An interesting issue is presented by the Talmud Shabbat on page 23b. Here the Talmud says that if a person can only afford either wine for נר חנוכה ,קידוש, or נר שבת , he purchases נר שבת. In support of this decision, a verse from Lamentations is cited, “My soul despairs of peace, I have forgotten goodness.”
The verse is directly talking about two negative changes brought about by the destruction of our Holy Temple. One change affects our psychological state of mind, the other expresses the loss of physical comforts. A person needs a place to escape the pain and difficulties of life. Shabbat is that opportunity. Observing Shabbat affords us the respite from both psychological and physical stresses of daily life.
That is why the Talmud uses this verse, read on Tisha b’Av, to refer to the priority of lighting Shabbat candles. Proper fulfillment of Shabbat requires us to be in a certain frame of mind psychologically and engage in physical enjoyments as well. The נר שבת, referred to in the Talmud as נר איש וביתו, a candle for the household, satisfies both requirements. First, light is emotionally uplifting and invigorating. Second, the law is that נר שבת should be placed where you say קידוש and eat the Shabbat meal Friday night. The candles, then, are part and parcel of fulfilling the mitzvah of עונג שבת, to enjoy Shabbat.
However, the Talmud then presents a question. If a person has to choose between buying wine for קידוש and purchasing candles/oil for Chanukah candles, which does he buy? The Talmud first thinks the legal principle of “the more common mitzvah comes first” determines the choice. Wine should be bought. But then the Talmud says, perhaps “advertising the miracle” takes precedence. Then the money should be used to buy נר חנוכה. How do we understand this argument? The positions seem very far apart. The answer lies in understanding the concepts behind the alternative opinions. Whenever we are faced with multiple mitzvot but we can only do one, what determines the legal outcome?
What is the idea behind “the more common one comes first?” Mitzvot are perfecting activities and opportunities for the individual. In his “Book of Mitzvot,” ספר המצות, the Rambam lists the mitzvot that are binding on all men and women in all places at all times. There are 60 for men and 46 for women. (Women are not obligated in certain positive commands regulated by time. They can fulfill them if they want. Examples of this type of mitzvot are hearing the Shofar or living in the Sukkah.) The constancy and frequency of these mitzvot in our daily life demonstrate how essential and fundamental they are to our perfection. So it makes sense in a situation of having to choose which mitzvah to perform, the principle of “more common” is the determinant. Recognizing the Creator of the universe is a most fundamental act of perfection. Using your money to purchase wine for קידוש is a logical first choice.
However, sometimes a particular mitzvah involves a יסוד, a foundational concept. This idea is so important that it supersedes and takes precedence in what we do. The Rambam states in his Laws of Chanukah, chapter 4: 12, that “The mitzvah of Chanukah candles is extremely precious and it is necessary for a person to be careful with it in order to make known the miracle and to add praise to God and to thank Him for the miracles that He did for us. Even if a person is supported by charity he must ask for oil or sell his shirt to have money to buy oil for Chanukah lights.” Later in law 14 he mentions the decision in our case to buy candles rather than wine. Why? The Rambam says the reason for Chanukah candles taking precedence is that “ נר חנוכה contains in it a remembrance of the miracle.”
The main miracle of Chanukah was the military victory over the Hellenized rulers of Israel. But it isn’t the military victory per se we are celebrating. It is a military victory that secured the continued existence of the Jewish religion. How do we know this was the objective? The word חנוכה is a contraction of חנו which means “they rested from battle,” and כה, “the 25th of Kislev.” When Matisyahu and his soldiers rested from war, which by the way continued for another 20 years, they ran to the Holy Temple to restore as much as they could. The Holy Temple represents the center of Jewish religious life. It was a prize possession of the enemy then as it is today as that represents their dominance over Judaism and the Jewish people’s fall from God’s favor. Its recapture and rededication then was the focus of the Hashmonean rebellion and victory. How did they know they saved Judaism for us? The miracle of the oil was verification of God’s divine presence was still with the people.
This idea, that we were not and are not today abandoned by God is why the mitzvah of Chanukah lights is “extremely precious” to us. Not only does it serve to remind us of that miracle which took place 165BCE but as the Rambam writes they serve to make known praise and give thanks for the miracles God does for us today as well. This mitzvah demonstrates an ongoing bond between the Jewish people and God. A more fundamental concept is hard to find. If so then, when faced with a choice of having wine for קידוש or נר חנוכה, Chanukah candles come first.
As this year brings a confluence of Chanukah and the American day of Thanksgiving, let us be thankful we live in a country where we can freely practice our religion and redouble our resolve and commitment to live our Jewish way of life vouched safe for us by those who fought to save it long ago.
Happy Chanukah, a grateful Thanksgiving, and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan