This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Hanukkah by Star-Light*

The fifteenth-century Rabbi Jacob Moellin, known as the Maharil, is one of our most important sources for the preservation of Ashkenazic liturgical customs. So meticulous was the Maharil about his personal observance that his disciples would record his every action, recognizing that even the most trivial-looking of his deeds must be rooted in their master's unmatched expertise in religious law and local tradition.

It was therefore a matter of some consequence when the Maharil objected to the placement of the Hanukkah candles in the Maintz synagogue. Upon noticing that they had been set up in a disorderly way, he ordered the sexton to rearrange them in a straight row. The reason he gave for his concern was that "they should not have the appearance of a bonfire."

Maharil was alluding to a ruling in the Talmud that disqualifies a Hanukkah lamp that was fashioned by filling a bowl with oil and extending wicks out of the bowl's circumference. The Talmud declares that this kind of arrangement, in which the flames are not clearly differentiated, does not constitute a proper kindling of lamps, but is a mere medurah, a "bonfire."

The same Talmudic passage states, however, that if a covering were placed over the bowl, so that each wick appeared to emerge separately from the bowl, then it would be perfectly acceptable for fulfilling the precept of Hanukkah candles.

We must assume that the candles that upset the Maharil were positioned in such a haphazard way that their flames could not readily be distinguished from one another.

A similar ruling was reported in the name of Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil (13th-century), to the effect that one should never arrange the Hanukkah candles in a circular shape, for fear that they will look like a medurah.

Rabbi Isaac mentions in passing that he maintained his opposition to circular lamps in spite of the fact that such shapes were common in synagogues. This incidental detail provides us with an important clue for tracing the evolution of Hanukkah lighting.

What Rabbi Isaac apparently had in mind was to point out that the preferred structure of a Hanukkah lamp should be different from the normal type of fixtures that were used to illuminate the synagogues of the time.

For a modern reader, it is difficult to see much significance in the observation, since we do not expect to find a correspondence between standard utilitarian lighting and the ritual Hanukkah candelabrum. In our world where electricity is employed for providing most forms of light, and oil lamps are set aside almost exclusively for ritual purposes, we would be unlikely to confuse a Hanukkah lamp with a normal light fixture.

However, when we view the matter in the context of the history of Hanukkah observance, we see that Rabbi Isaac's insistence on such a differentiation constituted an important departure from earlier norms.

It took many centuries for the one-piece Hanukkah menorah to emerge as a distinctive religious artifact. From ancient times through to the early Middle Ages, Jews made use of conventional lamps and candles in order to commemorate the miracles of the Hasmonean triumph. For this purpose, most communities used an individual oil lamp for each flame, rather than a single eight-branched candelabrum, as is the norm in our days.

In those earlier times, the most common way of illuminating large rooms was with round or star-shaped fixtures that were suspended from the ceilings. These lamps had wicks protruding from their outer edges, or from the tips of the stars, which absorbed their fuel from a bowl that was hung from the bottom of the lamp. Such lamps were manufactured with varying numbers of wicks, and the eight-wick types were considered appropriate for ritual use on Hanukkah.

The star-shaped fixture, usually fashioned from metal, was designed to be used with oil and wicks, and continued to be the preferred form of indoor lighting in European lands until the late medieval era. By then, improvements were taking place in the manufacture of wax tapers that allowed them to surpass in popularity the more cumbersome oil lamps. Gradually, the star-shaped oil-lamp fixtures disappeared from general consumer use among the European populace.

As so frequently occurs over the course of history, Jews were the last to abandon the earlier practice, even though the star-shaped lamp had originally been borrowed from non-Jewish sources and had no identifiable religious significance. Nevertheless, it came to be perceived as the "traditional" vehicle for honouring the Sabbath and Hanukkah in the synagogue and in private homes. Soon it came to be viewed by gentile observers as a uniquely Jewish device, and was popularly referred to in German as a "Judenstern" (Jewish Star). In Hebrew sources, it was usually designated by the term "lampa."

It was at this point that the groundwork was prepared for the introduction of special one-piece Hanukkah menorahs. For the most part, these were designed to hold wax candles, which were arrayed in a straight row.

It did not take long before the halakhic permissibility of the older star-shaped models was called into question. This is the situation that is reflected in the rulings of Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil, the Maharil, and several other authorities who had to impress upon their audiences that the familiar old Jewish candelabra might not be appropriate for Hanukkah observance.

To be sure, there were rabbis who continued to defend the permissibility of the star-menorahs, provided that they conformed to the halakhic provisions. Rabbi Israel Isserlein insisted that the lampa did not pose any ritual problems, since each wick is completely separated form the others and there is no possibility of it being confused with a medurah>. This opinion was incorporated into Rabbi Moses Isserles' glosses to theShulhan Arukh>, which established the normative standard for most Ashkenazic practice. Nonetheless, there remains a widespread view that circular menorahs can never be kosher.

Our story of the rise and fall of the star-shaped Hanukkah menorah was influenced by a perplexing array of different factors, including halakhic arguments, tenacious loyalty to local custom, and receptivity to technological innovation.

Ultimately, all these diverse opinions and practices have been inspired by the same single-minded determination that Hanukkah's inspiring message must continue to shine forth brightly in every age.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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