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The Development of the Lighting of the Chanukah Menorah in the Oxford Manuscripts

Thursday, 6 December, 2018 - 7:58 am

 

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The holiday of Chanukah dates from the second century BCE at a time when the Greeks controlled the Holy Land under the Seleucid dynasty that existed from 312 BC to 63 BC. When Antiochus IV, known also as Epimanes, ‘the mad one,’ took over the reign between 175BC until 164 BC, he issued many decrees against the Jews in order to subdue them and inculcate Hellenist culture, banning the study of Torah, circumcision, keeping the Shabbat and the Kosher dietary laws. The Seleucids imposed their pagan worship and culture until they came to Modiin where the priest Matityahu lived. Matityahu and his sons led the Maccabees in a series of battles and eventually drove the Greeks out. When they arrived in the Temple to kindle the Menorah, according to Jewish tradition, there was only enough pure oil to light for one day but miraculously, the one-day supply burned for eight days, when new oil had been prepared under conditions of ritual purity.

 

The main tradition on the holiday of Chanukah is thus to light a Menorah, an eight branched candelabra, for the duration of the eight days of the holiday. On the first night, one candle is lit, the second night, two, and so on until all eight are lit. While this is the standard manner of the tradition today, in the development of Jewish law there are numerous opinions about how the tradition should be performed and this varied from place to place. In this essay, we will explore this subject, show how the custom fundamentally changed in the 12th century, and try to present a theory for this change that became standardised in the 16th century and has lasted until today.

 

Talmud: three ways to light the Menorah

 

The legal text that serves as the source for the details of how the tradition to light a Menorah on Chanukah should be performed is the work of the Talmud around the 6th century. The Talmud in tractate Shabbat presents three possibilities:[1]

 

1. The basic mitzvah of Chanukah is each day to have a light kindled by the head of the household, for himself and his household.

 

2. The mehadrin, i.e., those who are meticulous in the performance of mitzvot, kindle a light for each and every one in the household. 

 

3. The mehadrin min hamehadrin, who are even more meticulous, adjust the number of lights daily. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree as to the nature of that adjustment. Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he kindles eight lights.

 

The standard way to understand the text of the Talmud is to read it following a literal cumulative sequence that there are three progressive ways to perform the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah. The first is the basic mitzvah to light a single candle each night per household, the second is more meticulous, to add a candle per household member each night, and the third is the most meticulous that incorporates the previous view: to add a candle per household member and to add a candle each night of Chanukah. Thus, when lighting the Menorah with ten family members on the first night, ten candles are lit, the second, twenty until the eighth night eighty are lit. This literal reading of the text is how works of Jewish law viewed the custom of the Menorah lighting for centuries. This is reflected by the straightforward quotation of the text of the Talmud in presenting the law of the Menorah lighting with no need to add any commentary. This can be seen in the great legal works of Algerian Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi (1013–1103), known as the Rif, and Italian Rabbi Isaiah di Trani ben Mali the Elder (c. 1180 – c. 1250), whose work is called by his acronym Piske Rid.[2] Both these works quote the Talmudic text verbatim.

 

Maimonides: the Talmud as accumulative views

 

Maimonides (1135-1204), in his legal work Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chanukah, [3] also has the view that the most meticulous custom is a cumulative progression on the first two options: to adjust the number of candles according to the night of the holiday and to multiply the candles according to the amount of household members. Maimonides writes:

 

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 living 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 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.

 

Who should light for the household?

 

Maimonides maintains that the additional candles in the most meticulous option should be kindled only by the head of the household but not by each member individually. This literal reading of the Talmud is in fact the Ashkenazic custom, as articulated by Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572) in his commentary to the code of Jewish law.[4] However, he maintains, unlike Maimonides, that each individual member of the household should light for themselves, as opposed to the head of the household lighting on their behalf. To avoid confusion over the amount of candles being exhibited when lighting the Menorah by potentially many family members in close proximity, Rabbi Moses Isserles writes household members should light in separate places.

