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Rabbinical School Divrei Torah Doing More Than We Think We Can

By Rabbi Micha'el Rosenberg

There is a somewhat obscure debate regarding the lighting of Hanukkah candles that actually gets across a striking message about Hanukkah and the performance of religious acts in general. But in order to understand that dispute, we first have to review the original source for our practice of candle lighting.

In “Massekhet Shabbat” 21b, we are told that the actual mitzvah of Hanukkah is to light one candle per household each night of the holiday. Those who are seeking to fulfill this mitzvah in a more beautiful way (the “mehadrin” in the Hebrew), however, light one candle for each person in the house each night. Finally, those who want to perform the mitzvah in the most beautiful way possible (Hebrew: the “mehadrin min hamehadrin”) add one candle each night, i.e., the practice that we are familiar with nowadays. (There’s actually a slight variation in this between Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jews, with the former lighting a “hanukkiyah” for each person in the household, while the latter light only one hanukkiyah per home, but in both cases, we move from one candle on the first night to eight on the last). Of course, the practice that I assume we are all familiar with is the one described here as being far more stringent — and beautiful — than what is actually required, i.e., the lighting of an increasing number of candles on each night of the holiday.

Based on this history, a number of early modern authorities debate a very specific question: What happens if I begin lighting the Hanukkah candles on, for example, the fourth night of Hanukkah, and after lighting, say, two of them, I remember that I forgot to recite the blessings? Normally, I may recite a blessing over a mitzvah only prior to — or, if I forgot, while still in the act of — performing a mitzvah, but once I’ve completed the mitzvah, I may no longer say the blessing.

If I go out to the sukkah on Tuesday of Sukkot, eat lunch, recite grace after meals and leave to go somewhere, I can’t then recite the blessing for sitting in the sukkah! If we remember that the “actual” mitzvah of Hanukkah is to light one candle each night, and everything else is “extra credit,” as it were, then a reasonable conclusion would be that since I’ve already lit at least one candle, I may no longer recite the blessing for lighting candles.

The third and fourth candles that I still have to light, in the scenario I described above, are not really a mitzvah, they’re just decoration. But Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Central Europe, 1761-1837) in fact rules that one should recite the blessing “lehadlik neir shel Hanukkah” if you remember while you still have some candles left to light.

It turns out that there is actually a debate in general about whether beautifying commandments — whether going beyond what is merely “required” of me — is itself an act of religious commitment that merits a blessing. And in this debate — at least as it plays out regarding Hanukkah candles — Rabbi Akiva Eiger sides with the view permitting (and therefore requiring) a blessing over the beautifying.

In some sense, the view espoused by Rabbi Akiva Eiger actually makes a great deal of sense. It may be true in a technical sense that the mitzvah of Hanukkah lighting is simply to light one candle; but nowadays, anyone who knows about the ritual of Hanukkah candles knows about it in its most “pious” sense, i.e., of lighting a menorah with multiple candles, one for each night.

Who among us would feel as if we’ve in fact observed Hanukkah if we lit only one candle on the eighth night? Thus, experientially (even if not textually), the commandment has indeed become to light an increasing number of candles each night.

Understood this way, Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s ruling simply reflects an awareness that, no matter what the books say, if the Jewish people understand a religious obligation in a particular way, that becomes the mitzvah. The Talmud may say that one candle is enough, but try telling that to my mother (or, I suspect, to Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s mother). This, then, is a claim about performance of religious obligations in general; even if I have technically fulfilled some claim, if I feel like I’ve evaded my full obligations, then I still have work left to do.

But there’s another way in which this ruling reflects something not about mitzvah-performance in general, but about Hanukkah specifically. Why is it that, of all the mitzvot discussed in the Talmud, the one that is not only performed by a huge swath of modern-day Jewry, but performed specifically in a mehadrin min hamehadrin way, is the lighting of the Hanukkah candles?

In response to this question, my teacher Rav Yehudah Gilad of Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa suggested that this phenomenon is a reflection of the particular message of Hanukkah: the importance of going beyond what is merely required or expected of you. After all, the core miracle of Hanukkah is of oil lasting longer than it was “supposed” to last. And as has been pointed out by several commentators, in the song “Ma’oz Tzur”, we sing that Hanukkah is “yemei shemonah,” a literary way of saying “eight days long,” but which literally means “days of eight,” i.e., days that reflect going beyond the seven days of natural/normal creation.

These days of Hanukkah that are coming upon us are all about going beyond the normal, beyond the required. Thus, on this holiday, the extra piety of mehadrin min hamehadrin becomes a part of the mitzvah, a part of the requirement, as it were — so much so that you’re not really done lighting candles until you’ve lit all eight.

Lighting our hanukkiyot is supposed to remind us that the Torah demands that we do more than we think we can, more than we have been told we must, more than the waning daylight hours seem to allow for. We should all be blessed to experience — and be inspired to take with us into the rest of the year — this spirit of “yemei shemonah.”

Hag Hanukkah Sameah!

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