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The Music of Halacha: Lighting the Chanukah Candles Part One

We can find a great deal of Jewish history in the placement of the Menorah and in the order we light its candles: The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) teaches us, “The Mitzvah is to place the candle by the doorway of one’s home on the outside. If one lives on an upper floor he should place it in a window that is adjacent to the public domain and in time of danger he should place it on his table and that is sufficient.”

Rabbah teaches (22a): “It is an obligation to place the Chanukah candles within a handbreadth from the entrance. And where should one place them? Rav Aha the son of Rava says on the right side. Rav Shmuel of Difti says on the left side.” The conclusion is, “the left side so that the candle will be on the left while the mezuzah will be on the right.”

The only reason to place the Menorah at the left side of the doorway is that the Mezuzah is on the right. If there was no Mezuzah on the right, the Menorah would be placed on the right because the right is always preferred.

During the Middle Ages Rabbinic authorities moved the Chanukah Menorah inside the house because of the dangers of public displays of Judaism in a hostile Christian environment. (Machzor Vitri, I, page 201, Sefer Ha’Itur, Mordechai Shabbat 266, & Or Zaru’a, II, Pages 139:322) All the rules about the location of the Menorah outside the house now applied to the Menorah inside. (Shu”t Maharil #40) The Menorah could be inside the front door, (Sefer Ha’Itur) the back door (Darchei Moshe, O”C 671:9), or at the entrance of the”Beit HaToref,” the living room, which was the only heated room in the house, and therefore, where most family activities took place.

The Menorah was not the only thing that disappeared from the outside of the home. Many Jews, especially in France, stopped placing their Mezuzot on the outside of their home, and the Menorah was moved to the right side of the entrance on the inside of the house. (Sefer Ravia, Volume V; Shibbolei HaLeket 185) Since the Menorah was now lit inside the house, there was no longer a need to light candles on each side facing a public domain. Hence, we began to light only the single Menorah.

I hope to follow the history of how we observe these laws in future essays. However, I would like to focus on the idea of how a Halacha develops through history. The move inside became permanent for most Jews, not all, as we will see in a later essay. The Rabbinic authorities did not institute the move as a temporary measure only as long as people feared their Christian neighbors. They did not want people to think of their fears while lighting their Menorah, or to feel that they were not performing the Mitzvah as it should be. These visionary and sensitive Rabbis understood that finding a temporary alternative to lighting the Menorah as it should would satisfy the Halacha but not the spiritual aspirations and psychological needs of their communities. Halacha is not just specific rules; it addresses the whole human being. Halacha speaks to our realities and our souls.

These Rabbis also brought the Talmud’s ruling about the left side “because the Mezuzah is on the right,” into the homes of the people lighting. We can spend time considering the Mezuzah and the common perception of it affording protection, but that belongs in an essay about Mezuzah. The Menorah is to be viewed as one part of a whole. It relates to the Mezuzah on the door and even the Tztitzit worn by the person lighting the Chanukah candles. The rules of Halacha always address the whole person and his environment.

These authorities considered the basic theme of the Chanukah candles; Pirsumei Nissa – Publicizing the Miracle, and transformed what was originally intended to be a message to the public into a message for the home. They wanted people living under siege of a hostile religion to have a powerful sense of a fundamental message to be shared within the walls of the family home. The Rabbis taught their communities how to build homes that were sanctuaries of faith and strength that would empower them to live under the worst of circumstances.

This is truly the Music of Halacha, its power and message. Its practical meaning and spiritual message.

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