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The Importance of Preparing the Menora

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Based on a sicha of Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l

Summarized by Shalom Birnbaum

Translated by David Silverberg


In describing the events commemorated on the festival of Chanuka, the Rambam (Hilkhot Chanuka 1:1) provides the general background of the troubles that Am Yisrael confronted under Greek rule. Then, in the second halakha, he records what happened on Chanuka itself:

"When Yisrael overpowered their enemies and destroyed them, it was the 25th of Kislev. They entered the Sanctuary and found no pure oil in the Temple with the exception of a single jug. It contained enough to light for only one day, but they lit the candles from it for eight days, until they pressed olives and produced pure oil."

The Rambam writes that the miracle occurred on the 25th of Kislev. Rav Soloveitchik zt"l once raised a question about this (and this question appears as well in the name of the Ma'aseh Rokei'ach in the "Sefer Ha-maftei'ach" of the Frankel edition of the Rambam). If the Chashmonaim entered the Sanctuary on the 25th of Kislev, the first lighting they performed occurred that night. Thus, the miracle occurred on the 26th of Kislev, rather than the 25th!

Rav Soloveitchik answered (and this answer appears in the aforementioned "Sefer Ha-maftei'ach" in the name of the Arugat Ha-bosem) that the Rambam here operates according to his own position regarding the mitzva of "hatavat ha-nerot" (cleaning the oil lamps of the menora). The Rambam maintains that the menora was lit twice daily; beyond the standard lighting in the evening, the menora was lit as well as part of the hatava. According to the Rambam, there is a positive commandment to change the wicks and light them so that they will light more easily later. On the one hand, this mitzva contains the element of preparation, but additionally, it also constitutes a halakhic act of lighting.

Most Rishonim, such as the Ra'avad (Hilkhot Avodat Yom Ha-kippurim 2:2) disagree with the Rambam. The Rashba, too, tries to disprove the Rambam's position in two lengthy responsa. In any event, according to the Rambam, the hatavat ha-menora on the 25th of Kislev occurred in the morning and included the lighting of the menora. It thus turns out that this hatava comprises one of the components of the Chanuka miracle, and Chanuka, therefore, is the time of hatava. What are the characteristics of this hatava?

Two distinct points stand at the center of this ritual. One mitzva requires arranging the oil lamps. In this sense, "hatava" means cleaning and preparing the menora. The verb "le-heitiv" in this context means an act of enhancement in terms of quality. Heavy emphasis is placed in the Temple on quality, and this emphasis bears significance in the realm of spirituality, as well.

This past summer, we learned the third chapter of Masekhet Sukka ("Lulav Ha-gazul"), which includes the topic of "mitzva ha-ba'a ba-aveira" (performing a mitzva by violating a transgression). We saw that according to some Rishonim, this disqualification generally applies only mi-de'rabbanan, but when it comes to the Temple service, it applies on the level of Torah law, as it entails a deficiency in quality.

We find other external properties that yield a disqualification in the Temple, such as a physical blemish; even a spot in the eye renders an animal invalid as a sacrifice. Beyond that, there is also a positive demand for quality and perfection. Birds are not disqualified for use in the Temple due to physical blemish, nor does this factor pertain to the firewood on the altar or anything else that originates from the ground. Yet, even regarding these there exists a positive commandment of "They shall be unblemished for you, as shall be their libations." Meaning, the Torah requires striving towards perfect quality even regarding unblemished items, and reaching for the highest possible standards; and this applies on the level of Torah law.

The Gemara in Menachot (64a) exemplifies this notion:

"Rabba said: If one had before him [on Shabbat] two sin-offerings, one robust and the other lean - if he slaughtered the robust animal and thereafter slaughtered the lean animal, he is liable [for having violated Shabbat]; first the lean animal and thereafter the robust animal - he is exempt [from punishment]. What's more, we would tell him [after he slaughtered the lean animal] bring the robust animal and slaughter it."

Although a lean animal is not formally disqualified for use as a sacrifice, nevertheless, Halakha requires striving for the highest standard and slaughtering the robust animal, even if the lean animal had already been slaughtered. This is true despite the fact that doing so will retroactively render the original slaughtering (of the lean animal) superfluous, and thus in essence a Shabbat violation.

A similar law applies to the menora. Technically, the menora could be lit even without cleaning and neatly arranging the lamps; nevertheless, the mitzva requires cleaning them and making them orderly. The pursuit of the highest quality in the mitzva of lighting the menora finds expression even in the lighting itself, which is performed specifically with pure olive oil.

