This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Light from the Right *

As Jewish holidays go, the observances of Hanukkah are relatively straightforward and undemanding. They add up, basically, to a few additions to the daily prayers, and a ceremony of lighting candles with accompanying blessings.

The one source of confusion that I most consistently stumble over in my own Hanukkah observance has to do with the directions—right or left—in which the candles should be placed and kindled. This is a topic that received minimal treatment in the Talmud, and is further complicated by ambiguities regarding the spatial perspective from which the directions are being framed.

The following is a typical example of the instructions that are routinely issued by synagogues and religious organizations: “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 after we have mastered the confusing hokey-pokey dance, the directions strike us as annoyingly arbitrary: Are we speaking of right and left as seen by the person who is lighting the candles, or from the vantage of the observers for whose sake they are lit? And in any case, why should it make any religious difference?

The earliest known halakhic authority to deal with this question was the thirteenth-century Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg whose copious responsa and compendia of liturgical customs are among the cornerstones of Ashkenazic practice. As was common among important rabbis in that culture, his disciples scrutinized his practices assiduously and recorded them to serve as normative precedents for posterity. It was related that Rabbi Meir "would light the candles commencing from the left, proceeding towards the right.” His custom was adopted as authoritative by subsequent scholars in the Rhine valley, including Rabbi Jacob Moelin of Maintz (Maharil).

The rationale for this sequence was rooted in a rule found in the Talmud: “whenever you turn, it should always be towards the right” —a rule that can best be carried out if one is commencing from the left. That talmudic principle is invoked in connection with a number of ritual matters, for example to determine the proper route for a priest to encircle the altar when offering sacrifices. It dovetailed with the general preference that Jewish tradition (like most other world cultures) has always had for the right as the most auspicious side. 

Maharil's nephew Rabbi Jacob Gellhausen challenged his esteemed uncle as regards the appropriateness of applying the talmudic principle to Hanukkah candles. After all, the examples cited in the Talmud involved cases where the person was actually ambulatory, so that he could literally turn his body toward the right. The kindling of Hanukkah lamps, however, is normally performed in a stationary position, and hence it makes better sense to start lighting from the right and then to progress leftward. Among other things, such a procedure would be consistent with a precedent inherent in the structure of the Hebrew language itself: when a scribe sets to writing a Torah scroll, tefillin or a mezuzah, he naturally commences from the rightmost edge and then continues towards the left. 

Maharil had little patience for this sort of fine distinction. Applying a familiar talmudic idiom, he dismissed his nephew’s arguments by declaring “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 deciding on a normative practice, or explaining the reasons underlying it. In the fifteenth century, Rabbi Israel Isserlein of Neustadt, Austria, was asked to choose between the two major options: Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg's custom of proceeding from left to right, or of starting from the rightmost extreme and progressing toward the left. 

In response, Rabbi Isserlein 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 with the right side. In explaining this custom, he also cited Rabbi Gellhausen’s example of writing Hebrew from right to left.

Later generations of halakhic authorities continued to be consulted on this basic question that ought to have been resolved by entrenched local custom. This situation likely reflected the migrations that were then taking place in several European Jewish communities, which intensified encounters between Jews who followed differing practices and raised doubts about their own traditions

Rabbi Joseph Colon of Italy was perhaps the first to formalize the procedure that has since become standard: The candles should be arrayed from right to left, but each night one should begin the actual lighting with the leftmost candle, which is the newly added one and hence the one over which the blessing is being recited. This was in contrast to the established Austrian custom of beginning from the rightmost candle and advancing leftward.

In his attempt to account for the evolution of the divergent practices, Rabbi Isserlein had linked the controversy to yet another difference that he had noted between the observances of the Rhineland and Austrian communities. He pointed out that 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 in ritual custom was evidently rooted in the climatic variations of northern Europe. As we know too well, Hanukkah falls during the coldest days of winter, a season when many persons in medieval Europe were forced to dwell in special "winter quarters," designated rooms in their houses that were enhanced by heating. It was not then the universal practice to affix mezuzahs on the doorways of rooms that were not used for normal habitation; and consequently the winter quarters, which were not inhabited all year long, were often left without mezuzahs.

According to Jewish law, the presence or absence of a mezuzah on a room’s doorway can have a decisive impact on the positioning of the Hanukkah lamps. The Talmud ruled that the candles should be positioned on the left side of the entrance, since the mezuzah is on the right doorpost, and this would  create a situation in which people would be symbolically “surrounded” by religious precepts whenever they passed through the doorway. Subsequent authorities concluded that if a room had no mezuzah on its lintel, then the preference for the lamps should naturally default to the right side of the doorway. This inference was not accepted without some reservations. The eminent twelfth-century German talmudist “Raviah” (Rabbi Eliezer ben Joel Halevi) described how “for a long time I continued to debate the question, reluctant to rely on my own humble opinion, until Rabbi Menahem reported to me in the name of our Rabbi Ephraim that he had heard directly from his lips that in the absence of a mezuzah one should light from the right side.”

In this way, concluded Rabbi Isserlein, the disparity between the Rhineland and Austrian practices regarding the lighting of Hanukkah lamps may be traceable to their differing policies regarding mezuzah use and to how they adapted to the northern winters.

All this might inspire us to express our appreciation on Hanukkah not only for the triumphs and wonders that were experienced by our forefathers in ancient times—but also for the central heating that warms our winter hearths in our own days.

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A Time for Every Purpose

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, November 22, 2013, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Zimmer, Eric. Studies in the History and Metamorphosis of Jewish Customs. Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1996.