Sunday, December 12, 2004

A candle, a man, his home

The mitzvah of Chanukah: A candle for each man and his home.

- B.T. Shabbat 21b

This well-known summary of the Chanukah ritual brings together three themes: candle, man and home. I have a few remarks about each.

(Please note that my discussion here is philosophical, not halachic; the sources I bring here are the primary sources, not the final word on the laws of Chanukah. Contemporary rulings are often different, and questions of practice should be referred to a competent rabbi.)

Candle. Despite popular perceptions, candles are used in few Jewish rituals. Aside from Chanukah, we light candles to greet Shabbat and holidays and to search for chametz on Pesach. All these have practical purposes: The Shabbat candles promote "shelom bayit", domestic peace, by lighting up the home pleasantly for a family dinner, and the candle for bedikat chametz is used to shed light in dark corners where chametz may be hidden.

Chanukah candles, by contrast, have no practical purpose: "We have no permission to use them, but only to see them." Their purpose is entirely symbolic: "pirsumei nisa", to publicize the miracle. Why should we light candles we are forbidden to use?

Man. The above statement appears somewhat self-contradictory. Does the obligation to light a candle apply primarily to the man or to the home? Though later sources have shifted towards the personal interpretation, the essence of the halacha appears to be that the obligation falls primarily on the home, not on the man (or woman - the two are equal in this regard).

A few examples demonstrate this point. The essential mitzvah in Talmudic times, as cited above, was to light one candle per household. Only the "mehadrin", those who go beyond the minimum requirement, lit a candle per resident - and even then, there is no indication of an individual obligation for each resident to light a candle, rather that the number of candles lit match the size of the household. Similarly, when staying in a hotel, one need not light candles if candles are being lit on one's behalf at home. Again, it is the home that needs the candles, not the individual.

The original practice also required that the candles be lit "adjacent to the entrance to the home from public property", and if a home had entrances facing different directions, candles were lit in at least one entrance facing each direction so no passerby should suspect that this house lacked Chanukah candles.

Home. Three Jewish festivals feature rituals involving the home. On Passover we eradicate chametz from the home. On Sukkot we leave the home, moving to a temporary dwelling. On Chanukah we light candles in each home.

The connections between Passover and Sukkot and the home are clear. Passover recalls the exodus from Egypt, during which every individual home was saved from slavery and from the plague of the firstborn. Sukkot commemorates the temporary desert dwellings of the Children of Israel after the Exodus.

But what does the Chanukah story have to with the home? There was a military victory, the Temple was rededicated, its menorah was relit, there was a miracle involving oil - but how is this connected to my house? The Jewish people were saved on Purim as well, but we do not commemorate this by any ritual involving our homes.

Not only are the Chanukah candles to be lit at the entrance to the home, but, back when that was the practice, they were lit facing the mezuzah, so that when walking through the doorway one passed between the mezuzah and the Chanukah candle. This parallelism with the mezuzah is another mystery. What do Chanukah candles have to do with the mezuzah?

I would suggest that the structuring of the mitzvah around the physical house and the parallelism with the mezuzah, are deliberate efforts to emphasize the role of the home in the events of Chanukah. Just as each individual household was saved from Egypt, so each individual household was saved during the Chanukah story, even if it was less obvious at the time. Just as the mezuzah on our doorposts serves as a public expression of faith in God who released us from Egypt, so does the lighting of the Chanukah candles in the doorway, facing the public street.

The Syrian-Greek oppressors forbade such basic Jewish practices as Shabbat, Brit Milah and Torah learning. Many Jews continued these practices in secret, in the shelter of their homes. With the Hasmonean victory, symbolized by the recapture and rededication of the Temple, they could again follow the Torah publicly.

Lighting Chanukah candles symbolizes the rededication of each individual home to God, just as the Temple itself was rededicated and its candles relit. The candles face outwards, not for use by the home itself but for the symbolic purpose of identification with the Hasmonean victory and the renewed Temple worship. This could not be taken for granted at the time; the public itself was split between traditionalists and hellenists, with many of the cultural elite and the priestly class supporting the "enlightened" Greeks and their cosmopolitan culture. Like the mezuzah, then, the Chanukah candles were an expression of faith, a statement that this household is proudly dedicated to the Torah.

I hope I've managed to shed a bit of light on this subject.

Update (Dec. 13): Rabbi Moshe Taragin of Yeshivat Har Etzion delves into this theme from a Talmudic perspective here.

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