In our family, there is one annual source of confusion that we have to cope with when the time comes to kindle the Hanukkah candles. It has to do with the directions in which the candles should be placed and kindled. It is our meticulously observed custom to forget the procedures from one year to the next.
The following is a typical example of the kinds of instructions that one finds in a standard guide to Hanukkah observance: "The candles are placed in the menorah from right to left. The flames are lit from left to right, with today's flame being lit first."
Even if I weren't totally confused by those dizzying zigzags, the directions seem superfluously arbitrary. Why, indeed, should it make a difference?
The earliest halakhic authority I know of who dealt with this question was the thirteenth-century Rabbi Meir of Rotenburg, whose numerous responsa and works of liturgical custom are among the cornerstones of Ashkenazic practice. As was common among important rabbis in that society, his disciples paid careful attention to his personal practices and recorded them as normative precedents for posterity. They related that Rabbi Meir "would light the candles commencing at the left, and then proceeding towards the right." His custom was adopted as authoritative by subsequent scholars in the Rhine valley, including Rabbi Jacob Moelin, the Maharil.
The rationale for this sequence was rooted in a rule that is found in the Talmud: "Whenever you turn, it should always be towards the right"--a rule that can best be carried out if one commences from the left. The talmudic principle is invoked in a number of ritual matters, for example to determine the proper route for a priest to encircle the altar when offering sacrifices (He takes the first right, to the east, after ascending the ramp from the south side). This was in line with the general preference that Jewish tradition (like most other world cultures) has always given to the right as the most auspicious side for beginnings.
However, Maharil's application of this rule to the Hanukkah candle-lighting was not accepted universally. His own nephew Rabbi Jacob Gelnhausen challenged him as regards the appropriateness of the analogy. After all, he argued, the talmudic examples or turning to the right all involved cases where the person was actually ambulatory, so that he could literally be turning his body toward the right. The kindling of Hanukkah lamps, by contrast, is normally performed from a stationary position with only the arms in motion, and hence it would make better sense to fulfill the precept by starting the lighting from the right and then progress leftward.
Among other things, Rabbi Gelnhausen pointed out, this would be consistent with the precedent inherent in the Hebrew language itself: when a scribe sets to writing a Torah scroll, tefillin or a mezuzah, he naturally begins commences from the right margin and continues towards the left.
Uncle Maharil, however, had little patience for this sort of hairsplitting distinction: "I can't fathom what is compelling you to pass an elephant through the eye of a needle!"
Other authorities at that time had to deal with similar questions, and no clear consensus emerged with respect to either the normative practice or the reasons underlying it.
Rabbi Israel Isserlein was asked to choose between the two major options--Rabbi Meir of Rotenburg's custom of proceeding from left to right, or of starting from the right in the first place.
In response, he observed that the matter was subject to regional variations. Rabbi Meir's procedure had become the norm in the Rhineland regions; whereas the Jews of Austria preferred to start from the right side.
In his attempt to account for the evolution of the divergent practices, Rabbi Isserlein linked it to another difference that he had noted between the observances of the two Jewish communities: the rooms where the Austrian Jews lit their menorahs did not usually have mezuzahs on their doorways, whereas those of the Rhine valley did.
This disparity, if it did in fact exist, was evidently rooted in the climatic conditions of northern Europe. Hanukkah (as some of you might have noticed, unless you happen to live in Australia or South Africa) falls during the coldest days of winter, a season when many people in the Middle Ages were forced to dwell in special "winter quarters," rooms in their houses that were enhanced by the special luxury of heating. Furthermore, it was not then the universal practice to affix mezuzahs on every doorway in a house, and therefore the winter quarters, which were not inhabited all year long, were often left without mezuzahs.
The presence or absence of a mezuzah has a definite impact on the positioning of the Hanukkah lamps. The Talmud (Shabbat 21b-22a) ruled that the candles should be placed on the left side of the entrance, because the mezuzah is on the right doorpost, and this would create a situation in which people would be "surrounded" by religious precepts whenever they passed through the doorway. Subsequent authorities concluded that if there were no mezuzahs, then the preference should naturally default to the right side.
Thus, concluded Rabbi Isserlein, the disparity between the Rhineland and Austrian practices regarding the lighting of Hanukkah lamps may be traced to their differing conventions of mezuzah use. Though Rabbi Meir of Rotenburg was scrupulous to attach mezuzahs to every doorpost in his house, most Jews in central Europe did not keep mezuzahs on their winter quarters, and hence they had no reason not to begin their candle-lighting from the favored right sides of their doorways.
In reviewing this obscure halakhic dispute that took place almost a thousand years ago, it occurred to me that it epitomizes some of the different dimensions of Hanukkah, of our community, and of our general relationship to the observance of mitzvot.
Rabbi Jacob Gelnhausen based his position on an ideal theoretical position, in which the Torah can be observed in its full richness and in its proper climatic conditions. The lights of the menorah can be kindled in the public domain; the Jewish community is surrounded on all sides by an environment that promotes the values of Torah; and we are able to live our Judaism with all the limbs of our bodies. Therefore we may proceed with confidence directly "from the right side" to carry out our mission of making God known in the world and of contributing to the betterment of society.
On the other hand, Rabbi Meir of Roterburg and Maharil exemplify a type of Jewish existence that has been transplanted to the chilling winter of the exile. Here we have been removed from our normal habitat, and must shine our Hanukkah lamps from temporary annexes, from artificially heated "winter quarters." We must make a conscious effort to affix a mezuzah to a structure that was not really designed for normal habitation. In this alien environment it demands a major exertion just to keep ourselves from freezing (I am speaking, of course, in a purely metaphoric sense), let alone to diffuse our light into a world that sorely needs it. This type of Judaism does not encompass all our limbs, but is restricted to some ritual gestures that we can perform from a (figuratively) stationary position.
In this situation, our spiritual energies must first be channeled into the proper direction for illuminating the world with the light of Torah. We must figuratively turn ourselves "from the left" by insuring our survival and our viability as a religious community; and only then can we proceed to our real task of enriching humanity with the warmth and luminescence of Torah.
It is indeed possible--and necessary--to radiate the light of the Torah even from the demanding surroundings of exile. Nevertheless, it is only natural that we should yearn impatiently for the time when we will all be able to replace these frigid and anomalous winter quarters with the bright, warm atmosphere in which the Torah can thrive in its authentic fullness.
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*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, December 20, 2009.