The Music of Halacha: Chanukah: Law & Custom

Nov 28th, 2010 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Holidays, Music of Halacha
The majesty and music of Halacha is evident in every detail of the Chanukah laws. The laws designed by the sages afford us insight into their understanding of the Chanukah battles, victories and miracles. We should begin by clarifying what is law and what is custom.

“Our sages taught that the basic Mitzvah of Chanukah is one candle for each household. Those who want to beautify the law light one candle for each person. Those who want to add even more beauty: The House of Shammai taught that he should light eight candles, decreasing each night of the holiday until he lights only one candle on the eighth night. The House of Hillel taught he should light one candle the first night, adding one candle each night, until he lights eight candles on the final night of Chanukah.” (Shabbat 22b) The Mitzvah of the Chanukah menorah is fulfilled with a single candle and any additional candles are simply to count the days.

We mark the miracle with the Menorah in the Temple with our menorah and yet, rather than light seven candles, as they did in the Temple, we light only one. The sages went to great lengths to create parallels between the Chanukah menorah and that of the Temple. (Ran, Shabbat, Chapter 2) Yet, we do not make any attempt to recreate the Menorah with the number of candles. We are remembering a solitary candle, not a single jar of oil, but a single candle, perhaps a particular candle.

There was a distinct candle on the Temple menorah. The “Ner Ma’aravi”, or the westernmost candle was different from the other six candles of the menorah. The Torah refers to this candle as “Ner Tamid”, or the “Eternal Light”. The Kohanim would relight only this candle in the morning if it went out after burning all night. The other six candles only had to burn through the night. The Ner Tamid was constant. The other six were not. The Chanukah candle is to remember this specific candle.

The Temple candles were understood not only as a symbol of God’s light, but also as an actual source of light in the world. The light of the six candles was considered the source of prophecy. Prophecy was present in the world as long as the light of the six candles burned bright. Samuel could receive his first prophecy only as long as the light of the menorah was still burning.

There was another source of light on the menorah, the Ner Tamid. This light was more constant and more permanent than the other light. This light was the light that is granted to the wise. It is the source of perception and insight. It is illumination that goes far beyond any wisdom. It is the ability to see the essence of the world, the light of clarity that was present only at the beginning of Creation. This light is constant. It did not disappear with the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the menorah. (Zohar, volume 2, 6b)

The Chanukah candle recreates the light of wisdom, not the light of prophecy, so we light only the one, our celebration of the Eternal Light of the Temple menorah.

The Chanukah laws teach us that we celebrate the gift of wisdom on Chanukah. It is not enough to light the candle; our festival must be a celebration of the wisdom we have been granted in the Torah. The candles point us in the direction of wisdom and the light we can discover and apply from within the wisdom of the Torah.

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