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"The Torah is light"


Written by the rabbi

Dedicated to the memory of
Yaakov Ben Behora

1. "The Torah is light."
2. Candle - Torah; Candles - Precepts
3. Deciding Where to Begin
4. One and Seven Is Eight
5. How Many Holidays Here?
6. Ascending in Sanctity

"The Torah is light."
In his commentary to Pirkei Avot, the acclaimed Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehudah Liva) writes:
"All of the Divine commandments are One, a single unity. This idea finds expression in the verse, "A commandment is like a flame..." - i.e., each commandment is an individual flame. However, the Torah is not the mere sum total of many individual flames; rather, "the Torah is light." The Torah, which contains all of the individual commandments, is a single unified light. The flames unite to form one great light, for the Torah is a single unit..." (op. cit. 4:2)

Candle - Torah; Candles - Precepts
The above passage provides us with a picture of two distinct realities: (1) the individual Divine commandment, which resembles a flame and illuminates a limited area without the aid of any other external factor; (2) the Torah as whole, in relation to which the candle represents a single isolated part. In the Al Hanisim Chanukah prayer, we recall the fact that "the Greek Empire rose up against Your people in order to strip them of their Torah and cause them to transgress their laws, etc." The Greeks attempted to destroy both the Torah as a whole and its individual commandments. When the Hasmoneans succeeded in defeating them and instituted the lighting of candles to publicize the victory, they allowed two possible ways of fulfilling the commandment: (1) the kindling of an single candle on each night of Chanukah; (2) the kindling of additional candles as an expression of embellishment. The individual candle symbolizes the Torah as a whole - one large entity which, as noted, is more than the mere sum of its constituent commandments. The additional candles allude to the Torah's individual commandments, which are the concrete outward manifestation of the Torah's single inner essence. The actual commandment to light candles is fulfilled by the kindling of a single candle each night, which represents the Torah as a whole from which all commandments derive their origin. The additional candles are a mere embellishment.

Deciding Where to Begin

Taking this into account, it becomes possible to understand the well-known discrepancy between the schools of Shammai and Hillel regarding the kindling of Chanukah candles. According to the school of Shammai, one starts by lighting eight candles, and then decreases the number each evening. This school of thought believes it important to begin by alluding to the individual commandments, for they are an outer manifestation of the Torah as a whole, and it was them which the Greeks attempted to eradicate. The disintegration of the Torah as a whole would necessarily follow once the individual commandments had been done away with. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, held that at the outset we must allude to the essential indivisible inner force, of which the separate constituent precepts are mere outward manifestations, despite the fact that this aspect could not be destroyed by the Greek juggernaut unless it first destroyed the Torah's individual statutes.

One and Seven Is Eight
This also explains why we light Chanukah candles for eight days and not seven (for, after all, the miracle itself lasted only seven days; there was enough oil to burn for one day without a miracle): the individual first candle represents "to make them forget their Torah," while the remaining seven stand for "to cause them to transgress their precepts."

How Many Holidays Here?
Is the lighting of candles during the eight days of Chanukah one continuous commandment or does each day stand alone as a separate commandment? It would appear that the answer to this question depends upon the various explanations provided by Torah authorities to the question addressed above: why do we celebrate eight days of Chanukah and not seven? Meiri (R. Menachem ben Shlomo), explains that candle-lighting on the first day of Chanukah commemorates the redemption and the discovery of the flask of untainted olive oil; the following seven days commemorate the miracle of the oil. This would appear to indicate that there is no inherent connection between the laws applying to the candle-lighting on the first day and those applying to the candle-lighting on the other seven says (Shabbat 21b). However, according to Rosh (Rabbenu Asher ben Yechiel) the miracle lay in the fact that on each day of Chanukah the day's-worth of oil in the Temple menorah was diminished by only one eighth. Alternately, Rosh suggests that the oil in the menorah did not diminish on the first day at all, and therefore a miracle occurred even on the first day. We find, then, that according to both of Rosh's explanations, the eight days of Chanukah commemorate a single miracle, and hence constitute one continuous commandment.

However, an additional question arises. The Meiri asks why it is that during Chanukah we recite the full Hallel thanksgiving prayer on each of the holiday's eight days and not merely on the first day, as is the case with Passover. He concludes that, because a miracle occurred on each day of Chanukah, each day is deserving of the Hallel prayer. We too may conclude that each day is a holiday in its own right. Accordingly, Rema (R. Moshe ben Yisrael Isserles) rules that if somebody failed to light the candles on one of the days of Chanukah he continues lighting the appropriate number of candles on the following day as if nothing had happened. The implication, then, is that each day of Chanukah is a independent holiday.

Ascending in Sanctity
This would appear to be the backdrop of the earlier-mentioned discrepancy between the schools of Shammai and Hillel (Shabbat 21b): the school of Hillel holds that the eight days of Chanukah constitute one continuous holiday. Therefore, on the first day of Chanukah a person lights a single candle and continues to add a candle each night - for there is a rule in Judaism that we ascend in sanctity and do not descend. The school of Shammai, however, holds that each day is a holiday in its own right, and because there is no inherent bond uniting the days of Chanukah, the rule of ascending in sanctity does not apply. We therefore diminish by one the number of candles lit each day.


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