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Mezuzah on the Right and Ner Chanukah on the Left

The title of this d’var torah is not to be taken as a political statement or social commentary in any way. Rather, it is a statement of law taken from our Talmud. On page 22a of Talmud Shabbat, a dispute is recorded that pits Rav Acha against Rav Shmuel. Rav Acha holds that the Chanukah candles are placed on the right side of the doorway, the same side of the doorway on which we affix the mezuzah.  Rav Shmuel, however, maintains that the Chanukah menorah is placed on the left side of the doorway opposite the mezuzah. The law is decided in favor of Rav Shmuel. “The menorah is placed on the left side so that when you enter the house, the mezuzah is on the right and the Chanukah candles are on your left.” What issue of “ner Chanukah” is under dispute?

First of all, let me disabuse a serious misconception about mezuzah. It is not a protection for the house or the household members. While periodically checking the parchment inside the mezuzah cover to make sure all of the letters are intact, the mezuzah is not intended to replace a burglar alarm, fire detector or regular visits to your family physician. Anyone who thinks this way or relates for that matter to any mitzvah in the Torah in this way is very far removed from God. (Rambam: Laws of Idol Worship, 11:12). Furthermore, nowhere in the laws of mezuzah is there a requirement to kiss it when entering a house or room.  In fact, many Torah scholars rail on this practice in light of modern medicine and the knowledge of how germs are spread.

The purpose of mezuzah is clearly expressed by the Rambam, Laws of Mezuzah, 6:13 “…he will meet with the oneness of God and remember His love and awaken from his vain pursuits and know that the only eternal existence is the knowledge we have of the Rock of the Universe.” Clearly, the mezuzah functions as the primary halachic enhancement of the home. It serves as a constant reminder to those going in and out for the most fundamental philosophic idea of Judaism, “yichud Hashem,” there is a qualitatively unique one, non-physical creator of the universe. Any Jewish home that lacks a mezuzah fails in its primary function, to be a place dedicated to the reality of God.

We see, then, that the Torah designated the doorway as the focal point for displaying important philosophic concepts of God. What other important philosophic concepts, then, must also be displayed in the doorway that is tied to the “ner Chanukah?”

The Talmud Shabbos, 23a, mentions a tantalizing idea with regard to “ner Chanukah.” Not only does the “one who lights” the candles recite blessings, but the “one who sees” the candles also recites a blessing, “…who did miracles for our forefathers at this time and in our days as well.” Why is there a blessing said by the observer of the Chanukah candles? There is no such requirement by another mitzvah or candles we light be they Shabbat candles, Yom Tov candles or Yahrtzeit candles.

Chanukah candles have a purpose. They are not for enjoyment, as is the case with Shabbat candles. It would be uncomfortable and detract from our “oneg Shabbat,” to be in the dark on Friday night. The rabbis instituted Shabbat candles be lit just before sundown Friday afternoon.  They should last at least until one has finished his Friday night meal. Yom Tov candles are expressly lit so we have fire available not only for light to see by but for further use as well, such as having a flame to light your barbeque with on Yom Tov. Yahrtzeit candles are a means to remember the passing of a loved one.

Chanukah candles were created to perpetuate the other most fundamental philosophic principle of Judaism. The abstract God of the universe, the one, non-physical creator referred to in the first line of the Shema, is the same God that not only relates to man but created the world in such a way that at times, He will abrogate the laws of physics governing the universe to ensure the survival of the religion of Judaism.

Unlike Purim which was a purely physical rescue of the Jews in Persia and for which no breach in the physical world occurred, Chanukah was established for us to give thanks to God for saving Judaism. Here a breach in the laws of physics did occur. It is hard for us today to fathom but at the time of the “Chashmonaim,” the Maccabees, Judaism was on the brink of survival.  This fact is evident from the words of the “al hanissim” insert to our prayers during Chanukah. The miracle of the oil used to light the candelabra of the Holy Temple affirms that God will, if necessary, abrogate His laws of physics to preserve Judaism. No mention is made with regard to the “al hanissim” insert for Purim of any miracle that breached the laws of physics.

Thus it makes good sense that when the rabbis formulated “ner Chanukah,” they structured it around “advertising” this idea. Advertising implies there is someone or another party whose attention you are trying to reach. You want another person to take notice something, reflect on it or perhaps ask about it. The idea we want everyone to notice and investigate during Chanukah is that God of the universe relates to mankind in such a way that to save the Jewish religion, He will interfere with the laws of the universe. In other words, the survival of Judaism is the objective of the physical world. In God’s master plan, we see that the laws of the universe are subservient to the primary objective, the creation, and survival of Judaism.

Both rabbis in the Talmudic debate on Shabbos, 22a, agree that the mezuzah and “ner Chanukah” comprise a unit of demonstration. The ideas of “yichud Hashem” and ‘hashgacha peratit,” Divine Providence, go hand in hand. Rabbi Soloveitchik deduced this unity of mezuzah and “ner Chanukah” from the similarity in the way the Rambam expresses the obligation of mezuzah and the obligation of “ner Chanukah.” Concerning mezuzah the Rambam writes, “One must be very careful with mezuzah so that when he enters or leaves the house he will be reminded of yichud Hashem,” and with regard to “ner Chanukah,” he writes “one should be very careful with it in order to recognize the miracle.”

The dispute between Rav Acha and Rav Shmuel concerns how best to accomplish the demonstration or advertisement of the unity of these two principles of Judaism. The Rav Acha, who says the “ner Chanukah” is placed on the same side of the door as the mezuzah, holds there is “a designated place in the home for the advertisement of philosophic concepts.” The Torah via its laws of mezuzah has determined that it is the right side of the doorway.

Rav Shmuel, however, maintains that the demonstration or advertisement must also reflect the notion that we are, so to speak, surrounded, encompassed, and enveloped by the reality of God. This inescapable reality is brought to mind and reinforced by placing the “ner Chanukah” in the doorway opposite the mezuzah.  Now, when a person enters his home, he or she will walk between the representations of two concepts. This structure will not only serve as a reminder of “yichud Hashem” and “hashgacha peratit,” Divine Providence, but it will reflect that these two fundamental ideas pervade every aspect of the universe.

May each of us use the remaining days of Chanukah to rechannel our energies into the study and practice of Judaism. It is those very activities for which the Maccabees of long ago stood up to safeguard and that we honor them for today. 

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan