Monday, December 22, 2008

חג האורים בבית הכנסת- Hannukkah in the Synagogue, its deeper meaning

Now that I have successfully completed my semester (an appropriate additional כונה {Kavvanah- intention} when saying Hallel and being joyous on Hannukkah), I would like to offer some words of Torah on an interesting aspect of lighting Hannukkah candles. As you may be aware, there is an established practice to not only light candles each of the eight nights (preferably to the left of the doorway, or at least towards the public domain (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 671)) in the home, but also in Shul, either between the Mincha and Maariv services or at the conclusion of Maariv.
The other day, I was reading a responsum by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, whose politics are quite deplorable, but whose teshuvot are a joy to read, both for their thorough presentation of relevant sources and clear, gramatically correct writing style. In Yechave Da'atשו"ת יחווה דעת חלק ד סימן לח), Rav Ovadiah's second collection of responsa, he addresses the question of the permissability of fulfilling the Mitzvah of Hannukah candles through an electric Hannukiyah. The answer, three pages later, is in that one cannot legitimately make a b'rakha over an electric hannukiyah, based partially on the reasoning that electric power is not analogous to oil, and that one cannot recite 'להדליק נר של חנוכה', to kindle the Hannukkah lights, while flipping a switch or pushing a button. During his analysis Rav Ovadiah also discusses the reasons behind our practice of lighting candles in the beit knesset, with the appropriate b'rakhot. He presents two reasons [Original text, followed by English summary]:
והנה עיקר הטעם שמדליקים נרות חנוכה בבית הכנסת, מבואר בשו"ת הריב"ש (סימן קי"א), שהואיל ועיקר תקנת חז"ל שהדלקת נר חנוכה תהיה על פתח ביתו מבחוץ לפרסומי ניסא, ומכיון שאין אנו יכולים לקיים המצוה כתקנתה, ומדליקים נר חנוכה בפתח הבית מבפנים, ואין פרסומי ניסא אלא לבני הבית, לפיכך תיקנו להדליק בבית הכנסת במעמד כל קהל המתפללים לפרסומי ניסא. ע"ש. אולם גם ההדלקה שבבית הכנסת צריכה להיות באופן שיוצאים בה ידי חובה, ולא בחנוכיה חשמלית. ואף על פי שמבואר בתשובת הריב"ש שם שאין שום אדם יוצא ידי חובתו בהדלקת נרות חנוכה של בית הכנסת, וכן פסק הרמ"א /או"ח/ (סימן תרע"א סעיף ז'), מכל מקום צריכה להיות באופן שראוי לצאת בה ידי חובה. ומכל שכן לדעת הארחות חיים (בהלכות חנוכה אות י"ז), שמדליקים נרות חנוכה בבית הכנסת להוציא ידי חובה את מי שאינו בקי ואינו זריז במצוה זו.
1) The main reason, according to the Ribash (Rabbi Isaac Ben Sheshet, 1326-1408, Spain), explains that the most appropriate way to fulfill the mitzvah is to place the candles outside to entrance to our homes, in order to spread the miracle. Since we are unable to fulfill the mitzvah in this ideal manner, by lighting outside the door, and thus the miracle is only spread to the members of the household, {my note: probably a reflection on the circumstances of his time and place}, it was established to light candles in the synagogue in order that the miracle should be proclaimed before all of the worshippers. According to the Ribash, and also the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserless, 16th century Poland), while nobody fulfills their onligation through this lighting, it nevertheless must be done in a manner through which one would be able to complete the mitzvah.
2) However, according to the Orchot Chaim (by Yehuda Aryeh Halevi Lowinger, Vienna, 1868), we light candles in the synagogue in order to ensure that those who are not knowledgable about how to light the candles will be able to be included in the Mitzvah.
Both of these reasons for lighting in the synagogue, simplified as persecution or ignorance, can be seen as halakhic contingencies for less than ideal situations. However, as in most cases we can put a postive spin on these sad circumstances of the 15th and 19th centuries, thanks to our living in a more free world in 21st century. Unfortunately, there are still places today, even in North America, where Jews do not feel comfortable displaying a Hannukkiyah, or do not know how to light one. One a personal level, in this holiday set aside for thanks and praise (see Mishnah Berurah to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 670:2), it is appropriate to express gratitude for being part of a family and community where I am able to display my Judaism proudly, and was given the tools to become knowledgable about its laws and traditions. At the same time, this idea presents a great challenge for all of us, to work to increase the level of Jewish education in our communities so that all Jews will be able to take ownership of our beautiful heritage, and bring it into their homes. Furthermore there are places around the world where it is still unsafe to place a Hanukkiyah in a window looking onto the street, and we who libe relatively comfortably in Western democracies should again appreciate that.
When lighting candles in our synagogues, it is important to always keep these original reasons for the practice in mind, as explained so clearly by Rav Ovadiah. Although we may no longer be living in fear of publicly duisplaying our Hannukiyyah, or if everyone in the community lights in their homes, we must appreciate how far we have come, and that there is still more work to do - It is not upon us to complete the work of spreading knowledge and pride in Jewish living and tradition, but neither are we free to desist from it.
חג אורים שמח- A joyous festival of lights!

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