Hanukkah Lights

“Three Candles” (detail) by Marc Chagall

From the teachings of R. Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein, Maor VaShamesh

Mitzvat ner hanukkah, the mitzvah of the Hanukkah light, is to light one candle or lamp each night for a man and his household. And those who are fervent in observing the mitzvot light one each night for each and every person in their household. And for those who most fervently observe the mitzvot, Beit Shammai say that on the first day one kindles eight lights and from then continuously decreases, but Beit Hillel say that on the first day one kindles one light and from then continuously increases. Masechet Shabbat 21a
This appears to be a hint that a righteous person merits the holy soul (Nefesh) and spirit (Ruach) [spelling NeR, “light”] and so can bring spiritual healing to all those who are joined to him, called “his househould,” and share with them the holy light. Those who are aware, however, do a self-reckoning and atonement for their deeds and do not depend on the righteous one alone and can heal themselves, so that they merit the holy soul and spirit. Those who perpetually seek atonement with God ascend continuously from step to step. All of this is hinted at in the Gemara: mitzvat ner hanukkah means “the mitzvah is to dedicate the soul and spirit” to service of God, Blessed be He (1). Thus, an especially righteous person can include his household in this dedication, while those who search their souls and return to God each have their own NeR/ Nefesh Ruach/soul and spirit. And those who are always returning to God are like Beit Shammai’s way of lighting, in that they continuously decrease themselves [in their humility], and like Beit Hillel’s way, in that they continuously increase in holiness.

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1) Mitzvat ner hanukkah, literally “the mitzvah of the light of the Dedication Festival,” is creatively reread by the Maor VaShamesh as “the mitzvah is to dedicate the soul and spirit,” since ner is read as an acronym for nefesh and ruach.

Jeff says…
So, if you look at the history of halachah, you’ll see periods of expansion, where commentaries and supercommentaries and super-supercommentaries are written on earlier texts, until at some point it gets too unruly and someone has to come along and anthologize it. One of my teachers, Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, compares this process to a bunch of people trying to keep a giant beach ball in the air by continuing to ask questions, until someone comes along and puts his foot on the ball and says, Ok, here’s the answer! That’s one reason why that person is called a posek, which means “the one who stops” (the ball). That’s what the Rambam did with his Mishneh Torah in the 12th century (a radical idea at the time) and Joseph Caro, the posek’s posek, did with the Shulhan Aruch in the 16th. To a certain extent the same thing happened in the case of Hasidism’s homiletical literature. I’m not sure if that’s what the Maor VaShamesh had in mind when he wrote his sefer, but that’s how a lot of people see his book, and that’s why it’s called “The Shulhan Aruch of Hasidism.”
So what does that have to do with his teaching on Hanukkah? Well one of the jobs of a posek is to remove the losing opinions from the conversation and just state the authoritative one. But the Maor VaShamesh does just the opposite — he takes Shammai’s losing opinion on how to light the Hanukkiah, which had been rejected a millenium and a half ago, and revives it by reading it as a spiritual lesson. Tucked into his teaching about spiritual growth, there hides a subtle teaching on learning from everyone, even the losers.

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This entry was posted in Hanukkah, Hasidic Masters, Kalonymus Kalman HaLevi Epstein/ Maor VaShamesh, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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