The Oral Law – The Light that Illuminates the Darkness
It is no coincidence that the holiday of Chanukah falls out at a time of the year when the nights are longest and the cold of winter permeates the land. Moreover, the moon barely shines, since Chanukah coincides with the days immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh, when the moon wanes.
As the sun sets and a deep darkness begins to descend, and the long night casts its ominous, icy shadow over the world, Jews go out with candles in their hands and light the Chanukah lamps. This symbolizes the mighty Jewish faith, which breaks through all forms of darkness. Even in the most somber of times, when the mightiest empires governed the world ruthlessly, we did not despair of the light of Torah and faith, and continued learning and teaching.
Lighting the Menorah demonstrates how a small ray of our light disperses a great deal of the darkness of foreign cultures.
Chanukah is the time to rejoice over the Oral Law, firstly, because it was established as a holiday by our Sages, the expounders of the Oral Law. In fact, the mitzvah of lighting the candles was one of the first mitzvoth our Sages enacted. Besides this, however, Chanukah symbolizes the essence of the Oral Law.
During the First Temple era, prophecy abounded among the Jewish people, and they studied primarily the Written Law. After the Temple was destroyed and prophecy ceased, the time came for the Oral Law to take its rightful place. The Oral Law displays the high stature of the Jewish people, who share in the revelation of the Torah’s light. The cardinal principles are set forth in the Written Law, but our Sages of the Oral Law paved the way for their implementation.
Granted, the light of the Written Law shines brighter, like the midday sun, while the light of the Oral Law resembles that of the moon and the stars. However, the Oral Law has the ability to descend to the hidden recesses of man’s soul and illuminate all the dark corners of the world.
The foundations for the study of the Oral Law were laid during the Second Temple era – including all the edicts, “fences,” and customs. By virtue of the unique light of the Oral Law, which, similar to the Chanukah candles illuminates the darkness, we have succeeded in overcoming all the tribulations of the exile.
Apparently, the ideas hidden in the holiday of Chanukah are the deep-seated reason why Jews love and cherish it so much, to the point where almost every Jew, no matter how far removed from Torah observance, lights Chanukah candles. Moreover, everyone follows the custom of fulfilling this mitzvah in the best possible way – “mehadrin min ha’mehadrin”.
A New Candle Every Day, Culminating with Eight
Everything in the world is transient and eventually withers away. This is true of ideas and memories as well; they lose their intensity and vitality over time. But in regards to lighting the Chanukah candles, we discover that faith in God never wanes. On the contrary, it continues to exist and even thrive, despite the hardships and surrounding darkness.
The pure spirituality manifest in the Torah is eternal; therefore, it constantly increases. Other passing ideas fade away and expire. Embracing this wondrous idea, Jews are accustomed to fulfill this commandment in the most exemplary manner, “mehadrin min ha’mehadrin”, adding a new candle each night so that on the final day, eight candles are lit.
As is well-known, the number eight alludes to what lies beyond physical nature. The entire world was created in seven days, and similarly, there are seven days in a week. The number eight, on the other hand, hints to the supernatural, like brit milah (circumcision), whose purpose is to perfect and elevate nature to a higher level, and accordingly, is performed on the eighth day. The Torah as well belongs to the eighth dimension, for it comes to elevate nature to a Divine level. This is why the Torah was given after the seven-week Sefirah count, which represents the wholeness of nature. After counting the seven weeks of Sefirah, we rise to a level above nature – the holiday of Shavu’ot, when the Torah was given. Likewise, we complete the reading of the Torah on Shemini Atzeret (the eighth day from the beginning of Sukkot), which is Simchat Torah, the culmination of the High Holy Days at the beginning of the year.
In a similar fashion, the days of Chanukah belong to the realm of the supernatural, for they reveal the lofty stature of the Oral Law. For that reason, we light candles for eight nights, adding a new one each night.
When to Light the Candles
Our sages have ruled that the Chanukah candles must be lit at that hour which allows for maximum publicity of the Chanukah miracle. In the past when there were no street lamps, people would begin gathering in their homes just before nightfall. At sunset, therefore, the streets
were full of people returning home. For that reason, our Sages ruled that the time for lighting Chanukah candles is “from sundown until the marketplace has emptied out” (Shabbat 21b).
Even though today we have electric lighting and most people return home hours after darkness, the best time for lighting Chanukah candles is still the time chosen by our Sages.
Q: Is it permissible, when necessary, to light the candles later than this time?
A: If it is difficult for a person to return home at nightfall, he may light candles and recite the accompanying blessings when he gets home from work. It is true that according to the Rambam (Maimonides) the time for lighting Chanukah candles is specifically during the half hour after sunset. However, according to most opinions, when our Sages said that candles must be lit after sundown, they meant ideally, but it is possible to light candles after this time as well, if necessary.
