Category Archives: Movies

Starting off the Spiritual New Year Right


Starting off the Spiritual New Year Right
Mitzvah-making Opportunities for the Spring and Summer

As we came into the month of Nissan we began celebrating the height of our spiritual year, in fact this is the start of the biblical year. (see Exodus 12:2, and Parshat Archarei). Whereas in fall we observe the start of the civil year and consider the concepts of righteousness, justice and repentance, we celebrate the spiritual new year with the joy of the “z’man cheiruteinu / season of our freedom.”

Just because Pesachthe Passover holiday– is over doesn’t mean this season ends. In the Talmud and classical Halachic works Nissan itself is considered an entire month dedicated only to joy and celebration; one big holiday free of mourning. There are a lot of ways to celebrate our freedom. One of the best was is to take advantage of that liberty and work towards our own enrichment. Nothing is more important to work on than our spiritual and emotional state. Coming out from under the effect what ever complications we might have stepped out of in this season should take first priority. There is no better investment we can make than in our own soul.

The spring season comes with unique opportunities for spiritual advancement and self-reflection. One of the best ways is by following along with the Sefirah haOmerthe Omer Count. Learn how to make this period between Pesach and Shavuot work for you. You can find a study and the Blessings according to the minhag Nusach haAri z”l (Chabad) with a counting guide in the links below. Also, part of the reflection is the recitation of the Psalm 67 (I failed to cite the source in the Siddur release, it will be corrected shortly). We can delve even deeper by meditating upon this Psalm as well, learn how:

Also during this season, we have to keep in mind that the physical seasons change as well. That means that the nights are getting shorter, and the days longer. This can effect some people, especially if you live in the far north, where daylight can be as little as as 4-6 hours long at best in the height of summer even if your not in the Arctic Circle. The following guides are how to approach Tikkun Chatzotthe Midnight Rite – during this season, as well as an introduction and the liturgical text:

At of course, in gearing up for Shavuot we again will need the prayers of the Shelosh Regalim, don’t forget to also get the Hallel and Rosh Chodesh packets. We are so grateful to have these resources hosted by our partners at the Open Siddur Project. You can find the link below.

And finally, the month of Nissan isn’t over yet. Have you had a chance to say the Blessing on a Blossoming Fruit Tree? For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, we still have a few more days to make this happen. Find out how:

Last but not least, it is important for us to remember when studying the parsha according to the 1-year scheme t – the weekly Torah portion schedule for a single year – that in 2012 it differs outside of Israel from the one read inside Eretz Yisrael. Those who are inside Israel and only observe 1 day of Yom Tov already began Parshat Shemini last Shabbat. For everyone else b’chutz l’aretz outside of Israel, in the Diaspora – we are just beginning it this week as last Shabbat was still Yom Tov. This schedule will remain ahead of us by one week until Shavuot of this year.

With all that said, I want to commend everyone who worked so hard to make a kosher and liberating Pesach. I am proud of all the hard work people in our little learning community have invested in cleaning not just their homes, but their inner self with careful scrutiny and humility. I am even more thrilled to see how much joy and feeling of freedom we are all experiencing for it as well. Now on to Har Sinai!

Do you need a siddur? This blog proudly cooperates with The Open Siddur Project. The project is a volunteer based organization dedicated to documenting and making the wealth of Jewish prayer and prayer resources available with free, redistributable licensing in electronic format and print formats. You can find my contributions of liturgy HERE. Find out how you can also be a part of this worthy cause!

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When Redemption Turns Fatal



When Redemption Turns Fatal
Atonement and the implications of premature death

lost in the desertRecently as I was studying Parshat Bo I was taken back by seeing an interesting statement made regarding the celebration of Pesach with the eating of matzah. As Pesach is quickly coming upon us I was captivated by the details relating to the unique aspects of the first celebration and the way that it prescribes future observance. While bridging the two the Torah indicates that one who eats leaven will “v’nich’rata ha-nefesh hahi miYisrael / have his soul is cut-off from among Israel.” (Exodus 12:15) This is a “chukat olam t’chagu’hu / an eternal commandment that one rejoice.” (v.14)

The statement is unique, not necessarily in wording but in placement. We will see the phrase “cut-off” used many times in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy; but aside from that there are few reference earlier in the chumash. In Genesis we only have a couple similar examples; once in passing used by Isaac, and the other being the commandment given to Avraham Avinu that each Hebrew male be circumcised. (Genesis 17:14) It warns us that anyone who is not circumcised may be cut-off from his people, so they must carefully observe this.

But what do we mean by being “cut-off?” The Rashi to this verse explains to us:

And that soul shall be cut off:

He goes childless (Yevamot 55a)

and dies prematurely (Moed Katan 28a).”

ונכרתה הנפש: |

הולך ערירי |

ומת קודם זמנו: |

Rashi to Genesis 17:14

Though neither of these statements come with any prescribed punishment or qualification in the Torah, this phrase is one of the most harsh we can find in the scriptures. Our sages recognize 24 egregious sins that result in one being cut-off; meaning, ones life and legacy is cut short. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Teshuvah)

That is not to say that one is without remedy, Leviticus chapter 22 presents us with a means for repentance by removing whatever is the cause of ones offense and approaching G-d again through in worship. Clean yourself up, and return. By making teshuvahmaking repentance, returning, turning back – one is forgiven and their judgment is lifted; according to the halacha this is true for all cases, except for with the sin of idolatry (avodah zara). Though these sins seem to demand that a Sanheidrin (the supreme court of Jewish law) prescribe death for a person who commits any one of these sins, any person that repents is forgiven without consequence, except in cases of idolatry.

In Talmud Bavli mesecta Avodah Zara – which discusses the halachot related to judgment for idolatry – it is explained to us that the judgment of death is not necessary when the sin is not serious enough to demand such punishment. Thus the halacha of the Talmud is that all sins are fully pardonable, except for idolatry. Even if judicially forgiven by the sanheidrin there is a consequence to idolatry that cannot be avoided, as it is a sin against G-d the consequence comes from the hand of G-d even in face of repentance. More precisely, the hand of G-d’s mercy is restrained so that the person dies at a time and in way that only heaven knows. How can this be?

Simply put, the Torah says that when one commits a severe sin it results in keret – being cut down, one’s life cut short – though it does not necessarily imply a sentence, as much as it is a description of ones state. As the Tanya teaches, to be cut-off merely means to disconnect from our spiritual source – one disconnects themselves, and they in turn die from the atrophy this causes in their soul. (Lekutei Amarim – Tanya, Iggeret haTeshuva, siman 5)

Though this is generally the case, there are certain exceptions to the rule. The Talmud presents us a tragic example of someone, who despite his sincere repentance, still perishes; even more confusing, he is not guilt of idolatry at all. What could be so severe that one still dies after repenting? And what does this mean, is it that he was not forgiven or can it be that G-d yet demands “satisfaction?”

To understand this the rabbis present us with the story of Rabbi Elezar ben Doria as an example. We will find this presented in Talmud Avodah Zarah 17a:

והתניא: |

אמרו עליו על |

רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא, |

שלא הניח זונה |

אחת בעולם שלא בא עליה; |

פעם אחת שמע שיש זונה אחת |

בכרכי הים, |

והיתה נוטלת כיס דינרין |

בשכרה; |

נטל כיס דינרין והלך ועבר עליה |

שבעה נהרות; |

בשעת הרגל |

We learn in a b’raita of a Tanna:

‘It was said of

Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia

that there was no whore

in the whole world that he did not go to.

After he heard of this certain whore

in a large seaside city

who accepted a purse of denari [coins]

as payment

he took a purse of coins and crossed

seven rivers,

all the while traveling on foot without anything.”

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a

As we see from the Talmud the sin of Ben Dordia was related to sexual immorality. So caught up in his sexual indiscretions that people reckoned that there wasn’t a prostitute in the entire world he hadn’t slept with.

As the story goes, one day he hears that there is a certain whore in a far off place that he hasn’t been with. Driven by compulsion, his desire to have her is so great that he immediately begins to gather the necessary money to pay her. Knowing that her fee was 100 denari, he collects only enough money necessary to pay her and then sets off on foot. And this is a hint to the level of lust that motivated him. As she is so far away and in a seaside town you would think he would pay to go by ship. Instead he is unwilling to wait or delay and therefore makes this ridiculously long journey by foot and without provisions. Being blinded by lust, he disregards his own needs and wellbeing in pursuit of this prostitute.

דבר הפיחה |

אמרה: |

כשם שהפיחה זו |

אינה חוזרת למקומה – |

כך אלעזר בן דורדיא |

אין מקבלין אותו |

בתשובה. |

So he he got it on with her.

And she said:

‘Just like this breaking-wind

will not return to its place,

so too Elezar ben Dordia

will not not be received back

in repentance.’”

