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When was the Mitzvah of Candle Lighting Declared? by Nathaniel Helfgot

December 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha, Holidays, New Posts


When was the Mitzvah of Hadlakot Nerot Declared? 

By Nathaniel Helfgot

R. Isaac Judah Trunk of Kutno (1879-1939),1 in his work Hasdei Avot  #17,2 proffers  a fascinating theory  in relation to the genesis of the lighting of Chanukah candles. He begins by noting that in the famous Talmudic discussion about the origin of Chanukah the section concludes with the statement that the next year they established it as a holiday “with Hallel and Thanksgiving” without any mention of the institution of the lighting of candles in each and every home. (This is also the case in the text of the Al Hanisim that only mentions the relighting of the Menorah in the Temple courtyard and not the lighting in every home). 

To resolve this problem (and the problematic language of Maimonides in Hilkhot Hanukkah) he suggests:

“Since it is explained in the derasha of Hazal cited by Ramban (Bamidbar 8:12) that the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles is an extension of the mitzvah of the lighting of the Menorah in the Temple, that through the lighting of Hanukkah candles, the lighting in the Temple is continued eternally, it is not far from (reason) to conclude that in truth, as long as the Temple stood, Hazal did not institute the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles, for at that time the Menorah in the Temple was still functioning…and only once the Temple was destroyed were Hazal concerned that  the miracle might be forgotten  for the lights of the Temple Menorah had been extinguished. Therefore, Hazal instituted   the mitzvah of lighting on the doorsteps as a continuation of the mitzvah to light in the Temple” 

This insight is suggested as well by the late Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, R. Bezalel Zolti, in his Mishnat Yaavetz #73, and by the Rav, as recorded in Hararei Kedem Vol. 1: 173.3

This novel, some might say radical, suggestion yields an interesting view of the neirot Hannukah.  In contrast to other rabbinic practices that are termed zeikher le-mikdash, no such terminology is used in the halakhic literature to describe the lighting of the candles. In short, in this conception, the candles are not a zeikher, but actually a continuation of the original mitzvah.  In this reading it emerges that the home, the house itself, becomes the mikdash in an intense fashion with the menorah perched in its outer “chamber”. We usually think of the synagogue as serving in the role of mikdash me’at, but in this reading the home itself has taken on that role.

Secondarily, this insight dovetails nicely with the well-attested theme in Polish Hasidic literature (Sefat Emet, Rav Tzadok, etc…) that highlights Hannukah as the holiday of Torah she-ba’al peh par excellence. Not only does this holiday emerge after the close of prophecy and the writings of scripture, but it developed its own scaffolding process of rabbinic stages on top of rabbinic stages. It is a holiday in which the rabbinic voice is both the foundational as well as the secondary level of the entire enterprise.

  1. One of the leading rabbinic figures in pre-war Mizrachi circles and an outstanding Talmid Hakham []
  2. Printed at the back of the sefer of his grandfather, the outstanding rabbinic scholar, R. Israel Joshua Trunk’s Sefer Yeshuot Yisrael (Pietrokov, 1932) []
  3. The Rav noted that the author of the Avnei  Nezer , (R. Avraham of Sochotzov) had raised this possibility as well. []
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