The basic mitzvah of Chanukah: a study in the manuscript of the Talmud at the Bodleian library

Thursday, 14 December, 2023 - 4:35 pm

IMG_6122 copy.jpgThe main custom on the holiday of Chanukah is the lighting of the menorah, to recall the miracle of the lights. This is primarily sourced in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b):


What is Hanukkah? The Sages taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with hallel and thanksgiving.


Six ways to light the Menorah


The subject of how exactly the Menorah should be lit is however subject to a dispute. There are in total seven possibilities:


1. A single candle each night per household,

2. A single candle each night per every member of the household.

3. Increasing a candle each night per household,

4. Increasing a candle each night per member of the household,

5. Decreasing a candle each night per household,

6. Decreasing a candle each night per member of the household.


The reason why there are manypossibilities is due to three reasons: a dispute among the sages of the Mishnah, a dispute how a text of the Talmud should be read and a variant in the Talmudic text amongst the editions of the Talmud, in particular because of a version of the Talmud found in a manuscript in the Bodleian Library. We will begin by presenting the text of the Talmud on the method of the lighting of the Menorah as found in the printed edition of the Talmud (Shabbat 21b):


The Sages taught: The mitzva of Chanukah a light, a person, and his household. And the mehadrin, i.e., those who are meticulous, a light for each and every one in the household. And the mehadrin min hamehadrin, who are even more meticulous, adjust the number of lights daily. Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases.


Three categories of lighting


The simple reading of the Talmud is that there are three categories of how to light:


1. The basic mitzvah: one per household every night

2. The mehadrin – meticulous: one per household member every night

3. The mehadrin min hamehadrineven more meticulous – adjust the number of candles per night. This is either increasing according to the School of Hillel or decreasing according to the School of Shamai.


There is a dispute however whether the number 3 (mehadrin min hamehadrin – most meticulous) - adjusting the number of candles per night - is an addition to number 2 (mehadrin), which would mean each member of the household should adjust the number per night, or an addition only to number 1 (basic mitzvah), which would mean adjusting the number of candles per night but only for the household. In the former number 3 is adding to number 2, in the latter number 3 is an alternative to number 2. This dispute, how one should read the Talmud is the two opinions of Maimonides and Tasafot.


Maimonides maintains that one who acts mehadrin min hamehadrin – most meticulous – every member of the household should increase each night. This would mean, if there were ten members of the household, the first night ten would be lit and on the eighth night eighty candles are lit. It states in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Megillah and Chanukah 4:1):


How many candles should one light on Chanukah? The mitzvah is that a single candle should be lit in each and every house, regardless of whether there are many members of the household, or merely one person [lives] there. A person who performs the mitzvah in a beautiful and conscientious manner should light candles for every member of the household, whether male or female. A person who is even more conscientious in his performance of the mitzvah than this and observes the mitzvah in the most desirable manner should light candles for every member of his household, a candle for each individual, whether male or female, on the first night. On each subsequent night, he should add a candle [for each of the members of the household].


What does the above imply? When there are ten members of a household, on the first night one lights ten candles, on the second night - twenty, on the third night - thirty, until on the eighth night, one lights eighty candles.


The Tosafot writes that mehadrin min hamehadrin is only following the basic mitzvah of lighting one per household, since if it each member of the household would adjust each night, the significant number of candles would no longer indicate which night of Chanukah it is but rather one may think it reflects the number of household members. This is view is articulated in Tosafot on Shabbat 21b:


It seems to Ri that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel refer only to "a man and his household" (i.e. the head of the household alone lighting on behalf of his entire family). Because in this way, there is more beautification; since there is something recognizable when he keeps adding or removing [lights], corresponding to the days that are entering (the days of Channukah still to come) or exiting (the days of Channukah that have already passed). However, if he makes a light for each one (i.e. each member of his household gets his own light), even if he adds from now onwards, there is nothing recognizable, because [people] would think that this is the number of people in the household (i.e. instead of attributing the increase or decrease in lights to the intention of the owner to correspond to the day of Chanukah, people would attribute it to the intention to correspond to the number of people in the household).