As unlikely as it was, he did actually make it to his destination and get with this woman. Considering all the effort and personal cost, one would hope that his fling have would actually be worth it to him. Instead of her being the desirable woman he probably imaged, she instead showed herself to be crude and unrefined. To the point she broke-wind in bed and even made a joke over it. Then she actually went so far as to make fun of him, teasing him that he would never be accepted back because of how far he had strayed; the pun being just like her fart couldn’t go back to where it came from, so too he couldn’t go back to where he came from. Considering all he had done, his people would never accept him back.

Though she is an inappropriate and seemingly vile person, she isn’t the only one that needs her character scrutinized in this story. One has to wonder anyhow, what is Ben Dordia doing there at all? How is it that this man is even called “rabbi” when he is completely consumed by his perversion?

What we should first understand about Ben Dordia was that he was not actually a “rabbi” in the conventional way we think, as he was not a member of the sanheidrin at all. Notice even the prostitute calls him merely by name, the redactor doesn’t give him this title of honor early on here in the story either when recounting it. Ben Dordia was just an ordinary man, in fact probably someone best described as a mediocre man in terms of his practice; there is no other way to explain how he is able to have such a serious pursuit of his sin and not neglect his religious duties. Also notice most of the people we see in the Talmud come from legacy and with a lineage we all know, but this man just comes out of nowhere and onto the pages of the highest source of rabbinic discourse.

Despite his lack of character and duplicity, Ben Doria is somehow deeply troubled by the prostitute’s words. Though being desensitized to the depravity he was surrounded in, he had enough conviction left in him that he became overwhelmed by the realization of the truth of her estimation and completely broke down. He then ran from the place where he was at, seemingly to find his way back. His need for teshuvah was not just metaphoric, he was literally desperate to find his way back. The Talmud continues:

He went away and sat down

between two hills and mountains

and said:

‘Hills and mountains,

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘For the mountain be departed

and the hills be removed…’

(Isaiah 54:10)

He said:

‘Heavens and earth

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘For the heavens

shall vanish away like smoke,

and the earth will wear out like

a garment’

(Isaiah 51:6)

He said:

‘Sun and moon ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘Then the moon shall be confounded,

and the sun ashamed;’

(Isaiah 24:23)

And he said:

‘Stars and mazalot [constellations]

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘And all the host of heaven shall moulder away!’”

(Isaiah 34:4)

הלך וישב |

בין שני הרים וגבעות, |

אמר: |

הרים וגבעות |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

כי ההרים ימושו |

והגבעות תמוטינה |

(ישעיהו נד י) |

אמר: |

שמים וארץ |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

כי שמים |

כעשן נמלחו |

והארץ כבגד |

תבלה |

(ישעיהו נא ו). |

אמר: |

חמה ולבנה בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

וחפרה הלבנה |

ובושה החמה. |

(ישעיהו כד כג) |

אמר: |

כוכבים ומזלות |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

ונמקו כל צבא השמים! |

(ישעיהו לד ד) |

As the Talmudic text picks up again we then see him sitting between two hills and two mountains. Lost and unable to orient himself he begins to cry out to the mountains and hills. He speaks to them in a personal tone, going so far as to ask them to pray for him; pleading “rachamim,” have mercy on me. As strange as his actions seem, what is even more strange is the fact that they actually speak back to him; the rabbis tell us that they were granted a voice to respond to him in his time time of need. Without anyone to turn to he begins to carry on a dialogue with the natural forces, and they respond to him.

If you got a miraculous response from heaven, you like most people would probably want to hear words of comfort. But there weren’t any words of encouragement or compassion given. As he goes through this back and forth with nature, each time they are going to respond with the simple truth that there is nothing they can do for him. In fact, if we look at the wording it not only tells us they are in need of help from G-d themselves, but it also suggests to us one must ask “atzmeninu / ourselves,” meaning on their own behalf.

As concise as the Talmud tries to be with content, this whole episode is not only drawn out but it is unusually repetitious. He makes the same statement each time, and the responses are the same, except for a single variation when it comes to supporting biblical quotes offered. The majority of the details are in the list of the elements he cries out to. Our rabbis suggest there is some type of deeper psychological association he must be making, for this reason their commentary mostly concerns itself with asking “what do these statements mean to him?” Though it would be easy to dismiss his pleading as mere ranting and look no further than his hysteria, we need to keep in mind that for Ben Dordia his need for a response was so great that G-d was compelled to grant him this by supernatural means; his desperation was not all trivial, nor were the words of his pleading.

Rashi is the first to offer us a explanation, suggesting that when he called out to the “harim / the hills” what he actually meant on a heart level was “horim / ancestors;” literally meaning his parents. Rashi deduces this based on Talmud Rosh haShanah 11a; citing Micah 9:2 the rabbis compares our ancestors to the mountains. The hill and mountains are made of many layers of rock and soil, each generation built upon another to provide a firm foundation. This is true of mountains and also of ones heritage. We make this journey in life on a higher road, built upon and paved by the contributions of our ancestors. Any moral higher ground we have is provided us from their ethics and experiences. The rabbis teach us here in the Talmud that we aren’t just raised to a higher and better place, but we are recipients of their divine merit. Instead of merely calling us to stand on their giant shoulders, the rabbis insist that just like wise Solomon they call to us “listen my beloved, and come leaping upon mountains, and skipping over the hills;” (Shir haShirim 2:8); our heritage in them provides us a source of joy that comes from divine grace. The mountains represent the patriarchs, the hills are the matriarchs. He cries out to his holy parents “rachamim / have mercy on me,” he is pleading for them to help him.

We can look at the other references to the natural forces likewise. The heavens and earth are also thought of in a complimentary gender dichotomy, and so too the sun and moon. It is easy for us to understand, as the ancient peoples similarly recognizing the greater light of the sun that rules the day as a symbol masculinity and the less light of the moon as the a symbol of femininity. Even in the Torah we see this, in the story of Yosef’s dream the sun represents his father and the moon his mother. (Genesis 37:11, see Parshat Vayeshev)

Though his second request, to the heavens and earth, does also clearly show a more obvious intention. He asks for mercy, first from the heavens and then from the earth. He starts first by asking for grace from heaven, and then secondly for mercy from the earth; the heavens being the mysterious seat of G-d’s mercy, the earth being the calculated world of justice.

Even the sun and moon imply to us a deeper meaning, the sun also being an ancient symbol of authority. The ancient kings and rulers of the nations often considered themselves as the earthly representation of the sun-god, the moon conversely represented their goddesses and queens. In his third request he appears to be asking for the help of the rulers and authorities.

Having made three request for mercy and compassion, Ben Dordia then makes one final request to the stars and the mazalot – the signs of the zodiac. This is less in line with the dichotomy but easier to explain. He is literally pleads for the stars and zodiac (mazalot) to intervene for him and change his fate.

When we consider all this, the story begins to take shape and his motivation becomes clear. He is asking for help from anyone who will listen, from the most accessible to the least; “mom and dad, save me,” “world and universe, help me,” “your honor, sir, ma’am, have mercy on me,” and lastly “fate, can you please give me a break here.”

Though they are not able to help him, they do respond to him. And their responses are neither harsh nor unkind, they each declare their limitations and need of help from G-d themselves. They don’t just turn him down, they reveal their own frailties and inability sympathetically. They weren’t telling him “sorry, but we have our own problems to worry about,” they instead seem to be saying that they can relate to being in need.

Hearing this and understanding the truth of it Elezar ben Dordia stops his pleading. The Talmud continues with his response:

And he said:

There is nothing that doesn’t depend on me!

And he hung his head between his knees

and wept until he exhausted

his soul to death.”

אמר: |

אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי! |

הניח ראשו בין ברכיו |

וגעה בבכיה עד שיצתה |

נשמתו; |

As there is no one that can help him, Ben Dordia becomes even more inconsolable. Lost and helpless he remains crouched on the ground, head hung low between his knees, weeping – not just crying, but bawling with all the strength left him. He cries with all his being until his entire soul is exhausted to the point of death. As no one is coming to rescue him he exclaims to himself alone, “it all depends on me.” And there on the ground he remains until he weeps himself to death.

Is it possible for a person to die from inconsolable crying? And if it is, what can break a man so that he weeps until he dies? What has him so tore up and broken down? Though one might assume that his hysteria is because no one will help him, his words reveal something different all together. Sure he is broken from the reality that he is solely responsible for his own redemption, but even more so by the truth that the whole situation (ha-davar) is of his own making. He is dying inside from the revelation that “it’s all on me.” Those are the last recorded words of Ben Dordia before he lays down and dies.

Fortunately the story doesn’t end there. The Talmud continues:

Just then a bat-kol was heard saying:

‘Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia is destined

to live in the world to come!’”

יצתה בת קול ואמרה |

רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא מזומן |

לחיי העולם הבא.’ |

In his final moments before he draws his last breath a heralding voice is heard from heaven declaring that he has been accepted in repentance and earned his place in the world-to-come. His personal confession is heard in heaven and his pardon is declared by an angelic messenger.

