Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
“The Talmudic symbolism of the lighting of the Chanukah Menorah”
24 December 2005

The Talmudic source (Tal.Shabbat 21b) for the mitzvah of the lighting of the Chanukah lights is problematic in several respects. First, in the fact that it offers three separate levels of observance, which we find in the context of the fulfilment of no other mitzvah:

  • Mitzvat Chanukah, ner ish uveito – ‘The basic mitzvah of Chanukah is fulfilled through the lighting of one light per home.’
  • Veha-mehadrin: ner lechol echad ve’echad - ‘A better method is for each person to light one light each night.’
  • Veha-mehadrin min ha-mehadrin: Bet Shammai omrim... ‘As regards the very best method of lighting, Bet Shammai say that we commence on the first night with all eight lights and decrease one light each succeeding night, and Bet Hillel say that we start the first night with one light, and add a further light on each succeeding night.’

But there is a second problem with this last formulation. Surely the very best way of lighting can hardly be a machloket, a dispute, regarding the proper way to light! A dispute should not even figure in the context of a mitzvah ranking!

Thirdly, it seems that there is a hiatus in the transmission of that Talmudic statement. For literary consistency it should surely have said, V’ha-mehadrin min ha-mehadrin: ad shemonah nerot lekhol echad ve’echad – ‘And the best way of lighting is for every individual within that household to kindle up to eight lights’ - corresponding to all the nights of Chanukah. Only when that had been stated would it have been logical for the Talmud to have proceeded to the dispute over the lighting arrangement for those eight lights.

To answer these questions we need to say a word about the symbolism of the lights of Chanukah.

Chanukah is the festival of light; and light is the symbol of Torah, of spiritual enlightenment. Ki ner mitzvah v’Torah ohr – ‘For the mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is the light’. The battle between the Greeks and the Jews was a battle for the hearts and minds of a nation. It was in order to determine the nature and quality of light and enlightenment that would be handed down to posterity as the legacy of the ancient world.

Both Greece and Jerusalem had a vision of the light, of the nature, content and criteria of higher enlightenment. For Greece it was a grossly secular vision. Mathematics, music, logic, science, art and athletic prowess, were, for them, ends in themselves. According to their vision, man could not rise beyond the capacity of his own physical and intellectual universe and potential, and there was nothing for man to achieve outside the parameter that he himself was able to delineate. They also handed down to posterity a vision of capricious Olympian gods whose antics reflected the worst immoral excesses

The Jews, on the other hand, were handing down a Torah of true enlightenment, one that lit up and exposed the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of Hellenism. For Jerusalem, enlightenment meant lightening up the pathway to eternity. It meant enabling man to extend himself, to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, and to achieve nobility in conduct and in relationships. Whereas, for the Greeks, man could never infiltrate the realm of the gods, where he was perceived as a puny and alien being, Judaism taught that man was ‘just a little lower than the angels,’ and a veritable co-partner with God Himself in the task of perfecting His world.

But Jewish spiritual enlightenment, as symbolised by the Temple Menorah and in our representation of the miracle of its oil, is not something that can easily be achieved on one’s own. It is rooted in tradition, in a generational effort to reach out to the light and to acquire enlightenment through study of the Torah and an initiation into its mysteries, leading to an ever closer relationship with God. And this is done not on one’s own, not even amid the vibrancy of one’s home, but in the Bet Kneset and Bet Ha-midrash, in the social context of others who share one’s heritage, identity and vision, and under the guidance of inspired and inspiring spiritual leaders and teachers.

This is how we may understand that Talmudic passage dealing with the lighting of the Chanukah lights, the symbols of enlightenment and the means to its acquisition; and this explains why, in connection with just this mitzvah, we encounter three levels of attainment and performance.

The basic level may be achieved through ner ish uveito, ‘one light per home,’ where the only influence is the basic Judaism that the average parent can impart. This is necessarily a dimly burning flame that cannot provide much illumination. It is, however, not to be discounted. It is a brave attempt at injecting some spirituality into the lives of the family members.

A higher level is ner lechol echad ve’echad, when each and every member of the family has his or her own source of illumination, by way of teachers and friends who supplement the spirit and content of what the home offers, as well as through private reading and study of Judaism’s well-springs of inspiration.

The very highest level, however, is when we attain a level of enlightenment to the extent that we can comprehend a machloket, a dispute, between Shammai v’Hillel, when our Judaic skills are so finely honed, through learning, prayer and personal exercises in spirituality, that we can appreciate a dispute between Talmudic sages, and not be confused by the fine distinctions, inferences and traditions that they employ in order to reach frequently differing conclusions regarding Jewish tradition, law and custom.

Our third question, you will recall, was why the highest level of performance, as represented by the dispute between Shammai and Hillel, was not preceded by an introductory general statement to the effect that this level involves the kindling of up to eight lights by each and every person.. The answer we offer is that, when we strive to attain that optimal level of learning and observance, we are totally reliant on the Shammais and Hillels, the illustrious transmitters and creators of our religious tradition. What we do and how we do it rests entirely on their authority. We have total confidence in that authority, for theirs is the responsibility for the authenticity of our tradition. The way we light the Menorah emerges from just one of their gladiatorial verbal battles for enlightenment in this regard. And that was the main point that the Talmud wished to emphasize by focusing exclusively upon their dispute.

And now we can appreciate why, quite uniquely, there are three separate gradations of observance of just this mitzvah. The lights of the Menorah symbolise enlightenment in Torah, and we are all at different levels of understanding, insight and observance. We should never be static. We should all be striving to reach higher and higher gradations of learning, understanding and standards of observance. We should all be seeking to enhance the richness of our spiritual experiences and the intensity of our intellectual challenges.

Ohr chadash al tziyyon ta’iyr v’nizkeh khullanu meheirah l’oro, ‘May a new light shine on Zion, and may we all merit to absorb its invigorating light.’