Maimonides writes (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Megillah and Chanukah 4:1) that despite his own opinion, the custom in Spain followed the view of the Tosafists:


It is common custom in all of our cities in Spain that a single candle is lit for all the members of the household on the first night. We proceed to add a new candle on each and every night, until on the eighth night eight candles are lit. [This practice is followed] regardless of whether there are many members of the household or only one man [is lighting candles].


Rabbi Joseph Karo in his Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 671:2) quotes the custom cited by Maimonides as halachah. The Ashkenazic authority of Jewish law, R. Moses Isserles, known as the Ramah, writes that in Ashkenazic communities the custom is to fulfill the mitzvah in the manner of mehadrin min hamehadrin - i.e., each member of the household lights candles, and each night an additional candle is added, as per the view of Maimonides. 


Reason for dispute


The reason for this dispute is based on different ways to understand the proposed definition of the degrees of the performance of the mitzvah of the Chanukah candles: are they merely enhancing the basic mitzvah or different ways to perform the basic mitzvah? Maimonides maintains that the basic mitzvah is a single candle per night per household. Anything beyond that is merely an enhancement of the basic mitzvah. In this context, there is the basic mitzvah and one can also further enhance the mitzvah by each family member lighting. One can enhance the mitzva even more by increasing the lights by adjusting per night.


Another way to define the structuring of the degrees of the performance of the mitzvah is that there are different ways of fulfilling the basic mitzvah: a. the simplest – one per night for household, 2. every member of the household lighting a candle or, alternatively, 3. one can perform the mitzvah by adjusting per night. In this context, there is no intention to suggest that that there is any enhancement of the mitzvah by each member lighting an additional candle per night. This is not one of the ways in which the mitzvah can be performed. This point is made by 16th century R. Abraham de Boton, in his commentary on Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Lechem Mishneh:


Since Maimonides maintains that the mehadrin min hamehadrin (most meticulous) also observe the practice of the mehadrin (meticulous), this custom seems inappropriate. It is not the custom of the mehadrin min hamehadrin (most meticulous), nor is it the minimum requirement of the law.


Common denominator


The common denominator in all the above is that a way to light the menorah is to light one candle each night per household. This is articulated by Rashi in his interpretation of the opening of the text of the Talmud (Shabbat 21b): ‘The mitzvah of Chanukahisa light, a person and his household.’


IMG_6066 copy.jpgNew way to read the Talmud


With this introduction, I would like to present a new way of reading the above text of the Talmud that will provide a different way of understanding the structuring of the degrees of the performance of lighting the Menorah on Chanukah. In most of the manuscripts of the Talmud, the text of the Talmud is the same as the printed. This is how it is found in the Munich 5 Talmud, completed in the year 1342 by Shlomo ben Shimshon, copying by hand the of the complete Babylonian Talmud in one volume containing 577 pages. The type of script Shlomo ben Shimshon used was not the elegant square script commonly used for writing canonical treatises, but a semi-cursive script — that enabled a denser and more massive script and with which the copyist was able to include all 37 tractates of the Talmud in addition to the Mishna in a single volume. Apparently, Shlomo ben Shimshon’s achievement is unprecedented — not only for being the only volume of the Babylonian Talmud preserved in manuscript, but primarily for being the only one created from the outset as a single volume. In this version it states: ‘The sages taught: the mitzva of the candle of Chanukah is a man and his household.


MS Opp. 765


This is also how it is found in an Oxford manuscript of the Talmud, that was copied from the printed edition. The manuscript is part of a set of eight miniature volumes of the Talmud, shelfmark Opp. 765-772. The tractate Shabbat is Opp. 765 with a statement on the first page stating that it was a gift presented to Rabbi David Oppenheimer (1664-1736), Chief Rabbi of Prague and Nikolsberg, suggesting a date after 1702. According to Adolf Neubauer, it was presented to him at Nikolsberg. It has paging of the printed version indicated on the margin. The version of this text about how to light the Menorah is also the same as the printed edition.


