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"In Matters of Holiness, We Ascend"

  • Rav Meir Shpiegelman


The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur



"In Matters of Holiness, We Ascend"


By Rav Meir Spiegelman


Translated by David Silverberg



PART 1 - The Two Mitzvot of Chanuka


Our Rabbis taught: The basic mitzva of Chanuka candles is one light per household ... But the extra zealous ("mehadrin min ha-mehadrin") - Beit Shammai say: On the first night they light eight, and each night thereafter they decrease one. Beit Hillel say: On the first night they light one, and each night thereafter they increase one... One view maintains that Beit Shammai's reasoning is to count the number of days ahead of us, whereas Beit Hillel hold that we should count the days that have passed. The other view maintains that Beit Shammai's reasoning is that [Chanuka candles] should correspond to the bullocks [offered as sacrifices] on Sukkot, whereas Beit Hillel hold that in matters of holiness, we ascend and do not descend ("ma'alin ba-kodesh ve-ein moridin"). (Shabbat 21b)


The Gemara does not explain why the basic mitzva requires just one candle or why, once this basic mitzva has been established, there exists an additional measure of piety in lighting one additional candle each night (according to the view of Beit Hillel, which is the accepted opinion). Even after applying the principle of "ma'alin ba-kodesh" - despite the fact that this principle is, for some reason, ignored in the context of the bullocks offered on Sukkot - there seems to be no reason, at first glance, not to light eight candles each night or just a single candle each night. Apparently, a unique provision was stated in this regard, that we must specifically ascend; simply remaining in the same spot, even without descending, does not suffice. This extension of the principle of "ma'alin ba-kodesh" requires explanation (1).


PART 2 - The Mitzva of Lighting in the Temple


When the Hasmoneans found the single jug of ritually pure oil, they faced two options (assuming that they were unaware of the impending miracle, and that they felt confident that they would be able to produce pure oil after eight days):

a) to light all the candles immediately, thus depleting all the pure oil in just one day, or

b) to divide the oil into eight parts, and light just one candle each day.


The halakhic viability of the second option depends on two issues.

1) Can the mitzva of lighting in the Beit Ha-mikdash (Temple) be fulfilled by lighting just a single candle?

2) Even if the basic mitzva can be fulfilled through the lighting of just one candle, still, there is also an additional fulfillment attained by lighting all the candles. If so, perhaps this additional level may have required their lighting all eight candles on the first day, even if they would then be unable to light at all for another week.


In order to answer these questions, we need to analyze carefully the mitzva of the menora in the Beit Ha-mikdash. The Torah makes reference to candle-lighting in many places; we will focus on the following four:

A. "... The lamps shall be so mounted as to give the light on its front side" (Shemot 25:37).

B. "You shall further instruct Benei Yisrael to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling candles regularly. Aharon and his sons shall set them up in the Ohel Mo'ed ... [to burn] from evening to morning before God" (Shemot 27:20-1).

C. "Command Benei Yisrael to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling candles regularly. Aharon shall set them up in the Ohel Mo'ed ... [to burn] from evening to morning before God regularly ... He shall set up the candles on the pure menora before God [to burn] regularly" (Vayikra 24:2-4).

D. "When you mount the candles, let the seven candles give light at the front of the menora. Aharon did so; he mounted the candles at the front of the menora, as God had commanded Moshe. Now this is now the menora was made: it was a hammered work of gold" (Bemidbar 8:2-4).


The difference between these various commandments is clear. Passage A relates to the requirement to maintain a menora in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) or Beit Ha-mikdash. The instruction in passage B, however, does not relate in any way to the menora. Rather, this mitzva involves simply the lighting of an eternal candle (ner tamid) in the Beit Ha-mikdash. This becomes clearer when we contrast B with C, which employs identical terminology as B until an additional expression appears: "On the pure menora..." In other words, the lighting of the eternal light, which was mandated earlier in passage B, must take place specifically on the menora. What emerges from passages B and C, then, is a mitzva to kindle an eternal light in the Beit Ha-mikdash. This mitzva bears no inherent connection to the menora, other than the fact that when there is a menora, the appropriate location for this lighting is on the menora.


