the One light.

9:09 PM  
Anonymous kaspit said...

Yes, the civil law here is accomodating the exercise of "religion" (or, put people-hood etc within the scare quotes). The halakha assumes that each party (e.g., camel driver) takes reasonable precautions, which means they are expected to adjust to the practice of hanukah lighting. While it's become commonplace to read literary texts within their cultural context, here the law too is shaped by cultural practices. Were the public domain not assumed to contain hanukah lights, but it was home to other hazards (Xmas lights?!), presumably again responsibility would lie with the camel driver (and not the shopkeeper who sets up the hazard). The social practice may be seen in some other dangers in the Talmudic readings we've passed. For instance, Rashi suggests another rule you mention (i.e, to light the chanukiah on a table, not window) assumes a threat due to a pagan holiday. So maybe we will gain insight by reading for the cultural context of the law, and if our insight lags then there's probably a rabbinic commentator to help fill us in.

11:17 PM  
Blogger kaspit said...

Just a quite note to let you know that I cited you in a post about The Ten Commandments, religious freedom and (!) hazardous materials transportation. Thanks muchly. Here is a trackback excerpt:

Thanks to Daf Am Haaretz for the Artscrollian translation and the topic.

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