There is also a second point that characterizes hatavat ha-menora, according to the way most Rishonim define the mitzva. Lighting entails no physical exertion whatsoever, and the desired result of a shining light is attained immediately. When it comes to hatavat ha-menora, however, the situation is reversed. The work is difficult and filthy, and after its completion one still has nothing; he has merely performed the preparations in the morning for the lighting that will occur late in the afternoon. In the mitzva of hatava, then, we have hard work without results.

We generally perceive Chanuka as a festival of lighting, with all its symbolism. But according to Rav Soloveitchik's understanding of the Rambam, our point of departure lies specifically in the hatava; this is our springboard.

The message for us on Chanuka is partially the joy of lighting, but we must remember as well the task involved in the hatava. The symbolism of hatava is dual: a readiness to roll up one's sleeves and apply himself to a goal, and the emotional ability to invest today to harvest the fruits only tomorrow - and sometimes tomorrow occurs much later than the following day.

In yeshiva, we occupy ourselves with the menora of Torah; in fact, each one of us is a menora of Torah. We must ask ourselves to what extent we invest in "hatava." For "lighting" we are all prepared to run, whereas "hatava" is far less appealing and enchanting. It entails a lot of hard work, effort, and investment, and its fruits do not initially appear within visible range. Often we find ourselves in a situation where we are prepared to involve ourselves in lighting, but not in the preliminary stage of hatava. We do not see any qualitative or quantitative results within the short range. One must assess the extent to which he approaches his studies with a sense of genuine effort and exertion, while setting for himself specific objectives and goals and rolling up his sleeves in pursuit of them.

In recent years, our world has been afflicted by a sense of unwillingness to invest hard work and effort. In an article I published last year, I mentioned a story I heard from a certain Torah scholar in Jerusalem, a relative of mine, who has a yeshiva named "Iyun Ha-Talmud" ("In-Depth Study of Talmud" - a name that indeed characterizes the yeshiva). He once spoke with Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik z"l (of Jerusalem) and told him that the exertion in Torah learning in the yeshivot, including the haredi yeshivot, is declining. Rav Yosef Dov replied, "You are wrong; it has already declined."

We must ask ourselves, is this indeed the case? Are we prepared to resign ourselves to this decline? Generally speaking, intellectual effort in society has decreased. "Le-havdil," in the past someone interested in becoming cultured had to learn the classical languages, which entailed enormous effort, whereas today this requirement has fallen by the wayside. This is true in several other areas as well. Much has been written about this phenomenon, of a generation raised on passive education, on television and instant gratification. I suspect that in recent years the voltage has dropped in the Torah world, as well.

We indeed must "light," but in order to "light" we must first perform "hatava." We must demand from ourselves intense exertion both on the quantitative and qualitative planes. Not always is this pleasant, but this is what is called for and required - and we must internalize this message and act accordingly.

This issue bears dual significance. Hard work and effort have academic value, in intellectual terms. Without exertion and a sense of struggle and willingness to delve deep into the material, we cannot accumulate knowledge. If a person strives to master Torah knowledge and internalize it, he must understand that he will have to apply himself diligently in Torah learning. He will have to exert himself today so that he can become a Torah scholar several years from now, and to exert himself today so that he can plumb the Torah's depths in the future.

Alongside this aspect, there is also an existential aspect relevant to the avodat Hashem latent within Torah study. Commenting on the verse, "Im be-chukotai teileikhu" ("If you follow My laws" - Vayikra 26:3), Rashi cites Chazal's interpretation, "that you exert yourselves in Torah." Emphasizing the "hatava" dimension in Torah study is critical in order for the learning to assume the status of avodat Hashem, and to proceed from a connection to and identification with God and His Torah. This is no simple task, but we must strive for our Torah to be a "living Torah," and we are therefore called upon and required to strive for the highest quality in our learning, to exert ourselves and work assiduously in Torah study.

I do not wish to give a dark, gloomy prognosis. The "hatava" aspect need not diminish the daily enjoyment that must accompany every ben Torah as he deciphers a particular point over the course of study. Enjoyment that begins with "hatava" will reach the stage of "hadlaka" (lighting). The combination of effort that bears long-term fruit, with the experiential learning that provides short-term enjoyment, is particularly meaningful.

The days of Chanuka, therefore, shall serve for us as a reminder of the "hadlaka," the light of Torah, and of the "hatava." On a personal, institutional and communal level, we must raise the banner of learning that combines both "hadlaka" and the "hatava."

(This sicha was delivered on Chanuka 5763 [2002].)