Chanukah: Flickering Lights in Dark Times


Chanukah: Flickering Lights in Dark Times


Suitable Wicks and Oils

The Mishnah in the second chapter of Shabbat discusses what types of wicks and oils are suitable for Shabbat lights. The Mishnah lists materials that may not be used for wicks since "the flame sputters with them" and does not burn evenly, and types of oil that may not be used because "they do not flow freely to the wick." With regard to Chanukah, however, the Talmud [Shabbat 21b] rules that these restrictions do not apply. Even wicks and oil that do not burn smoothly may be used for Chanukah lights. Why?

The Sages required that Sabbath lights be made from quality oils and wicks, to prevent situations where one might be tempted to relight or adjust sputtering lights (and thus desecrate the Sabbath). The Talmud is more lenient, however, regarding Chanukah lights, since one is not required to relight them should the lights go out. Also, it is forbidden to use their light for reading or other purposes, so there is less concern that one will attempt to relight a poorly- lit Chanukah light.

The Lights of Chanukah

Rav Kook explained that the Halachic aspects of Chanukah lights reflect the nature of the Maccabean struggle against Greek dominance, in both the political and cultural spheres.

The authentic heritage of Israel is the Torah itself. This eternal wisdom is symbolized by pure oil that burns clearly and brightly in the Sabbath lights.

However, there have been many periods in the long history of the Jewish people when they have been attracted to the wisdom of other nations. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent during difficult and precarious times, when the Jewish people are ruled by other nations or exiled from their land. At these times of national vulnerability, many are drawn to the latest beliefs of powerful and successful nations, even if these ideas have not been thoroughly considered and may only be theories or speculations.

For such times, Divine providence provided the nation with great scholars who were able to strengthen the light of Torah precisely through these foreign ideas. One famous example is Maimonides, who attempted (where possible) to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy and science with the Torah's teachings.

Short-Lived Flame

Of course, these foreign philosophies lack the eternal truth of Torah. They are like flickering flames that illuminate only for a short time. After a generation or two, the assumptions upon which these ideas are based are often refuted. Utilizing foreign philosophies to bolster the Torah is similar to lighting Chanukah lights with oils that fail to produce a strong and even light.

Nonetheless, when they are popular and widely-held, the generation is strongly drawn to these ideas. If it were not possible to find some measure of agreement with the Torah, many individuals would be led to reject the Torah. In order to protect the nation, providence allowed the possibility of aligning these fashionable ideas with the Torah's wisdom. They do not always match neatly with the practical mitzvot and details of Jewish law - "they do not flow freely to the wick" - but with a little help, they can be made to partially correspond.

We should be aware that such philosophies are not eternal truths, and we are not responsible for their accuracy. "When their light goes out, one need not relight it." Certainly we should not use these ideas to make changes in how the Torah is observed - "it is forbidden to make use of its light." They are useful only to put troubled minds to rest, not as a true foundation with practical ramifications. This was the nature of the Maccabean struggle against the Greeks, at a time when Greek culture and wisdom conquered the world with new ideas and viewpoints.

Jewish Nationalism

The Maccabees were victorious in a second arena - the military-political one. Here also, the Hasmonean rule was not according to the eternal path of Israel, which bestowed the kingship to the descendants of David for all generations. The throne of David is compared to an ever- burning flame: "With Your holy name, You promised him that his candle will never be extinguished" [from the Sabbath prayers]. But the hour was not ripe for a Davidic king, and the temporary rule of the Hasmoneans provided stability and independence for many years.

The Davidic dynasty combined both Torah and kingship. David studied Torah assiduously day and night [see Brachot 3b], and at the same time was energetic and forceful in establishing a secure reign. Genuine Jewish nationalism draws from the light of Torah - "From Zion, Torah will come forth" [Isaiah 2:3].

In summary, the laws of Chanukah lights reflect the transient quality of the Hasmonean victory, both spiritually and physically. Spiritually - the accommodation of foreign philosophies that only with difficulty may be reconciled with the Torah, as represented by oils that do not burn well. And physically - national powers based on the spirit of foreign nations, as represented by wicks that make the flame sputter. These achievements provided light, albeit weak and unsteady, for a people lacking independence. They are only fit for Chanukah lights, commemorating a holiday that was not inscribed for all generations in the Biblical canon [Yoma 29a]. Yet these lights are needed during precarious times of foreign occupation and exile.

"Kodesh Heim"

Nonetheless, these transient lights are holy - "kodesh heim." We should recognize in them the hand of God, that He prepared a path so that those attracted to the prevalent culture should not be lost. The very fact that foreign philosophies may be accommodated within the Torah indicates that they contain a kernel of eternal truth - a small cruse of pure oil, sealed with the stamp of High Priest.

[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. III, pp. 59-60]

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