Our lives are full of value judgments. We learn to make decisions on these issues when dilemmas relating to our society, our religion, our culture or ourselves arise. While it is easy to declare loyalty to a particular value, it is very difficult to decide which value to prefer when two or more come into conflict. But it is when these situations do arise that the moral position of our society becomes apparent and our core values are revealed.
In two short chapters of Mishneh Torah, Maimonides completes his discussion of all the laws of Chanukah. The first two laws, which open his discussion, answer the famous question: “What is Chanukah?” Why did our sages decide to set Chanukah as a holiday? Maimonides lists the two famous aspects of Chanukah — the victorious revolt enabling the establishment of the Hasmonean kingdom and the miracle of the oil lamp.
It is interesting to note that in the first law, Maimonides involves God. He states that the mercy of God saved Israel from its enemy, while in the second — the discussion of the oil lamp — he does not mention God or a miracle: “They could not find any pure oil in the Sanctuary, with the exception of a single cruse. It contained enough oil to burn for merely one day. They lit the candles from it for eight days until they could crush olives and produce pure oil.” Maimonides sees the successful revolt and Hasmonean independence — the last period of Jewish independence in Israel for 2,000 years, until the establishment of the State of Israel — as the essence of the festival and as the miracle which should be publicized. Over the years, scholars have debated whether our Sages wanted the Hasmoneans to be forgotten. Maimonides clearly does not. This law holds moral significance. A war for the liberty of the nation and for freedom of religion is worthy of celebration with splendor and glory.
So how should we celebrate Chanukah?
We celebrate Hasmonean independence by saying the Hallel prayers. The miracle of the oil lamp and winning of religious freedom are celebrated by lighting Chanukah candles. Maimonides concludes the laws of candlelighting with a series of rulings relating to halachic values: “The mitzvah of kindling Chanukah lamps is very important, and we should be very careful in its observance as it publicizes the miracle of Chanukah and our thanks to God for the miracles, which He wrought on our behalf.”
The laws of Chanukah should be fulfilled to the last detail: “Even the poorest of people should pawn or sell their garments to purchase oil and lamps in order to fulfill the mitzvah of Chanukah.” Such was the importance of celebrating Chanukah with the people of Israel, praising the Lord, and taking part in the spiritual dimension of the holiday.
The importance of this mitzvah is not expressed only in the sacrifice of “the shirt off one’s back” as Maimonides goes on to explain: “When a person has only a single coin and is required to fulfill both the mitzvot of making Kiddush on Shabbat and lighting the Chanukah lamp, he should give precedence to purchasing oil to kindle the Chanukah lamp over purchasing Kiddush wine.”
Publicizing the miracle of Chanukah is viewed as more important than publicizing the miracles of Creation and the exodus from Egypt that we mention in the Kiddush prayer on Shabbat. This is in contrast with the halachic directive of honoring events that take place on a regular basis over those that occur less often. At this point Maimonides raises the dilemma of what to do when the commandments of Shabbat and Chanukah candles conflict.
“If a person has the opportunity to fulfill only one of two mitzvot, lighting a lamp for one’s wife or lighting a Chanukah lamp — or, alternatively, lighting a lamp for one’s wife or reciting Kiddush — the lamp for one’s wife comes first, as it generates peace within the home.”
Surprisingly, the Talmud, followed by Maimonides, determines that the kindling of Shabbat candles, a commandment usually attributed to women, precedes the great value of publicizing the Chanukah miracle, which he has just explained as taking precedence over a person’s concern for himself and the sanctification of the Sabbath. Maimonides highlights the ideological significance of this ruling and explains that it is a moral and values-based law.
The Shabbat candles are the light of the immediate family. Lighting up the small, private, daily and mundane aspects of our life, they take precedence over the obligation to publicize the grand, national miracle. For peace between husband and wife, even God gives space:
“Peace is the most important aspect of our life. This is reflected by the mitzvah requiring God’s name to be set aside to create peace between husband and wife.”
My teacher and Rabbi, Professor David Hartman of blessed memory, loved to teach those halachot. He used to explain that these laws place the myriad achievements of Jewish culture on the value of family. Maimonides takes this value even further and ascribes it to the entire Torah. He provides us with a meta-halachic key to understand the entire Torah:
“Peace is great, for the entire Torah was given to bring peace to the world, as Proverbs 3:17 states: ‘The ways of Torah are pleasant and all of its paths are peace.’ ”
Chanukah is about publicizing the miracle. However, almost paradoxically, the same laws that eliminate the obligation of lighting Chanukah candles — reveal the priorities of Jewish culture. If people passing a window on Friday night do not see the bright light of Chanukah candles on the window, but just the dimmer light of Shabbat candles flickering inside, they will perceive the meta-halachic principle expressed in all Torah commandments: Torah was given to bring about peace within the world.
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