 

The difference between Maimonides and Rabbi Moses Isserles may be reduced to whether one views the obligation to light the Menorah as a household obligation or an individual one. According to the former the household is discharged through the head of the household lighting their Menorah incorporating all the family members. According to the latter, each individual is required to light their own Menorah. While this may be done through agency if one wishes, Rabbi Moses Isserles maintains it is ideal to light one’s own Menorah.[5] 

 

Tosafist: The Talmud as three different views

 

Tosafist[6] Rabbi Isaac the elder (1100-1174), known as the Ri, great grandson of the Biblical commentator Rashi, who lived in France in the 12th century argued against the above prevalent view, opining that the third option is in fact only to adjust the number of candles according to the night of the holiday but not to also multiply the candles according to the number of household members. The Ri proceeds to suggest that, contrary to what was commonly thought, the reading of the Talmud supports this view, as the three views in the Talmud should be read not as a cumulative progression of views how to light the Menorah but rather as alternative views: the first is the core mitzvah to light a single candle per night, the second option is to increase in candles representing the number of household members, and the third option is to multiply, not by household members, but instead, only, by adding a candle each night, but only by a single household member, as per the first option, comprising the core mitzvah.

 

Shortly after the Tosafists presented this opinion, it was cited by the major legal codes of the time, including Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy (1200-1260), also known as Moses Mikkotsi, a French Tosafist and author of one of the earliest codifications of Jewish law, Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, known as the Semag,[7]as well as its abridged version Sefer Mitzvot Ketanot, known as the Semak, by Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil (d. 1280).[8] They both cite the view of Beis Hillel to add a candle each night but without any mention of the meticulous view that one should increase also for each household member.

 

14th - 16th century

 

14th century German Rabbi Alexander Suslin HaKohen, in his work Sefer Ha’agudah (Book of Collections), a work that contains legal decisions of Jewish law based on the Talmud, made by preceding rabbinical authorities, cites the view of the Tosafist outright that the third option to add a candle each night of Chanukah is based on the core mitzvah to light a single candle per household, as opposed to adding per member.[9]

 

Similarly, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (c. 1269-c. 1343), author of a code of Jewish law, Arba Turim, in the 14thcentury and Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575) in his code of Jewish law, Shulchan Aruch of the 16th century,[10] both followed the view of the Tosafists that the most meticulous custom is in fact to only adjust the number of candles according to the night of the holiday, not to multiply the candles according to the amount of household members.

 

Spain

 

Despite his view in his legal work Mishneh Torah, supporting the common view that the three views are cumulative, Maimonides writes that the widespread custom in Spain was in fact to follow the view of the Tosafists: to adjust only the number of candles according to the night of the holiday but not to multiply the candles according to household members. Maimonides writes:[11]

 

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 person is lighting.

 

Likewise, 13th century English Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan writes, in his legal compendium Etz Chaim,[12]that the widespread custom in Spain is, as mentioned by Maimonides, that the Menorah should be kindled adding each night an additional candle, following the view of Beit Hillel, but only by a single member of the household, representing the view of the Tosafists. Spanish Rabbi Vidal of Tolosa of the latter half of the fourteenth century, author of Maggid Mishneh, a commentary on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, testifies that this was in fact their custom also in the 14th century.

 

Compromise

 

Rabbi Abraham Hiyya de Boton (c. 1560 – c. 1605), from Salonika, author of Lechem Mishneh, a commentary on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, questions the Spanish custom mentioned by Maimonides, claiming that it is contradictory to Maimonides’ own legal opinion, and does not fit with any view in the Talmud: it does not follow the custom of the mehadrin min hamehadrin, to add a candle per night and per household member, nor the core requirement to light just a single candle each night. It certainly does not fit with the view that each household member should light the Menorah. After initially suggesting the Spanish practice is erroneous, Rabbi Vidal of Tolosa proceeds, however, to justify the custom, on the basis that the perspective should be viewed not as the most meticulous (mehadrin min hamehadrin) or intermediate meticulous view (mehadrin), but rather as part of the core mitzvah to light a single candle each night of Chanukah for one’s whole household. The additional candles per night, then, should be viewed as a ‘compromise’ that while not following the most meticulous custom, to add per night and per household member, that could add up, when considering a model of ten family members, to eighty candles on the eighth night, or ten candles on the eighth night, as per the intermediate meticulous custom, to add for each household member, one would nonetheless be increasing. While connected with the basic mitzvah to incorporate the household in a single lighting (ner ish u’beito), on the eighth night one would kindle eight candles, as opposed to just one.

 

Whether one views the custom of Spain, as following the Tosafists’ non-cumulative reading of the Talmud or agreeing with the cumulative reading of the Talmud but following a compromised opinion among the legal opinions, the widespread custom is in practice the same as the Tosafists that one should light the Menorah multiplying nightly by the days of the holiday but not by household members.