MS Opp. Add. Fol. 23


In the Bodleian Library, there is however a further beautiful very large manuscript volume of the Talmud from the 16th century belonging to the Oppenheimer collection: MS Opp. Add. Fol. 23, known as Oxford 366, after the Neubauer catalogue number. It consists of the first two orders of Zeraim and Moed, ending with the tractate of Shekalim. It includes the tractate of Shabbat that has the text relating to the lighting of the Menorah on Chanukah. An owner of the manuscript was Abraham ben Yitzchak ha-Levi Abkrat, bought in Cairo in the year 1557.  The manuscript of the Talmud is in a format that existed before the landmark Bomberg printing in Venice of the Talmud of the first edition in 1519/20 - 1523) and a second edition 1525-1539, which created the format and pagination that we are accustomed to today. In addition, there is no commentary on the page of the Talmud and the structure of chapters are the complete text of the Mishnah an only then the discourse of the Talmud, known as gemara. In this edition, there is a change in the text, not found in any other extant version. The text states: ‘The sages taught: The mitzva of Hanukkah a light, a person, and his house. Do you think a light, a person, and his household? Rather say: a light, a person, in his house.’


This text has two parts: its initial interpretation and its corrected interpretation. The initial interpretation is the standard reading above that the basic mitzvah: each day to have a light kindled by one person, the head of the household, for himself and his household. This interpretation is however rejected and corrected that that this not what the intention of the Talmud is but rather that the menorah should be lit in his house. It is in fact not telling anything about the numbers of candles to be lit.


Accordingly, the two degrees of mehadrin (meticulous)and mehadrin min hamehadrin (very meticulous)are certainly not meant to present ways to enhance the mitzvah but rather two ways the basic mitzvah can be performed: 1. Mehadrin (meticulous)one candle each night per member of the household, 2. mehadrin min hamehadrin (very meticulous): adjust per night.


This reading of the text of the Talmud certainly does not lend itself to the view of Maimonides (adjust per household members and per night), since Maimonides’ view makes sense only if there are three degrees: the basic mitzvah, mehadrin (meticulous) and mehadrin min hamehadrin (most meticulous), cumulatively. If, however, there is the rejection of the first basic level (one per household per night) and only presenting two options, it would seem that there are in fact only two possible options how to light the Menorah (as argued above by the Lechem Mishneh).


Second variant


A further significant variant is the opening of the text of the Talmud. In the Talmud MS Munich 5 version it states: ‘Mitzvat ner chanukah ish u’beto’ (the mitzvah of the lighting of the Menorah on Chanukah is man, and his household). In the Oxford Talmud MS Opp. 765, it states: ‘Mitzvat chanukah ner ish u’beto’ (the mitzvah of Chanukah is a candle, man, and his household). This is also how it is found in Oxford Talmud MS Opp. Add. Fol. 23.


The difference is: according the first version - Munich 5, that places the word ‘ner (candle) at the beginning of the sentence, the Talmud is informing how to light the menorah on Chanukah. According to MS Opp. 765 and MS Opp. Add. Fol. 23, that places the word ‘ner (candle) in the second half of the sentence, the Talmud is informing what is the mitzvah of Chanukah. This is significant for our discussion, and consistent with our argument above. Since MS Opp. Add. Fol. 23 is informing what the mitzvah of Chanukah is in its opening, it is not necessarily out to tell us yet how it should be performed in detail. Thus, it clarifies, that the basic mitzvah is to light a candle in the person’s home. It then continues to discuss the number of candles: how the Menorah should be lit. According to this, there is no basic mitzvah to light just one candle per household. There are only two options for the basic mitzvah; one per household member and adjustment of numbers of candles per night. According to Munich 5, however, the text is in fact informing the basic mitzvah: one candle per household, and then continues to detail further enhanced options of lighting the Menorah.


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