As we look at this incident and consider his acts of repentance it is clearly evident that he is sincere and contrite, but what merits the response of heaven to pardon him is his confession, “ain hadavar talui elah bi / there isn’t anything that doesn’t depend on me.” This is not any matter for which I am not responsible.

What is so remarkable about his words? These word don’t seem intended for anyone other than himself, but they catch the attention of heaven. They are few and unsophisticated, neither lofty nor spiritual sounding in the least. But if we look beyond the simplicity of his statement we will find more than just a realization that he is helpless. G-d does not respond to him out of pity, He responds to him because Ben Dordia has a dramatic change of heart and mind. He moves beyond being more concerned with the role everyone else plays in his tragedy.

As unbecoming as his pleading with all of the world and the sky to help him seems, his attitude is very actually very typical. In fact many people go one step further and actually blame others for their downfall. He could have easily said like many people do, “its not my fault, its my parents and my culture that are to blame.” He could have blamed the world, the politicians, the system and even fate itself. But here we find him for the first time taking full responsibility. This is such a drastic change in his character that it merits him full salvation.

Though he does find a place in heaven, we cannot avoid the fact that he still dies. As discussed, this is not demanded by the halacha. This is so unusual most editions of the Talmud contain an extra line to emphasize this lest we miss this point (in brackets). This is what makes the story even more tragic, his death was unnecessary. His repentance is complete and attested to by the bat-kol, for this reason none of our rabbis suggest that his death was part of his atonement. He was not dying for his sins. The Talmud continues, and provides us a simple suggestion:

[For he only committed a sexual sin and yet he died!]

And this is how it comes together:

As he was so addicted to [his sin]

it was counted as minut.”

[והא הכא בעבירה הוה ומית!] |

התם נמי: |

כיון דאביק בה טובא – |

כמינות דמיא. |

Our halacha is that one is only required to die in cases of idolatry. Here the rabbis suggest his sin was so habitual and severe that it was equivalent to minut – to apostasy and heresy. He was not necessarily guilty of idolatry, but his sin was so great that it like a idol in his life and thus suffered likewise.

Had his sin been considered a typical transgression or he been a member of the sanheidrin, his resulting death might be understandable. The Torah commands that willful sinners among the elders are to be put to death, for intentionally violating the law and causing others to do likewise even after being censured by their peers. There are three ways ones atonement can be secured after execution is ordered if one chooses to repent; being pardoned by the sanheidrin, Yom haKippurim – the Day of Atonements, and suffering. Ordinarily any one of these will suffice. But in the case of a religious leader the offense holds much more weight. Even if being reconciled to his people and his peers, the elder suffers in death. The Talmud elsewhere tells us:

אבל מי שיש חילול השם בידו – |

|

אין לו כח |

בתשובה לתלות, |

ולא ביום הכפורים לכפר, |

ולא ביסורין למרק. |

אלא כולן תולין, |

ומיתה ממרקת, |

שנאמר: |

ונגלה באזני הצבאות |

אם יכפר העון הזה |

לכם עד תמתון” |

(ישעיהו כב) |

But if the sin he enacts is a chilul Hashem

(a desecration of the name of G-d)

it is not enough for him;

relying only on repentance,

Yom haKippurim to atone,

nor suffering to purify.

However, all of them together suspend it,

and death finishes it off.

As it is said:

‘It is obvious in the eyes of the L-rd of Hosts

that the atonement for this one

will not be until he dies.’”

(Isaiah 22:14)

Talmud Bavli Yoma 86a

The first reason this example does not apply to Ben Dordia is because the scripture cited is actually about an unrepentant person. The Tanach speaks of a person who refuses to call out to G-d in weeping and humility (v.12), and they instead are happy in their sin and glad of it as they eat and drink themselves to death (v.13); of such a person G-d is saying that until it kills them they will not atone for themselves (v.14).

Though the rabbis only use this verse figuratively when they cite it here. They are rabbis who most often concern themselves with matters that pertain to themselves, with the Talmud being their court records and transcription. They naturally discuss things herein that relate to themselves. But they are fully aware that they are merely men, even among them their could be found people who despite their wisdom and sincere religiosity retained the attitude of “eat, drink for tomorrow we die.” They therefore read this verse another way, that sometimes sins of pleasure are so strong and binding that even for the religious the battle will remain until the day they die. Maybe even more so, we all know the rabbinic maxim that states: “the greater the man the greater the yetzer hara (negative drive).” (Talmud Bavli Sukkot 52a) The impulse towards sin only dies with with the person, but a living person will always need to balance the influence of their higher-self and their base-nature. But its not possible to kill the drive of a person’s sinful nature without killing them intern.

But again this does not apply to Ben Dordia in either case. He is just a lowly man, that is fully repentant. But there is some similarity, he will battle sin until his dying day. But his death is incidental, in that there is no way for him to find his way out of the wilderness and back to his people. Being only indirectly consequential, in that his death was caused by the lifestyle he lived prior to repentance. The damage he had done to himself could not be reversed, so he died. We don’t know if he would have survived if he found his way back and repented in the proper way as a Jewish man before the elders, on Yom haKippurim or through personal infliction. He was left in such a fragile state that he could go no further and so he died where he lay. As he could not find his way back, a voice from heaven came to him and declared that he would be destined for salvation.

This outcome for him seems so unfair that heaven itself has to speak up and say that if he cannot live in this world he deserves to know that he will live in the world to come. This is because the scripture do explicitly tell us that life is the rewarded of the penitent. G-d sends messengers to call people back; even if only for them to hear the message and care less, or see the point of their error but not “get it.” Some people will never accept the message, closing their eyes and ears. But for those who understand and who take this call to heart and return, they will be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)

His death seems to trouble the rabbis even more so, they understood these laws and scriptures thoroughly and found no reason for his demise either. Instead of being insensitive and without comprehension, Ben Doria comes to this ascent of consciousness of his personal responsibility on his own, and without any intervention. His understanding is something so remarkable that they count him among the chachamim. For this reason they elevate him beyond being a simple person that they could not find remedy for, and instead reckon him a great man who suffered post-facto for apostasy.

That is not to say that his deathbed repentance doesn’t trouble some. Unlike the many other religions that hang their atonement and salvation on ones belief, Judaism does not and instead puts greater stock in ones actions. Emunah to the Jew means faithfulness, not faith that is an abstract feeling; it’s a description of ones ethic to follow through. Even our term for Jewish law – halacha – is a term that emphasizes the helek, the way one goes and the path they lead in this life. One should repent and live a life of holiness. This was not the case for Ben Dordia. No one challenges the truth of his redemption, yet even the Talmud itself shows the discomfort some feel with his late reflection:

Rabbi heard this and wept, saying:

‘It is possible to acquire the world to come

after years [of dedication],

and another to quire that world in an hour?’”

בכה רבי ואמר: |

יש קונה עולמו בכמה |

שנים |

ויש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת. |

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a

The concern of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi is also understandable, being devout and faithful in Torah was the lifetime occupation of the rabbis of the Great Assembly, the sanheidrin that he headed; that enforced Jewish law, which he was chiefly responsible for documenting in the Mishnah of the Talmud; he is a tzadik par-excellence. We can look at the above statement several ways, but the obvious tone clearly carries through. For all the dedication Rabbi has invested in his practice he is anguished that Ben Dordia did nothing at all and was granted salvation. It might even seem convenient. He has no opportunity to exit his situation and there he remained, until there is nothing left he can do and then he repents. It angered Rabbi to the point of tears that for all his years of dedication, this single act of repentance by this sinner was regarded just as meritorious as his accomplishments. If this story concerns itself with what is fair, in the eyes of the faithful Ben Dordia’s “easy” redemption is unfair.

It is quite true, this is not something ordinarily we as Jews would look upon favorably. But the truth of the validity of such redemption remains even if it saddens and upsets anyone. Though this type of atonement is extraordinary and surely less than ideal, it is necessary that one not compare their own path of redemption to that of Ben Dordia or anyone else. Though most people who occupy themselves in Torah living will have an entire lifetime of personal growth and struggles to master, this story of redemption does not cheapen our approach towards atonement. What is important to comprehend here is that the understanding that Ben Dordia had to come to was his life’s struggle, this battle with himself was just as difficult as the entire life-struggle of anyone else.

Even his very name showed a tendency to be prone towards depending on supernatural help, his name Elezar means “G-d will help” or “G-d has helped.” But here he has to transcend his understand of his self and realize “there is nothing that isn’t dependent on me” to solve.

This is not hard to understand if we look beyond our own personal discomfort and consider the struggle of another. It should not need to be explained, for this reason no one responds to Rabbi’s lament. It is Rabbi who reflects upon this and rebuffs himself. The Talmud for this ends with Rabbi himself commenting a second time:

Rabbi [also] said:

‘Not only are baalei teshuvah

[repenters, lit. people who return]

accepted

but they are even called “Rabbi.”’”