 

As mentioned, the view of the Tosafists is followed by Rabbi Joseph Caro in his 16th century code of Jewish law[13] and is the custom of the Sephardic community today. Ironically, the Ashkenazic custom, as presented by Polish Rabbi Moses Isserles, is not to follow the view of the French Tosafists but rather read the Talmudic views cumulatively, as Maimonides, whereby the most meticulous way to kindle the Menorah is for each member of the household to light, and to add an additional candle each night.[14]

 

England – ambiguous

 

The custom of England in the Middle Ages appears to follow the view of the Tosafists. Unlike the other medieval Jewish legal works, including Maimonides, who bring the three customs in the Talmud of how to light the Menorah, Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan omits them altogether in his legal compendium Etz Chaim [15] and only states that the widespread custom of Spain is to follow the view of Beit Hillel to add an additional candle each night of Chanukah for one’s whole household. The fact that he does not bring the three customs and only brings the custom of Spain, as mentioned by Maimonides, indicates that the custom of England may have been similar to Spain (and France), following the custom established by the Tosafists to add an additional candle each night but not for each household member.[16]

 

The omission of the three customs in the Etz Chaim is, however, enigmatic and may in fact indicate the possibility that the custom in England was to light only a single candle each night of Chanukah, following the core aspect of the law to only light a single candle per household each night of Chanukah. In this context, mentioning the custom of Spain is to highlight a custom mentioned by Maimonides that was in fact not shared in 13th century England. A reason for this may have been the challenge of purchasing suitable candles in great number in the 13th century in England or an understanding that one need not be meticulous with a custom that may attract unwanted attention living under the watchful eye of hostile Christian neighbours, as was the case in many Jewries in Europe.[17]

 

Why did the Tosafists change the custom of lighting the Menorah in the 12th century?

 

Based on the above trajectory of the custom of the Menorah lighting, a fundamental change appears to have taken place in the 12th century with a new approach pertaining to the most meticulous way to light the Menorah on Chanukah, based on a new reading of the Talmud by the Tosafists. What may have been the underlying consideration for this change in custom, which impacts the law of the Menorah lighting until today? The basic reason offered by the Tosafists is that multiplying both by the number of household members and the number of nights would confuse onlookers, suggesting the additional candles are only representing the number of household members. This reasoning represents in brief the rationale for the dramatic change in the conception of Jewish law pertaining to the best way one should light the Menorah on Chanukah.

 

We can suggest two further approaches to explain this fundamental change in the custom of lighting the Menorah that continues until today. One may consider this question from both a legal and a social perspective. On a legal level, the Menorah lighting beyond the core mitzvah of a single candle each night for one’s household, can be viewed in two ways:[18] a. The core mitzvah is enhanced by multiplying candles or b. it is merely a sign of meticulous adherence and dedication to the mitzvot by increasing in whatever mitzvah one is performing, but does not necessarily add to the core mitzvah itself. The former may be defined an objective addition to the mitzvah, while the latter a mere subjective addition in one’s relationship with G-d. These two perspectives can be deciphered within two versions of Maimonides’ manuscripts of his Mishneh Torah pertaining to this law. The standard version is ‘one who is meticulous in the mitzvah’, while another versions states ‘one who is meticulous in the mitzvot.’ The former refers to being meticulous in the performance of the particular mitzvah of the lighting of the Menorah on Chanukah, while the latter, in the plural (mitzvot), indicates that it is a reflection of a general great devotion to doing any mitzvah more meticulously. Indeed, in the Oxford manuscripts, the word mitzvah is in the singular. This distinction is highlighted further in Maimonides by his use of the phrase: ‘A person who is even more conscientious in his performance of the mitzvah than this and observes the mitzvah in the most desirable manner’, when describing the custom of being meticulous.[19]

 

One can then delineate two fundamentally different approaches in the reading of the Talmud, not merely in sequence but in concept. If the meticulousness in lighting the Menorah with more candles adds to the core mitzvah, then the view of the onlooker does not have any relevance. If this is merely a subjective devotion then the subjective view of the other should also be taken into consideration and if the greater number of candles for the household members and the addition each night confuses the onlooker then one should refrain. Taking this into consideration, the Talmudic reading must be understood differently, that the higher level of meticulousness in the lighting the Menorah must be seen as not cumulative from the second view, for each household member to light, but as an alternative to that view.

