The following message first appeared as part of the 2012 bulletin of Congregation Sons of Israel of Amsterdam, NY.
Shalom Sons of Israel!
The Jewish people never figured out what to do with their Chanukkah lights. We’ve hadideas though. For example, we light a 9-branched chanukiyah, crafted specifically for Chanukkah. We kindle these flames by a window, or a doorway, or anywhere passersby can see those fires that embody our Chanukkah miracles. But, that’s not how we use Chanukkah candles for ourselves; that’s how we use them to serve others.
The Babylonian Talmud asks: May we personally “benefit from” or “make use of” the lights from a chanukiyah? For example: if you have only two sources of light—yourchanukiyah and a flashlight—is it okay to read by the light of the chanukiyah? You might know the classical answer to this question: No.
But this conclusion is shaky for a few reasons.
First off, the only Talmudic vote in favor of this answer comes from Rav Yirmeyah (Shabbat 21b). Rav Yirmeyah is known for dealing with matters left unresolved even after his lifetime (see Shabbat 38b and Sukkah 33a). Also, this 3rd-4th generation Amora (Talmudic sage) is questioned on our page, by sages from before and after his time (Rava from the 2nd generation, and Rav Hisda from the 4th generation). Jewish law often follows our sages’ earliest views, so Rav Yirmeyah’s negativity would be better off rejected in favor of Rava’s earlier “Yes We Can.”
Over 1000 years after the Talmud, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Me’ir of Berditchev (1740-1810 CE) breathes new life into the permissibility of benefiting from the Chanukkah lights. InKedushat Levi (first published in 1798), this Chasidic master reframes our conversation by drawing the outlines of an analogy:
An exalted king comes to a poor man’s house. Naturally with a king’s arrival, people just see the glory of his wealth and grandeur. So too here, a poor man might get excited, or greedy, upon sensing the king’s abundance—more riches than he’s seen in all his days! But a tempered poor man would be less excited seeing the king’s great wealth, for he knows that wealth is no big deal to a king. That tempered poor man will be excited only by the fact that the king has honored him by entering his home. (Derushim LeHanukkah: Unva’er; adapted)
Now, imagine we’re in God’s kingdom, and the currency is miracles. Poverty is the lack of miracles: never seeing any. When the bereft of miracles see signs of God—whether that be in the beauty of nature, in the loving words of Torah, or elsewhere—one “poor” person might be excited to know that miracles do exist. Yet, other Jews in need might expect to experience God’s miracles firsthand.
And so it is with the lights on Chanukkah. Rav Yirmeyah stood alone in saying that theChanukiyah—our reflection of God’s miracles on Earth—must be left alone. We bless God, and we in turn are blessed by God’s world of miracles—even when we feel no such extraordinary event. For the rabbis of the Talmud—Rav Yirmeyah aside—acknowledgingGod’s miracles is not enough. We need to feel these miracles, and we need to benefit from God’s light.
Kedushat Levi does not have a clear answer to the dilemma, but he presents it very well: On this Festival of Lights and in this season of miracles, have we truly earned the right to bask in the glory of God and to find personal gain in God’s light—or must it be enough just to invite God’s allusive glory into our homes for eight nights?