Halakhic Discussions

Darkness We Have Come to Dispel: Between The Light of Hanukkah and the Black Shabbat

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Mois Navon

On Oct. 7, 2023, the day that has come to be called “the Black Sabbath,” our enemies darkened our eyes and our world. To overcome them, we must fight them with light. Of course, I do not mean to imply that we must not physically fight those who came to physically destroy us. Rather, as intimated by the popular Hanukkah song, “Darkness we have come to dispel, in our hands light and fire” (“banu hoshekh legareish, be-yadeinu or va-eish”), we must fight with both light and fire. The fire power will be brought by the IDF; but the light is for each and every one of us to bring. To truly prevail, both physically and spiritually, we must connect to our light. That light, I suggest, is none other than the light of Hanukkah.

The Unusual Laws Of Hanukkah
To understand the great power of the light of Hanukkah, let us begin with an interesting dilemma brought in the Gemara (Shabbat 23b). The question is asked: What do you do if you only have enough money for either wine for Friday night kiddush or a candle for Hanukkah? Which do you buy? The Gemara answers unequivocally, “A candle for Hanukkah,” because lighting the Hanukkah candles inspires not only the individual but publicizes the miracle to others (pirsumei nisa).

Now, while no one argues against this conclusion, many question how the biblical commandment of Friday night kiddush can be overridden by the rabbinic commandment of Hanukkah candles. The overwhelming majority of commentators respond that the biblical demand for kiddush itself is not being overridden, but rather the use of wine is, which is a rabbinic institution. In fact, they argue that the Hanukkah candles only take precedence over the wine if one has bread to use as its substitute to recite kiddush (see, e.g., Rashba, Ran, Penei Yehoshua, ad loc.).

Taz (Orah Hayim 678:2), however, argues that, for Rambam, the importance of the Hanukkah candle is so great that it overrides not only wine for kiddush but bread as well![1] It is not that Rambam forgoes kiddush altogether, but that biblically one can fulfill it with words alone: “It is a positive commandment from the Torah to sanctify (lekadeish) the Sabbath day in words” (Hilkhot Shabbat 29:1). From here we learn that the Hanukkah light is so important that, while others can’t imagine a kiddush without wine or bread, Rambam would rather you light a candle and simply say the words of the kiddush.

Rambam, in fact, goes even further in his endorsement of the Hanukkah light, placing it not only above food, but above even clothing: “Even if one has nothing to eat other than from charity, he should beg or sell his clothing in order to purchase oil and wicks and light [the Hanukkah candle]” (Hil. Hanukkah 4:12). Clearly, Rambam understands the commandment of the Hanukkah candle to be of profound significance. Indeed, he reserves for this commandment, and this one alone, the commendation that it is a “greatly beloved commandment” (“mitzvah havivah ad me’od”). Yet what, we must ask, is so “beloved” about lighting a candle?

Before we can answer that philosophical question, we must attend to the halakhic question here: what is the source for the idea that one must be willing to go naked in order to light this beloved candle? This question is addressed by Maggid Mishneh (ad loc.) who notes that there is no explicit source for this extreme ruling. He explains, however, that there is a parallel found in the law on purchasing the four cups of wine for the Pesah seder.

Rambam (Hil. Hameitz U-Matzah 7:7) writes that a poor person must, if need be, take charity money to fulfill the mitzvah of the four cups. This ruling is found in the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:1), and elaborated on by the Gemara (Pes. 112a), which explains that the reason one is allowed to take charity here, contrary to the general prohibition against making oneself a burden on the community, is because of the associated pirsumei nisa. Rashbam (ad loc., s.v. ve-afilu) explains here that if the pauper cannot attain charity funds, he is to sell his clothes to fulfill the mitzvah of the four cups.