 

Social

 

A far simpler reason for the change in approach by the Tosafists could have been a desire to make life easier for Jews in a time when they had limited rights and faced many daily challenges. In addition, candle making was regulated to guilds, which Jews may have been excluded from, allowing for extortionate prices during the Chanukah holiday period. Considering a role of the Tosafists as not just scholars but also sympathetic leaders of European Jewry, this may have led the Tosafists to reanalyse the Talmudic text and find a new approach that is, both, loyal to the text of the Talmud, while assisting the Jews of the medieval period with the challenging realties of European life.

 

Conclusion

 

We presented that there are five different ways one may kindle the Menorah on Chanukah, according to Jewish law: 1. The core mitzvah: one candle per night for the household, 2. The meticulous: an additional candle per household member each night, 3. The extra meticulous, according to Maimonides: a candle per household member and an additional candle each night, kindled by the head of the household on behalf of the household, 4. The extra meticulous, according to Rabbi Moses Isserles: a candle per household member and an additional candle each night, kindled by each individual member of the household, 5. The extra meticulous, according to the Tosafists and subsequently accepted by Rabbi Joseph Caro in his Code of Jewish Law and widespread custom in medieval Spain, France, Germany and possibly also England: an additional candle each night, but not to add per household member. The works in Jewish law from Italy and Algeria by Rabbi Isaiah de Trani and Rabbi Alexander Suslin indicate they followed the view that the most meticulous custom is: a candle per household member and an additional candle each night.

 

We argued that the standard view of how to light the Chanukah Menorah in Jewish communities, before the French Tosafists, was in fact based on the accepted reading of the Talmud that the more meticulous would light the greater number of candles. In the 12th century the Tosafists innovated that more candles does not necessarily equal more meticulousness in doing the mitzvah; on the contrary, it may detract. This fundamental change in the view of what is the best way to light the Chanukah Menorah informs the difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic custom until today, albeit in the reverse – the Ashkenazic custom follows Maimonides, while Sephardic custom follows the French Tosafists. In conclusion, we argued that a reason for the change instituted by the Tosafists might have been based on legal reasoning pertaining to how one sees the legal category of being meticulous in a mitzvah, but may also be seen in the social context of relieving the Jews of medieval Europe with finding it necessary to invest a considerable amount of time and effort in obtaining a larger number of candles in a challenging socio-economic and religiously tense time in Jewish history.   

 

 


 

[1] 21b.

[2] Oxford MS. Canonici Or. 90, fol. 72a.

[3] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chanukah 4:1-2.

[4] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 671:2.

[5] Sefat Emet on Talmud tractate Shabbat 21b. See Reshimot ShiurimInyanei Chanukah, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kalmenson, p. 68.

[6] Talmud Shabbat 21b.

[7] MS. Arch. Selden A. 5, fol. 216a.

[8] MS. Arch. Selden A. 51, fol. 92a.

[9] MS. Arch. Selden A. 7 Sefer Ha'agudah, fol. 187a.

[10] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 671:2.

[11] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chanukah 4:3.

[12] Etz Chaim 39, Laws of Chanukah ch. 1.

[13] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 671:2.

[14] This is rare occasion in Jewish law that Sephardic custom follows the Tosafists and the Ashkenazic custom follows Maimonides.

[15] Etz Chaim 39, Laws of Chanukah ch. 1.

[16] Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan does however bring in Etz Chaim the view of Rabbi Isaac the Elder pertaining to the requirement to light the Menorah within ten handbreadth from the ground, despite Maimonides omitting this law. The actual wording in Etz Chaim stating that lighting the Menorah within ten handbreadth from the ground is invalid, is a mistake, as his reasoning is that although this view is rejected as in the Talmud the rejection is a mere suggestion but not intended to absolute and therefore the original view of Rava remains that one should light the Menorah within ten handbreadth. This reasoning is also mentioned in Rabeinu Chananel on Shabbat (21b). The word ‘posul’ (invalid) that appears in the Etz Chaim is almost certainly therefore a mistake.

[17] In the Oxford Jewry, as with many places in Spain, the Friars lived within or in very close proximity to the Jewry. The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) itself gives alternative options to the lighting of the Menorah in a time of danger, whereby it may be lit inside the house, as opposed to in the doorway facing the courtyard (Rashi) or public domain (Tosafist).

[18] Likkutei Sichot vol. 20, p. 208.

[19] Ibid.

 

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