Furthermore, even the authorities who hold that in the past the candles had to be lit precisely during the half hour after nightfall explain that this was because everybody returned home from work at that time and lit Chanukah candles in the entrances of their homes. In those days the miracle could only be publicized at that hour. However, since the period of the Rishonim (early Torah authorities, from the 10th till the 15th centuries,C.E.) when danger caused many to begin lighting candles inside their homes, the actual publicizing of the miracle takes place in the presence of the family members, and it no longer matters if one lights at nightfall or later.
In addition, in recent generations people have begun to return home from work later, and consequently, we still find people on the streets for a few hours after nightfall. Therefore, even if a person lights Chanukah
candles at seven o’clock, passersby’s will be able to see them. As a result, when necessary, it is possible to light Chanukah
candles later than the time originally determined by our Sages.
However, great effort should be made not to delay the lighting of Chanukah candles beyond nine o’clock, for very few people return home from work after this time. One who lights candles late must be careful not to eat a meal (achilat keva) until lighting the candles.
A Delayed Spouse
In many families the question arises: what should be done when one of the spouses cannot return home from work at nightfall? Should the other spouse light candles at nightfall (about 5:00 p.m.) or wait for his or her partner to return?
According to the letter of the law, the spouse at home should light candles at nightfall and discharge his or her partner of this obligation. However, in practice, it is usually best to wait for the
delayed spouse to return. In general, any one of the following three reasons justifies postponing candle lighting until the spouse has returned:
1. In a case where the absent spouse will be unable to hear the candle lighting blessings in a synagogue or elsewhere, it is best to wait for him or her to return home. According to the Rambam and Rashi, when lighting candles at home one discharges all family members, even those not present, of their obligation to light candles, but one who does not hear the blessing “she-asah nissim” has not fulfilled his or her obligation to thank God for His miracles. Therefore, if the delayed spouse will not be able to hear the candle lighting blessings at all, it is best to wait for him or her.
2. If a delayed spouse is liable to be offended or hurt if the candles are lit without him, it is best to wait. Maintaining domestic tranquility is more important than lightingChanukah candles at the
3. Where there is reason to believe that if the spouse at home does not wait for his or her partner, the absent partner’s attachment to the commandments will be weakened, it is preferable to wait. This consideration exists when a partner returns home late on a daily basis, for if he or she misses the candle lighting every day or almost every day, his or her connection to this religious obligation is liable to be weakened.
It follows, therefore, that only when the delayed partner can hear the candle lighting blessings elsewhere, and his or her absence is a onetime occurrence, is it preferable for the spouse at home to light candles at the choicest hour, nightfall.
Under other circumstances, though, it is best to wait for the partner to return home. At any rate, when waiting for the partner, the candle lighting should not be put off until later than 9:00 P.M., and family members must refrain from eating a meal (“achilat keva
“) from half an hour before nightfall until after the Chanukah
candles have been lit.
According to Ashkenazi custom, the spouse at home may light candles at nightfall and intend not to discharge the absent partner of his or her obligation, so that upon returning, they can light the candles and recite the blessings on their own. However, it is not necessary to do this, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with waiting for the partner to return (for one or more of the reasons mentioned above).
Should the lighting be delayed for tardy children? The Sephardic custom is that one family member lights for all of the others. Therefore, for one of the three reasons mentioned above, it is necessary to wait for any family member above Bar– or Bat-Mitzvah age who is unable to reach home at nightfall. According to the Ashkenazi custom, though, the candles should be lit at nightfall, and when the tardy son or daughter arrives, he or she lights the candles and recites the blessings on their own.
It is also forbidden to study Torah when the time arrives for lighting the Chanukahcandles. However, if this calls for canceling a regular class that will be difficult to reschedule, it is better to hold the class as usual. And at the end of the study session, people should remind each other to light the Chanukah candles (see, Peninei Halacha, Zemanim 13:12).
Lighting in Public Places
It is also fitting to light Chanukah candles in any place where a large group of people are gathered – at a Bar Mitzvah, or wedding, for instance.
Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the blessings should be recited in this case, or not. Some authorities are of the opinion that since more than ten people are viewing the candle lighting, the gathering is considered similar to the case of a synagogue, and blessings should be recited. Other authorities argue that the blessings were only established for lighting at home or at a synagogue.
At any rate, it seems appropriate that if the guests at a wedding, for example, prayMa’ariv (the evening prayer) prior to the meal, blessings may be recited. Someposkim (Jewish law arbiters) have suggested that the matter can be solved by having a young child light the candles with a blessing, such that the blessings’ recitation can be considered part of the child’s Jewish education.
This article was translated from Hebrew.