Based on all of this, Maggid Mishneh argues that if a pauper has to go to such lengths to publicize the miracle through the four cups, “all the more so” (“kol shekein”) must he do so to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah, thus explaining Rambam’s ruling. Now, while this seems logical, Lehem Mishneh (ad loc.) is puzzled by the use of “all the more so” to make the point. He explains that if the four cups demand that a pauper sell his clothes to fulfill the commandment due to its having the aspect of pirsumei nisa, and the Hanukkah candle also has the aspect of pirsumei nisa, we can conclude, transitively, that the Hanukkah candle also demands a pauper sell his clothes to fulfill the commandment. Why, asks Lehem Mishneh, bring “all the more so” to the argument? Indeed, in what way is the pirsumei nisa of the one greater than the other? Lehem Mishneh leaves the issue as “tzarich iyun,” needing further investigation.[2]

Let us now attempt that investigation, which is really an inquiry into all of the unusual notions we have raised:

  • Why is the commandment of the Hanukkah candle “greatly beloved”?
  • Why does a pauper have to sell his clothes to light the Hanukkah candle?
  • Why does the pirsumei nisa of the Hanukkah candle have more import than that of the four cups?
  • Why does the Hanukkah candle override kiddush with wine or bread?

Let us begin with the Friday night kiddush. What is this kiddush really about? A quick review of the text reveals that it is primarily about God as Creator (Borei yeish mei-ayin) with a plan. A key sentence is: “And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it He ceased from all His work – asher bara Elokim la’asot – which God in creating had made.”[3] The Midrash notes that the last word is not, “had made” (“asah”), but rather “to do” (“la’asot”), rendering the phrase as, “which God had created to do.” From this the Midrash learns that, following the completion of God’s work, “there is still other work” to be done.[4] God has a plan, a goal, and it is upon humanity to complete it.

The kiddush also refers to God as providential, as being involved in history to bring about His plan for creation. This is found in the words explaining that the Sabbath day is not only “a commemoration of creation” (“zikaron le-ma’aseih bereishit”) but “a commemoration of the Exodus” (“zeicher li-yetzi’at Mitzrayim”) – i.e., the seminal event in which God entered history to redeem the Jewish people. In consonance, there is mention of the Jewish people as being chosen: “And He desired us” (“ve-ratzah vanu”). In sum, the Friday night kiddush gives expression to the fundamentals of faith: belief in a creator who is involved in history and has chosen the Jewish people as His agents in His story.

The kiddush, however, does not entail any formal (halakhic) aspect of pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracles of creation and the Exodus. We recite the kiddush to internalize these fundamental principles of our faith, primarily for ourselves and, at most, for our families.

Four Cups
That brings us to the four cups drunk at the Pesah seder. What exactly is the message behind the four cups? The Jerusalem Talmud (Pes. 10:1) teaches that they are representative of the four (expressions of) redemption:

“And I will bring you out (ve-hotzeiti), and I will rescue you (ve-hitzalti), and I will redeem you (ve-ga’alti), and I will take you (ve-lakahti).”

Expressed here, quite unambiguously, is the principle of God as providential, involved in history, as well as the notion of the Jewish people’s fateful role in God’s plan. Furthermore, in that the redemption was of a miraculous nature (i.e., from the ten plagues through the splitting of the sea), expressed here is the principle of God as Creator (yeish miei-ayin). This is because, as Ramban (Gen. 1:1) explains, in order for God to perform miracles that defy nature, He has to have been the creator of that very nature. If God did not create the world from nothing but only chanced upon its primordial existence, He would necessarily be restricted by the laws of the nature that He found (see especially R. Chavel, ad loc.; also Rambam, Treatise on Resurrection #42 and Guide 2:25).

Thus, as in the Friday night kiddush, the four cups give expression to the fundamentals of faith: belief in a creator, involved in history, with the Jewish people at the center of His story. They differ in emphasis, with the kiddush highlighting the notion of Creator, while the four cups highlight divine providence. The critical difference between the two, however, is not in emphasis but in pirsumei nisa. For, whereas the kiddush is recited to imbue the individual and his family with the fundamentals of faith, the four cups are designated to take the message to the nation – i.e., through the joining of families in havurot to share in the korban Pesah meal.[5]

Hanukkah Candles
And thus we arrive at the Hanukkah candles. What are these candles really about? Reading the Ha-neirot Halalu (“These Candles”) prayer, it is clear that they are about conveying the miracles and the salvation of the nation:

We kindle these lights [to commemorate] the saving acts, miracles, and wonders which You have performed for our forefathers, in those days at this time, through Your holy priests. Throughout the eight days of Hanukkah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great name for Your miracles, for Your wonders, and for Your salvations.