The commandment in passage A, however, is of a different nature entirely. This verse calls for the construction of a menora as part of the overall structure of the Mishkan/Beit Ha-mikdash. This menora must contain candles, since a menora, by definition, has candles. However, the candles in this verse are peripheral. The essential mitzva simply requires the building of a menora, and the requirement to light candles results from this essential mitzva. The candles serve simply to ensure that this menora is, indeed, a "menora" in the true sense of the word (2).


PART 3 - "Ner Tamid" vs. "Menora"


In light of this, several issues relating to the menora can be more clearly understood:


1) In passage D, the Torah describes the physical composition of the menora, despite the fact that its design had already been outlined in great detail earlier (in Parashat Teruma, Shemot 25:31-40). The reason is obvious: these verses discuss the lighting of the menora not as an independent mitzva of lighting, but rather as the "incidental" mitzva to light in order that the menora be considered a menora. In these verses, Aharon is commanded, for this first time, to light the candles as part of the mitzva of having a menora in the Mishkan/Beit Ha-mikdash. All previous instances where Aharon was commanded to light involved the mitzva of lighting the eternal candle, which is conceptually independent of the menora (3).


2) The Torah employs different expressions with regard to the mitzva of candle-lighting. Sometimes it uses "ner," the singular "candle," while in other instances "nerot," the plural "candles," appears. This reason for this switch fits beautifully with our discussion. Whenever the context relates to the basic mitzva of lighting an eternal candle, the singular form is used, for the main concern is just a single light (sources B and C above). When the discussion focuses on the lighting as part of the mitzva to construct a menora, then, quite obviously, the Torah employs the plural form, as each candle now assumes inherent significance as part of the menora.


3) The "western candle" ("ner ha-ma'aravi") was of particular importance, in that it was to remain lit throughout the night (as will be discussed later). If there were just one mitzva to light the seven candles of the menora, why would special significance be afforded to one candle over the others? On the basis of our discussion, we can better appreciate the unique quality of this candle. This candle represents the "ner tamid," the single, eternal light in the Beit Ha-mikdash. The mitzva to kindle a "ner tamid" requires, essentially, that a single candle burn throughout the night. As we know, this was fulfilled by the western candle. The mitzva to light candles which signify the functioning of the menora should apply, it would seem, only by day (like all halakhot relating to the Beit Ha-mikdash) (4). Although some Rishonim maintain that at least one candle must burn throughout every twenty-four hour period, they derive this requirement from the verse dealing with the eternal candle as part of the menora (passage C), which does not appear in passage B, the incommandment to light the eternal candle (5).


We can now return to our four verses and identify the specific elements added by each source.

A. The menora, which is to be erected in the Beit Ha-mikdash, must have candles in order for it to be considered a "menora."

B. There must be a candle lit throughout the night in the Beit Ha-mikdash (i.e. the "ner tamid").

C. This "eternal candle," which must burn throughout the night, was to be situated on the menora. According to some opinions, it must therefore burn throughout the day as well, since it bears a dual identity - the status of "ner tamid" (which requires its kindling at night) and that of a regular candle of the menora (which requires its kindling by day).