ואמר רבי: |

לא דיין לבעלי תשובה |

|

שמקבלין אותן, |

אלא שקורין אותן רבי‘! |

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a – Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, 2nd century CE

Considering all this, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi goes on record in praise and support of Elezar ben Dordia. He not only comes to the conclusion that this man’s story of redemption is honorable, but acknowledges the commonality of their human experience. Yehuda haNasi calls him “Rabbi,” a nickname that most often refers to himself in the proceedings of sanheidrin; he is the chief and senior elder and is called “rabbi / my teacher” by the others in the Talmud. The redemption of Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia is something which all of us, even the most pious of people, should learn from.

Conclusion

As we come to the completion of this study, one of the things that I want us to keep in mind is that reality that we are always able to make teshuvah – to turn around and make a change, to return. But we do need to keep in mind the reality of repentance, it might remove the stains of sins no matter how deep they run (Isaiah 1:18) but this does not mean that we are free of the natural results that such distorted living causes. This does not in any way effect our level with G-d, but it can be confusing and almost unfair that some of the results of sin can be revisited in our lives. Most often take place after a while, once a person has moved on from that type of life. Revisiting it can often bring confusion and shame of ones past back to haunt them. But our place as penitent people is not in any way compromised before the Throne of Heaven.

Keeping this in mind it should on one hand bring us comfort, our struggles are merely with the physical that we are trying to subjugate to our spiritual and higher selves. Sometimes it takes a lot longer to remedy distorted living in our physical person than it does on a heart level, and what we sow today does not necessarily reflect what we are currently reaping. When your hearts is right, it is right no matter what the physical manifestations say. But conversely, we need to bare in mind that we cannot be foolish enough to sow today and think that we wont reap the consequences of our deeds at some point.

Shmueli Gonzales, is a writer and Torah student from Southern California. In addition to divrei Torah and contributions to the Open Source publication of the siddur, he also spends much time as a volunteer educating people regarding HIV/AIDS.


Chanukah: The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash


The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash
Oil Lamps or Candles?
Do Sephardim Really Light the Shamash Last?
Do We Need A Menorah?
The Mystical 36 Lights of Chanukah
One’s Minhag: Is it Something to be Dogmatic About?

menorahcityshmu

Lighting an oil Chanukah menorah (chanukiah) on top of the classic Sixth Street Bridge in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles.

Today I want us to explore some lessons in Jewish tradition regarding the Chanukah lights. We are going to be looking at our texts with a special eye on the Sephardic tradition. All the while explaining the development of shared Jewish tradition as we know it today. In order to be able appreciate the diversity of Jewish minhag (tradition) and the progression of halacha (Jewish law).

As we come upon the holidays one naturally finds their mind considering all the rituals and customs associated with the celebrations. I find myself going over the liturgy and preparing the mitzvah items to make sure everything is in order.

The liturgy, aside from additional prayers added to our daily davening, is pretty minimal; we have prayers for lighting of the Chanukah lights. There are three blessings, halalu (“these lights we kindle…”), some Sephardim and Chassidim add Yichud (a kabbalistic unification meditation) first and a song of praise such as Psalm 30 (a Psalm for the Dedication for the Temple) last, while most Ashkenazim add the liturgical poem Ma’oz Tzor (“Rock of Ages”). That’s it!

The instructional commentary is also just as minimalistic in siddurim. Both Ashkenenazi and Sephardi prayerbooks tend to contain little more than a few lines related to the blessings, and in which order to light the ner mitzvah (the one commanded candle that was added to the menorah for the current festival day) and the additional candles that might have been added in previous nights. A typical example can be found in the Siddur of the Baal haTanya:

יברך בכל לילה |

להדליק נר חנוכה |

|

ושעשה נסים |

|

ולילה הראשון יברך |

ג״כ |

שהחיינו |

|

ואץ |

להדליק עד שיגמור |

כל‬ הברכות |

|

המנהג הנכון |

לדבק הנרות |

או לתלות |

המנורה |

בעובי המזוזה בחלל הפתח |

ויתחיל להדליק |

בליל ראשון נר‬ ‫הימין |

ומליל שני |

ואילך יברך |

על הנוסף וילך |

משמאל לימין: |

One blesses on all nights

lehadlik ner Chanukah

(the kindling blessing),

and “she’asa nissim.”

(“for the miracles”)

On the first evening one blesses

with three blessings,

she’che’ianu

(“who has granted us life”)

[thereafter] is excluded.

Kindle only after you have recited

all the blessings.”

|

It is the proper custom

to affix the lights

or to hang

the menorah

opposite the mezuzah of the door-post

and then begin to kindle;

on the first night the light to the [far] right;

and then on the second evening

go ahead and bless,

for the additional ones work your way

from left to right”

The Baal Ha-Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Russia;

Siddur Ha-Rav, Late 18th Century

Though there are striking differences between the minhagim of Askenazim and Sephardim, the commentary is generally the same for both communities. This is appropriate because these are the points with which both traditions agree. However, the finer details of the order of lighting the Chanukah lights is curiously not mentioned. It is these unique and often obscure customs that one would hope to have explained to them, not the points that are universally known.

Because most religious people know how to light the Chanukah lights according to their community’s custom, people often tend to overlook the obvious here; it does not tell us what we should be using as a Chanukah light, what it should be lit with, or even who should do the lighting. It is in these specifics that the various communities make departure from one another. Understanding these details in necessary for functional reasons, a person who is unfamiliar with them might find themselves unable to actually perform this mitzvah.

Most of us know the laws and the customs from being taught by our parents or community. Many are familiar with the way to perform the mitzvah through practice, yet very few through actual learning from the halachic sources. The instructions of the siddurim are not as barren to the observant person because they understand the terms and elements in light of their minhag; the words are loaded. Though one my be able to explain the ritual through interpreting the terms for someone as they understand them, implicit meanings do not provide a true reason nor a methodology. Furthermore, as these terms also hold different implied meaning by other communities this type of explanation cannot suffice. We need to provide a textual source, preferably a principal source so that the meaning is clear and free of jargon; then work from there.

We will be exploring some of the halachic works, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi sources, from preferred texts that are widely accepted by their respective communities. Of course, we will start with the Shulchan Aruch (popularly known as The Code of Jewish Law). Not only is this the chiefest source in halacha (Jewish Law), it also has the benefit of presenting both Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions. The Maran, Rabbi Yosef Karo hailing from the holy land begins by presenting the halacha, his views accepted by the Sephardi and Middle-Eastern communities. This is commented upon by the Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Poland; whose glosses represent the Ashkenazi tradition. All these other sources will be examining thereafter will be be interpreting these laws for their own community as well, working our way from the 16th century to present day. All of our text will center around one specific chapter of the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, Chapter 673. Of course as the material coalesces the chapters mix together a bit, but ill try to keep on target. I will be translating these works, most of them for the first time into English, to help us along.

Do we light a Menorah of oil or candles?

Before we can even begin to discuss the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights we must begin with defining what a ner (a light) actually is. This might seem silly, because it is a common everyday word used in Jewish culture and the Hebrew language; its simply a candle in the vernacular. Though this meaning is correct, it is not actually appropriate for the age and region in which the Shulchan Aruch was written; from ancient times until the relatively recent times a ner meant an oil-lamp, a lantern. Only by starting from this understanding can we begin to make sense of the first clause.

כל השמנים והפתילות כשרי |

לנר חנוכה |

ואעפ שאין השמנים נמשכים אחר הפתילה ואין |

האור נתלה יפה באותם הפתילות |

All fats ( or “oils”) are appropriate

to light the Chanukah lamp

even if the oil is not drawn up by the wick

and the light is not held nicely by the wick.”

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 673:1;

Maran; Rabbi Yosef Karo, Tzfat, Israel in 1563

In an oil-lamp the oil is drawn up by a wick, the wick holds a flame while consuming the oil that is held in the reservoir of the lamp. However, we must understand that though “fats” implies oil, this is a generic term used for any liquid fuel. Though this may also refer to other forms of fats such as tallow, which can also be solidified around a wick to hold a flame in order to produce light as it is consumed.

Logically, as we are lighting the mitzvah lights in order to commemorate and publicize the miracle of the lights Menorah of the Holy Temple which was sustained for eight days with one day’s supply of olive oil, it would seem appropriate for us to light with oil lamps. The Menorah only utilized oil-lamps, and the miracle concerned oil. For this reason we go out of our way to emphasize the significance of the oil, through eating oily foods and similar customs we regard the miracle of the Menorah oil.

It has been the custom since the ancient world for Jews stretching from the near-east to Iberia (Spain) to light oil-lamps of fine olive oil. This is the assumed tradition of the Maran in the 16th century and is sustained as the Sephardic custom.

The fact that this is the most fitting way of fulfilling the mitzvah and remembering the miracle of oil is attested to the by the Rema in his gloss to the Maran’s above statement.

ומיהו שמן זית |

מצוה מן המובחר |

However, using olive oil is the

choicest way of performing the mitzvah”

Rema; Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Kraków, Poland;

Printed 1578

However, we need to take a careful look at the Maran’s statement again in order to understand on what basis is it appropriate for some to light candles. Though lighting an oil-lamp is the best way, the Maran tells us we can use any type of oil or wick to light as a Chanukah light even if it isn’t the choicest method.