The Hanukkah candles, then, clearly express the notion of divine providence and the critical importance of the Jewish people as part of God’s story. In addition, as Ramban notes, by acknowledging God as working miracles that defy nature, we acknowledge God as Creator of that very nature (yeish mei-ayin). Accordingly, the Hanukkah candles represent precisely the same fundamentals of faith as do the four cups – with one important caveat. The miracles performed by God to save the Jewish people from Egypt were done by God, and God alone: “The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace” (Ex. 14:14). In contrast to this passivity of the people at the Exodus, the war of the Maccabees was fought actively by the people, with the help of God:

“You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah” (Al Ha-Nisim prayer).

It is this message, notes Maharal (Hiddushei Aggadot, Shabbat 21b, s.v. ke-shenichnesu), that is of the essence in the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. He explains that the miracles being extolled through the lighting of the Hanukkah candles are none other than the military miracles! He writes that the miracle of the candles was merely instrumental, done by God in order to drive home the understanding that the military victory was no less miraculous than the oil lasting eight days. This was necessary since, then as today, people tend to view military victories as a result of their own strength.

Having understood the essential messages of the Hanukkah candles, the big question is: who is the intended audience for “publicizing the miracle”?[6] As it turns out, the halakhic decisors are split into two camps, depending on how one interprets a rare word in the Gemara (R. Moshe Sternbach, Moadim Uzmanim 2:141). The Gemara (Shabbat 21a) teaches that one must, ideally, light Hanukkah candles “until there is no wayfarer in the marketplace” (“ad she-tikhleh regel min ha-shuk”). The Gemara then specifies that this is “until the Tarmodians have departed [from the marketplace].” While this may have been quite helpful when written, later readers were left to determine what exactly is the meaning of “Tarmodian.”

Rif maintains that the term refers to Jewish wood sellers, whereas Rashi holds that it refers to non-Jews. Accordingly, the “Rif camp” believes that pirsumei nisa is exclusively toward Jews,[7] while the “Rashi camp” maintains that pirsumei nisa is intended for both Jews and non-Jews.[8] Now, though I am certainly not going to “put my head between these mountains” to resolve this dispute, I will suggest that if the Rashi camp is right that the pirsumei nisa of the Hanukkah candles extends not only to oneself, one’s family, and the Jewish nation, but rather to the entire world, we will have answered Lehem Mishneh’s question on Maggid Mishneh. In other words, we can now understand exactly why the pirsumei nisa of the Hanukkah candles is – “all the more so” – greater than that of the four cups: it is a publicization to the entire world![9]

To summarize, all three commandments – kiddush, the four cups, and Hanukkah candles – serve to imbue us with the fundamentals of our faith:

  1. The world was created from nothing (yeih mei-’ayin) by a purposive Creator.
  2. The Creator remains involved in guiding history toward His goal, performing supernatural miracles to ensure that His will is achieved.
  3. He has chosen the Jewish people to be the primary agents of His will in bringing about the completion of creation.

And while the kiddush brings these ideas home to the individual and his family, and the four cups expand the circle, transforming Jewish families into a community and a nation united by these principles, it is only the Hanukkah candles that take the message to the world, realizing the mission “to be a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).[10] Thus, the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote, “The mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles emphasizes the role of the Jew to light up the world with the light of holiness…” (Sichat Ner 1, Hanukkah 5652).

This is the greatness of the light of Hanukkah. It is a light that connects us to our fundamental beliefs. It is a light that connects us as a people to a story, to a purpose, to a power. Hanukkah is about connecting us, inspiring us, empowering us. [In a way, the Hanukkah candles flickering in every window are like all the Israeli flags now waving on every street corner in Israel with signs that read: “Yahad Nenatzei’ah” (“United we will Prevail”). There is no doubt that our strength is in our unity (Bereishit Rabbah 78; Y. Pei’ah 1:1). But, while the flags represent the will to survive, the Hanukkah candles represent the will to thrive – to fulfill the very purpose of creation].

