Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Lighting Hanukkah Lights - Shabbat 22

Continuing its collection of laws relating to Hanukkah nerot [lights/candles], the Talmud tries to refine its general pronouncements from the previous page. If one is supposed to display the lit khanukkiah [Hanukkah candelabra] publicly, at what height? And where? One authority says it should be on the right side of the door as one enters, and another on the left. In a refreshing break from the Talmud’s common practice of indeterminacy, here we get a clear statement: the halakha [law] is that one places the mezuzah [holy doorpost box containing Biblical text] on the right and the khanukkiah on the left. While in rabbinic and pre-modern times, such public displays would be the rule in overwhelmingly-Jewish residence patters, today this emphasis on public display demands both strong connection with one’s Jewish identity and comfort demonstrating that connection to one’s non-Jewish surroundings.

A second debate touched on in a previous page concerns the use to which one may put Hanukkah lights – can one count money by them? The answer is no for an interesting reason: one should not use something produced by a mitzvah [commandment] for a secular purpose, like eating from the fruits and nuts with which one decorates their sukkah [temporary hut for the fall harvest holiday]. If one considers Hanukkah and Sukkot to be cultural traditions rather than mitzvot, however, one can still give the ritual its due. Or one can adapt it to new purposes – how often in modern life do we read by candlelight? Could reading by the light of a Hanukkah menorah in fact help us experience, if only for a moment, part of our ancestors’ lives before electric lighting, or to sympathize with those in the world still living by firelight?

The third Hanukkah question debated here concerns which action fulfills the mitzvah – is it lighting the candles or placing the khanukkiah in the doorway? For contemporary Jews, the lighting is clearly the more important action, but one perspective argues that the placing it publicly could be considered more important. The problem is that Raba said both that lighting and holding it in the house means nothing, AND that lighting it and taking it outside means nothing! In the end, the rabbinic blessing for lighting Hanukkah candles, which says God commanded them to kindle Hanukkah lights, ends this debate. As to where God commanded the Jews in the Torah to light candles to commemorate an event that happened 1000 years after the events ascribed to Mount Sinai and Torah revelation, that is a topic for tomorrow’s daf [page],

Rabbi Adam Chalom