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.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Why Light the Lights? - Shabbat 23

We find still more details on rabbinic Hanukkah observance in today’s page. Because the rabbis have formulated an explicit verbal blessing for being commanded to light Hanukkah candles, those unable to speak or understand the blessing (deaf-mutes, the mentally-deficient, or children) accomplish nothing. Women, however, are expected and even obligated to light them – one of the exceptions to the general rule that women are exempt from time-specific positive mitzvot [commandments]. Olive oil is the best for a Hanukkah light (in ancient technology), but any oil is permitted. And not only those who light the candles, but even those who see the lit khanukkiah [Hanukkah candelabra] should say a blessing.

The problem with the rabbinic blessing for being commanded to light Hanukkah candles is: where in the Torah did God command it? The holiday was based on events centuries after the Torah was compiled (even according to academic historians), and there is of course no mention of it. What prooftext can the rabbis bring? Deuteronomy 32:17 – “ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you.” In other words, THE RABBIS have commanded it, and since they are the divinely authorized authorities, it is as if God had commanded it himself! Trying to refine this principle means exploring other rabbinic pronouncements – if we only apply such blessings to clear cases, what about the second day of holidays, which is based on doubt? Keep in mind, however, that we know the end of the story – the Talmud gives reasons why its traditional practice should stay as it is, not to make changes.

The most interesting discussion in today’s page concerns motivation for performing commandments – why should one put a khanukkiah in two doorways if they face opposite sides of the house? The answer: in case others might suspect you hadn’t performed the commandment! The same for the commandment of pe’ah [leaving corners of a field unharvested for the poor to collect] – one reason is to help the poor, but another is to avoid suspicion. While guilt may motivate to positive action, this seems a little strong. A much better basis for decision appears when debating which light to light if one has oil enough only for one – the Hanukkah or Shabbat light versus the light for the house. Raba’s answer: clearly the house light because of shalom bayit – peace in the house. In our reading, peace in the house is a high enough value to even supersede rabbinic commandments.

Rabbi Adam Chalom