In order to make good use of an oil-lamp one must use fine oil, as a unrefined and dirty oil will separate, resulting in it smoking and smoldering; thus failing to produce a steady and sustaining light. Likewise, for a wick to hold a flame well it must be of fine quality and material; the choicest is fine, new cotton wicks.

The Maran seems to be telling us that if the choicest type of oil or wick isn’t available to us then we can use one that is of lesser quality. Whatever we have at our disposal is appropriate. Based on this the Rema also provides the following statement:

ואם אין שמן זית מצוי |

מצוה בשמנים |

שאורן זך ונקי |

ונוהגין במדינות אלו |

להדליק בנרות של שעוה |

כי אורן צלול כמו שמן. |

And if there is not olive oil available

it is a mitzvah with [other] oils

that burns pure and clean.

It is the custom in those countries

to kindle the lights of wax

as they burn clean like oil.”

Rema

From this Askenazim derive their tradition of lighting candles as Chanukah lights. One is permitted to use any type of oil that will produce a steady and clean light according to the Rema. As olive oil, or even other types of liquid oils, are not available in some regions, there some people have become accustomed to light the lamps utilizing wax candles

The Rema appears to be of the opinion that we should use what ever we have at our disposable that is of the finest hidur (quality). If that means another type of oil, it will suffice; do your best. As oil is just not available in some places wax candles has had to suffice, but they do in-fact produce clean and steady light, though this is consequential.

The Maran continues, stating:

ואפילו בליל שבת |

שבתוך ימי |

חנוכה |

מותר להדליק |

בנר חנוכה |

השמנים והפתילות |

שאסור להדליק בהם נר שבת |

Even on the eve of Shabbat

which is in the middle of the days

of Chanukah

it is permissible to kindle

the Chanukah lights

with oils and wicks

that are forbidden to use as Shabbat lights.”

Maran

What do the Chaunkuah lights have to do with the Shabbath candles? They appear very similar because as candles were virtual unknown to Sephardim, the custom was also to light oil lamps also on Shabbat, not just Chanukah. Askenazim generally utilize wax candles on Shabbat and Chanukah. [See: “Shabbat Lights: The Tradition of Great Scholars to Light with Olive Oil.“]

But this is where the similarities end, the mitzvot are not the same.

On Shabbat we utilize only the best we have in honor of the sabbath. The finest of all things are normally set aside for the sabbath use, such as oil; and we do not make ordinary re-use items but instead use fresh materials, like wicks. However, this is not true for the Chanukah lights. We can reuse old wicks, there is no requirement that they be replaced everyday. And the oils used for the Chanukah lights does not need to be of the finest quality, we can even use left over oil from the nights before if some remains to light the next night. Though ordinarily on the sabbath we want the best wicks and cleanest oil for a practical purpose. We need a light that we will stay lit so that we can do our sabbath activities that night and maybe even the next day, we want a wick that will last and a oil that gives us more than just smoke before going out. We need a fine wick that will work, one we will not be tempted to adjust on Shabbat because it tends to extinguish itself. Keep in mind we are in an age where this is the primary source of light, lanterns of candles or oil.

The Rema agrees this is true, but introjects:

אם אינו נותן בנר רק |

כדי שיעור מצותו |

[Thats is] If one puts in enough [oil] in lamp

to fulfill the mitzvah”

Rema

The only real concern we should have is that we supply enough fuel in order for the lights to stay lit for the required amount of time to fulfill the mitzvah. The ideal burning time is one-and-half hours.

Why do we not use longer lasting lights, or utilize oil that provides the best amount of light? The Maran explains it is of no consequence to us because we are not even allowed to make use of the illumination of the Chanukah lights, this is in complete contrast to Shabbat where the sabbath lights are essential for functional purposes of illuminating our home. The Maran explains:

לפי שאסור להשתמש |

בנר חנוכה |

בין בשבת בין בחול |

ואפילו לבדוק מעות |

או למנותן לאורה |

אסור אפילו תשמיש |

של קדושה |

כגון ללמוד לאורה |

אסור |

ויש מי שמתיר בתשמיש |

של קדושה |

ונוהגים להדליק נר נוסף |

כדי שאם ישתמש לאורה |

יהיה לאור הנוסף שהוא אותו |

שהודלק אחרון |

ויניחנו מרחוק קצת |

משאר נרות מצוה.|

For it is forbidden to make use

of the Chanukah lights

both during Shabbat and weekdays;

even if to see if [the wicks] are twisted

or to examine [the intensity] the light.

It is forbidden to use them for even

sacred purposes,

such as learning [Torah] by its illumination;

it is forbidden.

There are those who permit this

for sacred use.

But the proper custom is to light an additional light

so that if the light is utilized

it is from the light of the additional one that

was lit last;

it should be placed a small distance

away from the mitzvah lights.”

Shulchan Aruch, O.C., Perek 673:1; Maran

We cannot make any use of the Chanukah lights, we should not even examine the elements of the Chanukah rituals by means of it’s light to see if it is crooked, distorted or twisted (ma’ot); or as others more simple suggest, we cannot check or count money, as ma’ot (ma’ah singular) are small coins in Talmudic terminology. Either way, we are not allowed to make personal nor sacred use of the Chanukah lights for any reason. Not even for the most lofty of purpose of such as studying Torah. As we will come to see, the difference between Shabbat lights and Chanukah lights is that whereas we use the light to enable us to do our Shabbat mitzvot (we use the light to make Shabbat in our home), during this holiday the lights are the mitzvah (our only requirement is to kindle, nothing more).

The Ner Nosef and the Shamash: The Customs Regarding the Additional Light

In paragraph one of the Shulchan Aruch the Maran acknowledges that there are others who do not hold by this opinion, being lenient concerning sacred use (though he doesn’t identify anyone). However, he goes on to express that it is not the custom of his community to be lenient in this matter, stating that the “proper minhag” (presumably meaning that of the Sephardic community) is to instead light a ner nosef; an additional light. He states the purpose of this additional light is so that one does not make use of the Chanukah lights, instead providing them another light. And by being set apart from the Chanukah lights, one is not prone to make use of the sacred lights but instead use this light. He then says this additional light is lit last.

The Rema continues on to presents the minhag of his community, stating:

ובמדינות אלו אין נוהגים |

להוסיף רק מניח |

אצלן השמש |

שבו מדליק הנרות |

הוא עדיף טפי |

In these countries it tends not to be the custom

to add an additional [candle]

but to delegates the Shamash

with which he kindles the lights;

this is preferable.”

Rema

The Rema takes a personal tone, saying that in region from which he is writing (he is in Poland) it is the custom not to add an additional light. Instead one uses the Shamash for this purpose of providing light. The Shamash is also used to kindle the Chanukah lights. Logically, if you light the festival lights with the Shamash then it must be lit first and not last. By virtue the word shamash means “the servant,” suggesting that it is used in service of kindling the other lights. This is our first mention of the Shamash, it’s purpose is suggested by the name that is ascribed to it. Though the idea that it is lit first is not yet explicitly stated here.

In this line the custom of Ashkenazim to light the Chanukah lights with the Shamash is documented for us here in the 16th century by the Rema. It also provides us from where the custom of placing the Shamash light right next to the Chanukah lights is derived. The word preceding is also generally understood figuratively, according in its literary form as “azal” meaning to place close by or near to something, instead of “eh’zel” (same spelling, different pronunciation) which means to delegate and utilize. Whereas, the Maran says a light should be a bit away, this figurative understanding of the Rema’s words suggests “close by” instead.

So now not only do we have two varying minhagim relating to the type of lights, Askenazim lighing candles and Sephardim lighting oil lamps, but we also have two different types of auxiliary lights. Askenazim lighting it first and the Sephardim lighting it last.

PM Netenyahu and Defense Minister Barak at army base lighting for the first night

The Rema will also go on to tell us that this auxiliary light should be longer than (יותר ארוך) than the rest of the lights so that one makes use of it. Though this explicitly means longer-lasting, not taller or higher, it is the custom of many Askenazim to also place this light above the mitzvah lights, on a single candelabrum with one branch rising higher for this auxiliary light to be placed upon. For practical reason this is helpful, to make better use of the light we should place it higher. It is the universal custom to not place the mitzvah lights too high so that we are not tempted to make ordinary use of them, but any additional lamps in the home are placed at a good and sufficient height to better illuminate the room. Though this does not need to apply to the Shamash, it is still appropriate and helpful.

All of this might seem confusing to some, virtually then entire Jewish world only knows the custom one way. Even the gentile world knows the symbol of the menorah through the lighting of the chanukiah – the 9 branched (8 arms, 1 Shamash) candelabrum that is lit for Chanukah. From the White House to your local shopping center you will find menorah lighting ceremonies to celebrate the holiday. We think of candles being lit. It seems self explanatory, you get a candle and you light the rest of them with it. If you had to pick which one was gonna to single out, it’s obviously going to be the Shamash.