It is because of this great power of the light of the Hanukkah candles that the commandment is greatly beloved (havivah ad me’od) – for it gives purpose to our lives. And this is why a pauper must sell his clothes to light Hanukkah candles – for what good are clothes if you have no purpose. And this is why we forgo saying kiddush on wine (or bread) in order to light Hanukkah candles – for what good is personal holiness if it is not connected to national holiness. And this is why the four cups are seen as less significant than the Hanukkah candles – for what good is national holiness if we don’t bring it to the world.

To conclude, our enemies have darkened our world to no end, but we will dispel the darkness through our miraculous candles – our candles that connect us all to each other, to our purpose, to our strength, to our God. We will be victorious over darkness – over pure evil – as it was in those days at this time.

[1] As an important aside, Taz explains that this position of kiddush without even bread is purely theoretical, since there is a biblical obligation to have two loaves of bread for the meal. Therefore, one would need to have bread on the table regardless. Nevertheless, the eminent value of the Hanukkah candles still stands.

[2] While we will herein attempt to respond, it should be noted that we have been preceded by many others. See Zvi Ryzman, “Pirsumei Nisa in Four Cups and Hanukkah Candles,” in Ratz K’Zvi: Hanukkah-Purim.

[3] Translation according to the Masoretic Text and the JPS 1917 Edition, http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0102.htm. All other translations are my own.

[4] Pesikta Rabbati (Piska 6); Tanhuma (Buber), Gen. 17; Yalkut Shimoni (Kings I, 186).

[5] While some maintain  that pirsumei nisa is limited to the individual family (e.g., Avnei Neizer, OH 501), the notion of the havurah, I would argue, indicates that a broader audience is intended. Indeed, in discussing the significance of the havurah, R. Soloveitchik writes: “The ceremony of the Passover meal, centered around the paschal lamb, aims at the emergence of the new chesed community… of a nation within which people unite, give things away, care for each other, share what they possess – [as] symbolized by the korban Pesach.” Chumash Masores HaRav, Shemos, 86-87. 

[6] For a comprehensive review, see Zvi Ryzman, Ratz K’Zvi: BeMaaglei Hashana, Vol. 2, Siman 3.

[7] See, e.g., Igrot Moshe (OH 4:105), Moadim U’Zmanim (2:141), Hashukei Hemed (Shabbat 21b), Lehorot Natan (4:63:3), Mishnah Sachir (OH 297).

[8] See, e.g., Hatam Sofer, Hitorerut Ha-Teshuvah 1:153, R. Soloveitchik, Days of Deliverance, 198, R. Elyashiv, Shabbat 21b, 10, Panas Shelomo, 3, quoted in Moadim U’Zmanim 2:141, Harerei Kedem 1:140.

[9] Similarly, see Avnei Neizer (OH 501:3), Shevut Yaakov (3:49). And while Lehem Mishneh’s point stands (i.e., the transitive argument could be made without “all the more so”), Maggid Mishneh is making the argument emphatically. As a related aside, according to the Rashi camp, the pirsumei nisa of the Hanukkah candles is “all the more so” greater than the pirsumei nisa of the megillah reading which is, like that of the four cups, extended only to the Jewish nation and not the entire world.

[10] While the more accurate translation is “light of nations,” I use the popular translation to highlight the pirsumei nisa theme.

Mois Navon is one of the founding engineers of Mobileye, where he designed the EyeQ family of SoC (System On a Chip) - the chip powering the autonomous vehicle revolution. He holds a B.S. degree in computer engineering from UCLA, an M.A. degree in Jewish Philosophy from Bar Ilan University, and has rabbinic ordination through Yeshivat Mercaz Harav. Working at the intersection of Torah U-Madda, he is currently pursuing his PhD at the department of Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan University where his thesis seeks to apply Jewish philosophy to address the ethical questions arising in the field of artificial intelligence. In this vein, he teaches a course on “Ethics in Big Data and Artificial Intelligence” at Ben Gurion University. His work can be found at www.divreinavon.com.