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Mezuzah Right, Candles Left

The title of this dvar Torah is not to be taken as a political statement or social commentary. 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 is the rabbinic debate concerning the placement of the Chanukah candles? (note: in a time period or situation where it would be dangerous to place the candles in the doorway or adjacent window, the law is that we fulfill the requirement by placing them on a table inside the house, not visible from the outside)

First, let me disabuse a serious misconception about mezuzah. It is not a protection for the house or for the household members. While a person is required to periodically check the parchment inside the mezuzah cover to make sure 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 about the mezuzah, or for that matter relates to any mitzvah in the Torah that way, is far removed from God. (Rambam: Laws of Idol Worship, 11:12). Additionally, nowhere in the laws of mezuzah is there a requirement to kiss it when entering or leaving a house or room. Many of today’s Torah scholars frown on this practice considering modern medicine armed with the knowledge of how germs are spread.

The mezuzah contains the first line and first paragraph of the Shema. Its purpose 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.” The mezuzah, then, functions as the primary halakhic and philosophic enhancement of the home. It serves as a constant reminder to those going in and out of the most fundamental philosophic idea of Judaism, “yichud Hashem,” the oneness of God. There exists 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. From the requirement to also place the Chanukah candles in the doorway, we can deduce there is another important philosophic concept that must also be displayed there. What is it?

The Talmud Shabbat, 23a, mentions a unique law regarding Chanukah candles. Not only does the “one who lights” the candles recite blessings, but the “one who sees” the candles also recites the 2nd blessing, שעשה נסים לאבותינו, “…who did miracles for our forefathers at this time and in our days as well.” Why is there a blessing said by someone who sees or observes the Chanukah candles? There is no such requirement by any other mitzvah or candles that we light be they Shabbat candles, Yom Tov candles or Yahrtzeit/Yizkor 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, so 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 but for other use as well, such as to light your barbeque with on Yom Tov. Yahrtzeit/Yizkor candles are a means to remember the passing of a loved one.

Chanukah candles were created “to advertise/publicize” the other most fundamental philosophic principal of Judaism. The one, non-physical, abstract God of the universe referred to in the first line of the Shema, 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 insure the survival of the religion of Judaism.

Unlike the hidden miracle of Purim for which no breach in the laws of physics occurred to save the Jews of the Persian empire, Chanukah was established for us to give thanks to God for saving Judaism. At that time, a breach in the laws of physics did occur. While it is hard for us today to fathom, at the time of the Maccabees, the survival of  Judaism was hanging in the balance. This dire situation is vividly  described by the “al hanissim” inserted to our prayers during Chanukah. The miracle of the oil used to light the menorah of the Holy Temple affirmed that, if necessary, God will abrogate His laws of physics to preserve Judaism. No similar mention of a breach of any laws is made in the “al hanissim” inserted for Purim.

 Thus, it makes good sense that when the rabbis formulated Chanukah candles,” they structured it around “advertising” this idea. Advertising implies there are others whose attention you are trying to get. You want another person to take notice something or ask about it. The idea we want everyone to notice and consider 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. The survival of Judaism is the objective of the physical world. In God’s master plan, we see that in certain critical situations the laws of the universe are subservient to the primary objective, the creation and survival of Judaism.

Both rabbis above  in the Talmudic debate agree that the mezuzah and Chanukah candles comprise a unit of demonstration. The ideas of God’s oneness and Divine Providence go hand in hand. Rabbi Soloveitchik deduced this unity of mezuzah and Chanukah candles from the similarity in the way the Rambam expresses the obligation of mezuzah and the obligation of Chanukah candles. 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 the oneness of God,” and regarding Chanukah candles he writes, “one should be very careful with it in order to recognize the miracle.”

We can now approach the dispute between Rav Acha and Rav Shmuel. It revolves around how to best accomplish the demonstration or advertisement of the unity of these two principles of Judaism. The Rav Acha, who says the Chanukah candles are 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, where a person goes in and out. The Torah has determined that “the designated place” 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 surrounded, encompassed, and enveloped by the realty of God. This inescapable reality is recalled and reinforced by strategically placing the Chanukah candles in the doorway opposite the mezuzah. Now, when a person enters his home, he or she will walk between  reminders of these two fundamental concepts, the oneness of God and God’s divine providence. The placement of Chanukah candles opposite the mezuzah will reflect  the unity of these two fundamental ideas and that they pervade every aspect of the universe and human existence.

May each of us use these days of Chanukah to channel our energies into the study and practice of Judaism. It is this that the Maccabees of long ago fought to safeguard and secure.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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