Now lets try considering the Sephardic custom to light the Shamash last, and try to work through the mechanics of that with candles. And here we have a really big problem. That extra-candle is all good and well for extra light, but now it’s really close to the rest of the mitzvah lights so we are now prone to use them by using it. But is something that should be more drastically obvious to us to struggle with. This extra light is not even used for lighting the other candles so its superfluous; it doesn’t serve any real purpose. It doesn’t make any sense. Furthermore, it would seem frustrating because now we don’t know what we are supposed to be lighting the rest of the candles with.

As most of American Jewry is Eastern European (Ashkenazi) their custom is the most prevalent in our society. We understand this method. Being in America, it is true that olive oil in this day and age is not hard to acquire. And it is relatively affordable, though not necessarily inexpensive. However, candles are very inexpensive and we all know how to use them. If olive oil was as common to America as it is in the Mediterranean and middle-east, we would most likely make use of oil lamps for economical reasons instead.

The Chanukiah Candelabrum is not a Menorah

We do not need the finest olive oil to light. Nor need to have a special menorah to light Chanukah lights upon. All that is required is that we light the right amount of lights for the day and the Shamash. In the east it is the custom to use individual oil-lamps without placing them on a candelabrum. One does not even need separate lamps, one can use a single reservoir lamp with one wick for each night. Likewise, it is permissible for us to just light the right amount candles without use of a menorah. All that is required is we keep the ner mitzvot at the same height. This is true in any community.

We are not commemorating the Menorah, we are keeping the mitzvah of the miracle of the lights. We fulfill our obligation by lighting the lights, not by lighting a menorah. The two are very distinct from one another. This is expressed to us by the first words of the next paragraph in the words of the Maran:

| הדלקה עושה מצוה

The kindling is the mitzvah.”

Shulchan Aruch, O.C., Perek 673:2; Maran

Sure there are some Askenazim that do make use of olive oil for Chanukah lights. Sometimes the oil-lamps are placed in the form of a menorah, but one needs to be careful not to confuse the two. In relations to what we have already discussed, we cannot make use of the lights for any purpose; whereas the Menorah of the Tabernacle and the Second Temple period was utilized explicitly for lighting inside the sanctuary. The Menorah of the Temple had seven branches for oil-lamps and were regularly refilled with oil. At the center was an offset ner meharav (the western light) thats was perpetually kept lit, and it was utilized to relight the other lamps.

Though it is the stringent custom of some to relight Chanukah candles that are accidentally extinguished, it is also the stringency of such communities to not allow kindling one light off another: This is the sustained Ashkenazi opinion, despite being allowed by the Maran (674:1). The opinions of the Rema and subsequent Ashekenazi poskim are blatantly presented as stringencies. Naturally if one was using candles this would be reasonable as you want to use as much of the candle as possible and not waste it, and relighting is easy as one has an available Shamash with which to do so.

This opinion would be presented to us clearly in the mid-19th century by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried of Hungary in his widely celebrated Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (also popularly known as The Abridged Code of Jewish Law). This work of Ashkenazi scholarship is the single most well known reference for Jewish law and is considered the most accessible of all the halachic works. He would also reaffirm the points also established by the Rema. But notice he is going to add one extra statement before he explains to us the placement and the usage of the Shamash as an auxiliary light:

יג) ונוהגין להחמיר

שלא להדליק מנר לנר,

אלא מדליקן מן השמש

או מנר אחר.

|

יד) כל זמן

מצוותן,

דהיינו חצי שעה,

אסור ליהנות מאורן.

ולכן נוהגין להניח

אצלן את השַמָש

שהדליקן בו,

כדי שאם ישתמש אצלן

ישתמש לאור השַמָש.

וצריכין להניחו

קצת למעלה מן הנרות,

שיהא ניכר שאינו

ממניין

הנרות.

It is our custom to be stringent |

not to kindle from lamp to lamp, |

but to kindle it with the Shamash |

or another light. |

|

During the time of |

fulfilling the mitzvah, |

for an hour and a half long, |

it is forbidden to make use of it’s light. |

For this reason it is our custom to place |

near it the Shamash |

with which you kindle it, |

so that if one uses the light |

one is utilizing the light of the Shamash. |

You must place it |

a little higher than the [other] lights |

so that it is not considered among |

the count |

of the [mitzvah] lights.” |

Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfied (1804 to1886), of Hungary

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Chapter 139:13-14

Now for a moment I need us to step back and consider this for a second. All the commentaries up until now have relayed the information related the laws of Chanukah lights in a specific order. Naturally since all these works are themselves are commentaries and pretty much the “Cliff’s Notes” of the Shulchan Aruch, we expect the information to flow in accordance with that. The Rema who first comments on the Shulchan Aruch even keeps in complete step with the order of the Maran. In fact the Maran himself is following an order and line of thought already set up by the Tur (in the late 13th to early 14th century). But here Rabbi Ganzfried gets ahead of himself and starts interpreting the text broadly. Surely he knows whats coming up in the next chapter by the Maran so he has to make a pre-emptive statement; be stringent, do not light one light off of another light, but instead use the Shamash or another light. Though this should only really apply to relighting candles (which the verses immediately before this concern themselves with), he is making a blanket statement about lighting and relighting in one solid swoop.

I say “pre-emptively” because the next whole chapter of the Shulchan Aruch is going to be the Maran explicitly telling us that we are permitted to light one light from another. He says that we are actually even allowed to light one light right from the other without having a candle in between them to light with. However, he admonishes us that one is not allowed to light with an ordinary light; an ordinary candle (ner shel chol) / a weekday light. Though he admits some permit this, as long as there is not the fear that the light will go out in between lighting the Chanukah light with the ordinary candle (ha-ner shel chol).

20151213_181646The Rema and Ashkenazi tradition will disagree with this. The reason that is given to us by the Rema is based on a true assumption; only one of the candles is actually a mitzvah light, the one light for that specific night. The rest to the right of the light are to aggrandize the mitzvah, but in reality only one of the candles is necessary. We all know the story of how we came up with the lighting in this fashion, it was a debate of lighting one candle, or changing the order to correspond to 8 days in either by adding or subtracting lighting. In the end the tradition implemented by the Rabbis of the Talmud was that of adding lights so that we would come to an honored climax. (Talmud Shabbat 21b) On account of this it is felt that the other lights are less holy, because in essence we only really need one candle per day. If we were to light the first light then light the additional lights off of it, we are using the light of the mitzvah for something that is not necessary for a mitzvah, we are cheapening the mitzvah light by using it for a lesser act.

But like I said, I want to deal with only one chapter of the Code (though the text and translation for the section cited will be listed in the footnotes below), so I cannot go into more detail at this time for the sake of time. But there are some details we have to cover in order to understand why the next work also jumps the gun as well as.

First off, the reason that the Maran seems concerned that we do not take any ordinary object and take fire for the Chanukah lights for it is also in order to not appear to cheapen the mitzvah as well. He thinks its better practice to light one Chanukah light directly from another if necessary. First off there is a subtle assumption made, that by lighting up another candle from a sacred light in order to light another one thereby designates that item for sacred use and it should not be treated like an ordinary item from that point on. The other cause for concern seems to be that if one uses an intermediary candle, then one must be sure that the light is not likely to go out before completing the process of transferring the flame. If there is such a risk (like heavy wind for instance) attempting a transferring of the light for kindling is not permissible. We want it to be clear we only use the flame for a mitzvah and not for personal use in the interim of lighting, which would appear to be the case if the light went out before we actually lit another candle. Nachon, are we following along so far? It seems the Maran is making a stringency saying we shouldn’t use an intermediary candle, though some permit this.

The Sacred 36 Lights

Though a reason is provided above by the Rema, concerning the lesser “importance” of the other lights aside from the single light intended for that day; this will not be the final halacha for even Ashkenazim. In the end it is going to be tempered by generations of rabbis who are going to attest to the fact that because the other lights of the Chanukah count are set aside for a sacred use, they also have holiness imparted to them. They must be treated sacredly. By the time of Rabbi Ganzfied with his Kitzur the halacha is going to be established as such, and signified by us keeping all the mitzvah lights at the same height to signify they are for the mitzvah, and the Shamash we raise a little bit higher. This is the custom in all communities.

In the minds of many people the halachic process ends at this point. The halachic reasons presented up to now are sensible to us. Here we see the evolution of a halachic processes taking place in how we perform this mitzvah, it is natural for many to think that we should follow the rulings that is most contemporary; in this case the urgings of our Ashkenazi rabbis such as the honorable Rabbi Ganzfried. Some also see this as keeping in step with progress, we are moving from oil lamps to standard candles so the halacha shifts. However, Rabbi Ganzfried’s positions represent the Ashkenazi tradition in as much as he follows the ruling of the Rema. And furthermore, there is a voices even more contemporary that shares the Sephardi position.

We will find our Sephardi/Mizrahi position provided to us by the Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad. The Ben Ish Chai, one of the highest regarded “oriental” rabbis:

Do not light some oil lamps and some wax

so that it can not be said

two people have lit [sets of lights]

therefore this is not

a completed [also. elegant] mitzvah.

Therefore it is good that the entire set

of lights are equal;

in size, appearance and kind.

As one complete mitzvah.

It is good that this additional light,

called the Shamash,

be made distinct (Lit. strange)

from the Chanukah Lights

so that it is evident

that it is not part of the Chanukah lights.

And this is my custom.”

|

It is forbidden to light

from a sacred item

for [lighting] an ordinary item.

But from the additional light

it is permissible.

And there are the stringent

who also allow with an additional candle.”

יג) אין להדליק קצת נרות משמן וקצת משעוה, |

כדי שלא יאמרו |

שני אנשים הדליקו |

ועוד אין בזה |

הידור מצוה, |

ולכן טוב שגם גוף |

הנרות יהיו שוין |

בגודלן ומראיהם ומינם |

משום הידור מצוה, |

וטוב שזה נר הנוסף |

שקורין שמש |

יעשהו משונה |

מנרות חנוכה, |

כדי שיהא ניכר |

שאין זה בכלל נח |

וכן אני נוהג: |

|

יד) אסור להשתמש לאורה |

בין תשמיש קדושה |

בין תשמיש חול, |

אבל לנר הנוסף |

מותר |

ויש מחמירין |

גם בנר הנוסף… |

The Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim (1832 – 1909) of Baghdad

Shana Rishon, Halachot Chanukah

First off, before I get any further I must note that in the paragraph before this one (paragraph 12) the Ben Ish Chai who is a only 25 years the junior to Rabbi Ganzfried attests that we in the “orient” and near-eastern lands still use olive oil, he says of both Chanukah and Shabbat lights; only differences really is the quality of the wicks. He begins this by quoting the already discussed words of the Rema himself, “shemen zait mitzvah min ha’muvchar / olive oil is the mitzvah done to perfection.” But this shouldn’t be anything shocking to us, because this is also agreed upon in the Kitzur (139:4).

But instead of immediately going into making the argument and mechanics for using wax like the Kitzur does, here the Ben Ish Chai is going to say that its okay to use candles without making an argument for it. But he will present us with certain guidelines concerning this advancement. If we are going to use oil, then we use all the lights oil. If we use wax then all of the lights should be wax. This is because the lighting is one complete mitzvah. We need to keep the candles not only level with each other, but of the same kind so that it is obvious and apparent we are completing one whole mitzvah with these lights.

Now the Shamash should be distinct so it can be different from the rest of the lights. It seems to be suggested that it can not just be set aside, but be a strange candle or light that is different from the rest. We should raise it a little bit higher, or set it aside from the rest.

But what about lighting and relighting? He says we should not light weekday or ordinary lights from the sacred Chanukah lights, but from the additional light it is permissible. Sacred lights sacred, ordinary lights ordinary. But then he throws a zinger at us here. The stringent of the Sephardic custom allows one to light with an even additional candle yet. This is the light that we utilize for lighting the initial lights (which we light before we recite the blessings and light the number of lights for the day). We can take this third-party candle and use it to light; then put it out. If we relight, we can use this third-party candle again. Yes, we can even relight from the other Chanukah lights for another Chanukah light. But we should only light sacred with sacred, and non-sacred with non-sacred.

But what about the concern on transferring sacredness to the intermediary candle or temporarily using the light in the interim? The answer will be provided for us by another chacham, but this is one more closer to our day and age; in the voice of Rabbi Ovediah Yosef, shlitah, the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader to the Mizrahi and Sephardi communities to this day:

אסור להשתמש לאור

נרות חנוכה,

ואפילו תשמיש עראי

כגון לבדוק מעות

אולמנותן

לאורה אסור,

כדי שלא יהיו

המצוות בזויות עליו

(שבת כב.).

|

א) ותשמיש עראי של

מצוה מותר.

ולכן אם נסתפק לו דין

שהוא צורך חנוכה,

מותר להשתמש לאורה.

|

ב) ואפילו תשמיש של קדושה

כגון ללמוד

לאורה אסור

ולכן נוהגים להדליק נר נוסף

שנקרא שָׁמַשׁ

כדי שאם ישתמש לאורה,

יהיה לאור הנוסף,

שמדליקים אותו לאחרונה,

ונוהגים לתת הנר הנוסף יותר גבוה

מנרות המצוה,

ורמז לדבר:

|

ג) שרפים עומדים ממעל לו”,

שמנין נרות המצוה

בכל הלילות ביחד הם שלשים וששה

כמנין לו

ואם אי אפשר

להניח נר השמש

גבוה יותר משאר הנרות, יניחנו רחוק קצת מהם,

כדי שיהיה ניכר שאינו

מנרות המצוה.

It is forbidden to utilize the illumination of |

the Chanukah lights |

even if for a temporary use |

for things such as counting coins |

or examining; |

from the illumination is forbidden |

so that there is no |

contempt for the commandment. |

(Talmud Shabbat 22) |

|

Use of a temporary item for a |

mitzvah is allowed; |

therefore if we are satisfying a law |

that is necessary for Chanukah, |

the light may be used. |

|

Even for a use that is sacred |

such as learning, |

by the illumination it is forbidden. |

Therefore we kindle an additional light |

that is called the Shamash |

so that if we make use of the illumination |

it is from the additional light. |

So kindling it last, |

the additional light tending to be taller than |

the commanded candle lamps |

hinting to its meaning |

|

‘Seraphim stand above “it” [or Him]'(Is. 6:2)|

as the total lights of the mitzvah |

of all the nights together is 36 |

like the word ‘it.’ |

If you cannot place |

the Shamash light above |

we place it aside a little distance from them |

so much that it is not considered as a |

mitzvah lamp.” |

Rabbi Ovediah Yosef, (1920 – ) shelita; Rishon LeTzion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel)

Yalkut Yosef, Yayikra Yosef, from the “Kitzur Edition;”

Halachot Chanukah, Chapter 1- “אסור להשתמש לאורה

Herein he also provides us with a beautiful understanding of the mitzvah lights. Using a mystical understanding of the lights he notes that if we combine the amount of mitzvah lights that we light it comes to a total of 36. It is not just the single light for the night that is sacred, but mystically all 36 of the mitzvah candles we light over the eight days have spiritual virtue. They are like the holy seraphim, whose name literally means “the burning ones.” They stand around the Throne of G-d and proclaim the holiness of G-d (see Isaiah chapter 6.)

It also spells it out for us plainly. We can use any temporary item in order to light or relight the candles with, what ever is necessary in order to perform the mitzvah. Though we are not allowed to make use of the fire or illumination for any other purpose, even for fulfilling another mitzvah; but for the mitzvah of lighting or relighting the Chanukah lights we may temporarily use that light, or use a temporary item in order to accomplish that. It can be another match, or another candle. Generally we use another candle that is able to aid us with this, then when we are done using it we extinguish it, it does not need to be kept contentiously burning like the rest of the lights.

And here, as late as the 20th century despite innovations in halachic approach and even the instruments we utilize as Chanukah lights; the tradition of the Maran that was present in the Shulchan Aruch still holds true for Sephardic and Middle-eastern Jews up until the present day, at the urging of rabbis of our own tradition.

One’s Minhag: Is it Something to be Dogmatic About?

After Rabbi Ovediah Yosef left office as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, Rabbi Chaim David haLevi took the position, in which he served for over 25 years. He was a widely respected rabbi who was known for his temperance, wisdom, modernity and keen insight. His Kitzur Mekor Chaim (named after the larger 5 volume halachic work, the Mekor Chaim haLevi, which would also become his nickname) became a standard text used in the Israeli religious education system and in Religious Zionists yeshivot. He is uncompromisingly Sephardi in tradition, but is bold in bridging the gap between the customs of the Jews of the East Orient and those of Eastern Europe by even including Ashkenazi halacha in his conclusions when appropriate. It’s this balance that made it a widely accepted work.

He would not be very explicit about the order of the lighting of the Shamash. Notice the vagueness of the language in the conclusions he provides us, he tries being true to each tradition by applying an open-ended statement that is applicable no matter which school you are hailing from:

On the first night

kindling one

and adding one more each night,

as is well know.

Therefore, it is the custom

that each member of the household

light his own.

And it is forbidden to utilize

the light of the Chanukah lights

even for a sacred use

such as learning Torah;

for this reason it is the proper custom

to light an additional light

called the Shamash;

so that if you use it,

it is from the illumination of the

additional light

which we place a small distance

from the rest of the lights.”

