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Vale: The Hanukkah observance paradox

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A trait commonly found among non-Orthodox movements is the stripping away of Jewish rituals and traditions. Such changes are reinforced by the belief that they will make Judaism more accessible and relevant to our times and motivate uninspired Jews to come to shul. Yet I disagree with such an approach.

Over the last half century, Jews have been assimilating at an unprecedented and alarming rate, despite all the innovations by the non-Orthodox movements. At the same time, Orthodox people involved in outreach efforts will tell you that the reality is that by properly explaining ancient rituals to unaffiliated Jews and presenting them in a non-coercive fashion, many will embrace them. Also, from an Orthodox perspective, many of the practices instituted by the more liberal streams of Judaism are not halakhically sound and cannot be justified.

What aspects of traditional practice have been altered or done away with varies from group to group. Virtually all of them have torn down the mechitzah separating men and women during prayer and the vast majority no longer have separate seating. Parts of the davening, such as the Musaf service, have been eliminated in some synagogues. The limitations of Shabbat have been loosened, or completely undone. Kashrut standards have been lowered and the laws of mikveh are all but unknown.

In the most extreme cases, the resultant form of Judaism is an illustration of the old witticism about the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai containing the “ten suggestions.”

The one exception to this trend towards leniency is the Hanukkah candles. The universal practice is for everyone to light a single candle on the first night, two the second night, three the third, etc. In the Talmud, however, it is clearly stated that the mitzvah is fulfilled simply by lighting a single candle per night – be it the first day or the eighth one. Adding another candle each night is called l’mehadrin min hamehadrin – the strictest of the strict, the holiest of the holy.

For some reason, everyone – even Jews who hardly keep any other religious rituals – light their menorahs in this way. If you pass through the more Jewish neighbourhoods, you will see stores – even some owned by non-Jews – with menorahs in their windows in honour of their Jewish customers, and they too follow the strictest custom.

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It’s difficult to understand this interdenominational fanaticism. One might attribute it to the ease with which this mitzvah can be done and the very low cost involved. However, Shabbat candles are also inexpensive. And yet, according to a recent survey in Israel, some 67 per cent of secular Jews light Hanukkah candles, while only 29 per cent perform the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles.

The proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas might account for Jews being motivated to rally around the menorah. They want to have their own holiday when everyone around them is celebrating theirs. However, that wouldn’t explain why Jews go that extra mile and do it in the most pious way.

Perhaps the zeal to light an additional Hanukkah candle every night has to do with an idea discussed by Hillel, as recorded in a talmudic discussion about Hanukkah. He explains that the reason for increasing the number of candles each day – instead of doing a nightly count down from eight to one – is an example of the concept of ma’alin bkodesh, striving to constantly elevate oneself in holiness.

I would like to believe that once a person has decided, for whatever reason, to light Hanukkah candles, he or she will be touched deep inside and motivated to do more, rather than less. This is an expression of the pintele yid, the Jewish spark that connects us to our past and to Jews all over the world. Perhaps you will find what I am saying to be unrealistic, or even fanciful. But that’s OK. After all, this is a holiday of miracles, isn’t it?

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