D. This lighting, which was mandated in passage A, was to be performed by Aharon himself.


PART 4 - The Two Miracles of Chanuka = Two Mitzvot of Chanuka


The Hasmoneans, upon their triumphant entry into the Beit Ha-mikdash, found only enough suitable oil for one day. To be precise, this oil would suffice only for eight candles for one day: six of the seven candles would burn throughout the night, and the western candle would burn throughout the following day as well. Under normal circumstances, supernatural providence assured that the western candle would miraculously continue to burn the following day although it contained the same amount of oil as the other candles - only enough for the night. When this supernatural intervention was withdrawn, however, the kohen would have to provide the western candle with twice as much oil so that it would burn throughout the following day. (See Shut Ha-Rashba 1:319.) Now, the menora, like all the sacred instruments in the Beit Ha-mikdash, achieves the unique status of "keli sharet," a useable vessel for the service in the Beit Ha-mikdash, only after its consecration. Recall that during the Hellenist occupation, the Temple was defiled, so all the utensils therein required a new consecration. Therefore, the menora, like all other instruments in the Beit Ha-mikdash, was stripped of its status and required a new consecration, i.e., all seven candles had to be lit before it would return to its previous stature of a sacred instrument in the Temple. The Hasmoneans preferred not to light all the candles, for doing so would render the menora once again a functioning menora, and thus eight candles would be required each day. This, of course, would be impossible, as all the oil would have been used already on the first day, and they would then be unable to perform the mitzva of lighting all the candles of the menora. In short, they did not want to obligate themselves in a mitzva which they could not perform.


Therefore, they opted not to consecrate the menora, for without a proper menora, there exists no obligation of lighting the menora, but only the mitzva of kindling the single "ner tamid" (source B). Since the menora is, in effect, non-functioning, this single candle needs to be lit only by night, as the requirement that it be lit by day evolves only from its being a part of the menora (as explained above). Thus, once they decided not to consecrate the menora, the only obligation was for one candle to be lit by night.


The miracle of Chanuka was that this single candle which they lit by night continued to burn throughout the next day as well. As noted earlier, this miracle was a common occurrence in the Beit Ha-mikdash - the western candle miraculously burned for twenty-fours, despite the fact that only one night's-worth of oil was provided. Through this miracle, God demonstrated to the Hasmoneans that He consented, as it were, with their decision. The fact that the single candle burned throughout the day meant that the menora was, in fact, considered an operative menora, for only on an operative menora must one candle burn for twenty-four hours. In this way, God expressed His agreement with the Hashmoeans' efforts. This miracle - the continuation of the single light to burn throughout the following day - is commemorated through the basic mitzva of Chanuka, the obligation to light a single candle.


The secondary mitzva, that of the "mehadrin min ha-mehadrin," most likely stems from an additional miracle, one bearing less significance than the first and therefore not (initially) instituted as a universally-binding obligation. Namely, the oil was not depleted at the end of each day, thus allowing for one additional candle to be lit each day. On the seventh day, then, all candles on the menora were kindled, thus constituting the formal consecration of the menora. Thereafter, the menora, having reassumed its stature as an operative instrument in the Beit Ha-mikdash, now required all its candles to be lit. The eighth day thus signified the resumption of routine operation in the Temple, reminiscent of the eighth day of the "milu'im" procedure in the wilderness, on which the mishkan began functioning. In this way, the eighth day characterized the classic dichotomy of the Beit Ha-mikdash: from the outside, it seemed as though the operation of the Temple proceeded normally; in reality, however, this operation was facilitated only through God's supernatural intervention.





(1) The Gemara (Megilla 21b) applies the principle of "ma'alin ba-kodesh" to the context of public Torah reading. Rava requires that the person reading should not read fewer verses than were read by the previous reader, and the Gemara cites "ma'alin ba-kodesh" as his source. Nowhere does the Gemara suggest that for this reason the second reader should specifically read MORE verses than the first.


(2) A similar phenomenon occurs regarding the lechem ha-panim (showbread) - part of its function is to make the shulchan (table) into a "shulchan."


(3) In the previous instances where Aharon receives instructions regarding candle-lighting, the instructions involve the lighting of the eternal candle, not lighting as part of the mitzva of the menora per se. This is why Chazal maintain (Tanchuma, Beha'alotkha 8, and see Ramban here) that this commandment served to settle Aharon's uneasiness after his lack of participation in the dedication ceremony for the mishkan. Although he had already been informed of his privilege of lighting candles, this commandment was the first which related to his lighting as part of the mitzva of the menora.


(4) See Rambam, Hilkhot Temidin U-musafin, chapter 3; Shut HaRashba 1:309.


(5) It would seem that even the Sifrei, which derives this from the phrase, "... before God, always," refers to Vayikra 24:4, not 24:3.




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