ו) בלילה הראשון |

מדליק אחד |

ומוסיף אחד בכל לילה |

כידוע. |

ויש נהגים |

שכל אחד מבני הבית |

נר לעצמו. |

ואסור להשתמש |

לאור נרות חנוכה |

אפילו תשמיש קדושה |

כגון למוד תורה, |

ולכן נוהגים |

להדליק נר נוסף |

הנקרא שמש, |

כדי שאם ישתמש |

יהיה זה לאור |

הנר הנוסף, |

ויניחנו רחוק קצת |

מיתר הנרות. |

Rabbi Chaim David haLevi (1924-1998), Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo

Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Halachot Nerot, p.282

There is one interesting feature though in this statement. He would interestingly seem to not stand behind the already established Sephardi customs of permitting only the head of the house to kindle the Chanukah lights, appearing to side with the Ashkenazi tradition that each person old enough has to light their own Chanukiah.

Though one might assume that his approach of balancing both traditions left him with a choice regarding the application of the clause referring to who is obligated to light the Chanukah lights. Some have incorrectly assumed that he has sided with the Ashkenazi approach, as this custom is choicest and more logical. They disregard various passages from the Maran himself, were he twice he suggests to us that one who is old enough to learn is obligated to light too.

His opinion seems to be that everyone should light, nonetheless we must keep in mind that the obligation of lighting is performed by the head of the household only in the Sephardic tradition.

It should be noted that all Sephardic poskim prior to this have ruled that one should not allow children to light the mitzvah lights, but they are permitted to light the Shamash or any other additional light. This was first provided in clarity to us by the Ben Ish Chai:

It is good that one should give

to his small sons

a little extra candle to light for themselves,

so that they can be educated in the mitzvot.

So with this small extra light

they can perform a small mitzvah.

And this is my custom,

and it is proper to do so.

However, do not let them kindle

the obligatory lights…”

טוב ליתן לאחד |

מבניו הקטנים |

להדליק בידם נר הנוסף |

כדי לחנכם במצות, |

שגם בזה הנר הנוסף |

יש קצת מצוה, |

וכן אני נוהג |

וראוי לעשות כך, |

אבל לא יתן להם להדליק |

מנרות של חיוב… |

Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad

Halachot Chanukah, Paragraph 12

However regarding the type of lights we should use, he will be a bit more explicit concerning them. He would present the words of the Maran and the Rema almost exactly, choosing only to simplify the grammar of the text. He would also add an opinion regarding the use of electric lights. Here the Mekor Chaim brings us into the modern age:

ט) כל השמנים והפתילות כשרים לנר חנוכה, |

ושמן זית מצוה מן המובחר. ונהגו מהדליק בנר |

שעוה כי אורו |

זך וצלולץ. |

ואין יוצאים ידי חובה |

באור החשמל |

להדלקת נר חנוכה. |

All oils are permissible for Chanukah lights,

and olive oil is a mitzvah done to perfection.

There are those who light

wax for a pure and clean light.

But there is no fulfillment of an obligation

with a electric light

lit as a Chanukah light.”

Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Halachot Nerot, p.283

The Kitzur Mekor Chaim is an ideal example of modern scholarship, presenting halachic opinions necessary for our current age. It brings down law without disregarding the halacic opinions of those who came before us.

His approach is very much like that of the Baal haTanya, who presents to us a mixture of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi tradition. Whereas the Baal haTanya sought to produce a nusach and siddur that was applicable for all Israel, the Mekor Chaim sought to produce a halachic reference that was also applicable for all Israel. They both present us what is true and necessary in the broader sense. Their statements are most often purposely left open to interpretation. This is not a fault, but instead another example of their brilliance in that they were able to produce a text usable by the general public; without the pitfalls of dogmatism. That is not to say that they don’t have opinions, as they were both prolific halachic commentators who published extensively; but this just isn’t the place for it. That which is not mentioned here should be understood according to our own minhag, we are not allowed to disregard our own tradition. This is because of the general legal principal that:

The custom of Israel is Law”

מנהג ישראל, תורה הוא |

Chida, Mihazik Beracha 261:7

Now if we want to understand our minhag, that requires more than just a passing reference in a single volume. That requires an honest and deeper look at the halachic process. Once we do that, it is very apparent that we are actually a lot more alike than we are different.

Need the blessings to light your Chanukah lights? Get them HERE


1] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 674:1

מדליקין נר חנוכה מנר חנוכה ודוקא להדליק זה מזה בלא אמצעי אבל להדליק מזה לזה על ידי נר של חול אסור ויש מתירים גם בזה אאכ הוא בענין שיש לחוש שיכבה הנר של חול קודם שידליק נר אחר של חנוכה:

MARAN: We [Sephardim] many kindle one Chanukah light from another Chanukah light, in fact kindle one from another without without an intermediary, but to kindle one from another through a non-sacred light is prohibited. However, there are those who permit even this, unless there is the feeling that the non-sacred light will be extinguished before he kindles the other Chanukah light.”

הגה: ונהגו להחמיר בנרות חנוכה שלא להדליק אפילו מנר לנר דעיקר מצותו אינו אלא נר אחד והשאר אינו למצוה:

REMA: We [Ashkenazim] have adopted the custom to be stringent regarding the Chanukah lights; not even to kindle one from another; because the main mitzvah is one light, and the rest are not so much for the mitzvah.”

2] Shulchan Aruch O.C. 671:2

סעיף ב — כמה נרות מדליק? בלילה הראשון מליק אחד. מכאן ואילך מוסיף והולך, אחד בכל לילה, עד שבליל האחרון יהיו שמונה. ואפילו אם רבים בני הבית, לא ידליקו יותר.

MARAN: How many lights should one light? On the first night light one. And then continue on adding additional; one every night until he ends with eight. And even if there are many more members of the household, one should not add more.

הגה: ויש אומרים דכל אחד מבני הבית ידליק (רמב”ם), וכן המנהג פשוט. ויזהרו ליתן כל אחד ואחד נרותיו במקום מיוחד, כדי שיהא היכר כמה נרות מדליקין.

REMA: But there are those who say that each member of the house should light; (Rambam) and therefore it is the widespread custom. One should be careful to place their lights in their own separate space, so that one can recognize how many lights they have lit.

Shulchan Aruch O.C. 675:3

סעיף ג – מי שאומר בקטן שהגיע לחינוך מותר.

MARAN: There are those who say that small children old enough to be educated are permitted [to light].

הגה: ולדידן דכל אחד מבני הבית מדליק בפ”ע קטן שהגיע לחינוך צריך להדליק ג”כ.

REMA: And for us, each member of the household [is obligated to] light. There are those who say even a small child that is old enough to be educated must light.

Shulchan Aruch O.C. 677:2

סעיף ב — קטן שהגיע לחינוך צריך להדליק:

MARAN: A small child that is old enough to be educated must light.


Talkback! – Messy-Antics Evangelizing Jewish Witches?


 

Apparently religious Jews are so well educated about “messianic” Christian Hebrew claims that now they are seeking out those in the “new age” and in mystical schools. Let’s all admit it, many mystical schools, eastern schools, and occult groups were either founded or are headed by Jews. There has been a deep need for spirituality among Jews, and out of necessity many are seek it elsewhere. And the missionaries know this so they are seeing out Jews in these channels now.

Honestly, it’s really gross that people use deceptive means to even take advantage of the Jewish media in order to exploit Jews; they dare not present their faith as what it really is. They are trying new ways, but still with the same attitude of using Jews as some sort of trophy and notches in their belts.

What can we learn about ourselves in this situation though? What should we do to meet the spiritual needs of our people so they don’t need to “leave home” to find what they require on a heart level?

See my rant… tell me what you think…


The PULP Kiddush/Kaddish


The PULP Kiddush/Kaddish

Tired of people who can’t tell their kiddish (blessings for the Sabbath)  from their kaddish (prayer for the dead)? Well, it sets Samuel L. Jackson off too! But he found a way of making a bracha (blessing) and mourning the dead at the same time. Now I can’t vouch for the origins of his nusach (custom) but it sounds very effective!

Most people haven’t noticed, the only real part from the Bible is that last section, the first two parts are actually his own spiel:

“The path of the righteous man

is beset on all sides with the iniquities of the selfish

and the tyranny of evil men.

דרך צדיקים |

זרועה עוולות ודרך |

הרע של רשעים |

Blessed is he who in the name of charity

and good will shepherds the weak through

the valley of darkness,

for he is truly his brother’s keeper

and the finder of lost children.

ברוך הוא אשר בשם החסד |

יוביל כרועה את החלש |

בגיא צלמוות |

כי הוא שומר אחיו האמיתי |

ומקבץ הילדים האבודי |

“And I will strike down upon those with great vengeance and with furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know that my name is the L-rd when I lay my vengeance upon thee” (Ezekiel 25:17)

וְעָשִׂיתִי בָם נְקָמוֹת גְּדֹלוֹת, |

בְּתוֹכְחוֹת חֵמָה; |

וְיָדְעוּ כִּי-אֲנִי יי, |

בְּתִתִּי אֶת-נִקְמָתִי בָּם |

Rabbi Jules Winnfield, in the name of Marsellus Wallace, circa 1994


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