In the Talmudic discussion (Shabbat 21b) on how one lights the menorah we find this:
One must kindle another light in addition to the Chanukah lights in order to use its light, as it is prohibited to use the light of the Chanukah lights. And if there is a bonfire, he need not light an additional light, as he can use the light of the bonfire. However, if he is an important person, who is unaccustomed to using the light of a bonfire, even though there is a bonfire, he must kindle another light. (Shabbat 21)
On its most basic level this text explains the initial purpose of the Shamash—the “Helper Candle.” It was not originally intended for lighting the other lights but was, instead, the “source of illumination” in a room, since the actual lights of the menorah should only be used for decoration. In other words, the rabbis created a legal fiction whereby the extra light would be deemed the source of “usable” light in the room, thereby maintaining the prohibition against “using” the menorah’s lights.
There is, however, a subtle lesson I never before considered in this text. The text tells us that the source of the additional light can be a bonfire if one is already lit. But it follows that statement by noting that “an important person” must light an additional light even if there is a bonfire. The statement is a bit perplexing until one learns that, in this case, the term “important” was a euphemism for “wealthy,” i.e., “someone for whom the cost of additional lamp each night was not a burden.”
With that noted, the text might be read this way:
The lights of the menorah may not be used.
In order to insure that this prohibition is followed, people of means must light a separate lamp each night of the festival and then employ the legal fiction that any illumination is provided by that additional lamp.
BUT, the olive oil that is used for the lights of the menorah is expensive. And while that is not an undue burden for wealthy people, it is for others. Therefore, if the expense of oil for an additional lamp each night might be a financial hardship, it is permissible to allow any light that is already burning to serve the same purpose.
The rabbis of old recognized that not everyone has the same means. Long before the Jones family existed, the rabbis were concerned with the idea of others being expected to keep up with them. Chanukah, or any other day, shouldn’t be about who has the biggest and brightest menorah or what we are able to give one another as gifts.
In this way, the Talmud reminds us that bringing light into the world begins by meeting people where they are. Building inclusive communities and meeting the needs of the vulnerable are the first steps toward bringing God’s light into the world.
One week from today Raina and I will be lighting the Chanukah menorah in the lobby of our Tel Aviv hotel with 51 members of our community. While Raina was in Israel just last month, this will be my first visit in four years. I’m excited to get back and thrilled we will share this experience with so many members of our extended TSTI family.
This trip will, however, be a bit different for me. As I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, I am one of the countless people who had and recovered from Covid only to be beset by long covid. Months later, long covid continues to have a grip on me, but thanks to the support of my colleagues on staff, our TSTI leadership, and Raina (as well as the technology that has allowed me to do most things remotely), I’ve been able to continue my rabbinic work full time. Planning to lead a congregational mission to Israel while dealing with long covid seemed daunting. Thankfully Raina, who has been to Israel 20 times, formerly ran Hillel’s Birthright Program and has herself led countless trips, agreed to become co-leader of the mission. This will allow me to rest when I need to rest, while ensuring the group doesn’t miss any experiences on my account.
I will, however, be posting to the TSTI Facebook page regularly during the trip.
I wish all of you a Chanukah filled with light and goodness!
Rabbi Daniel Cohen