Variations on the Chanukah Theme

Variations on the Chanukah Theme was originally delivered as a sermon by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm during Chanukah 1958 (5718) at the Jewish Center in Manhattan, where he served as rabbi for nearly two decades. What follows is a slightly abridged version of the sermon from a forthcoming collection of Rabbi Lamm’s sermons on the holidays, Festivals of Faith: Discourses on the Jewish Holidays, to be published by OU Press and edited by Dr. David Shatz. This sermon has been posted by the Yeshiva University Library on the Lamm Heritage Website of Yeshiva University.

Immediately after Shabbat is over, we shall be confronted with the observance of two precious mitzvot: the kindling of the Chaunkah candles and Havdalah, which marks the end of Shabbat. The question of which shall be performed first is one that engaged the attention of some of the most illustrious latter-day Talmudic sages, and the solution most Jews have accepted is one which, implicitly and indirectly, expresses a great idea in Jewish ethics and moral philosophy.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 681) and Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the chief commentator on the Shulchan Aruch) record with approval the custom of kindling the Chanukah candles first, and then reciting the Havdalah. Many authorities, such as the Taz, emphatically disagree. They insist that we should recite Havdalah first and only afterwards light the Chanukah candles.

While the controversy involves a large number of proofs and counter-proofs of halachic dialectic, which is too involved to present completely at this time, it will, however, be worth our while to examine the basic ideas involved in this controversy.

The Shulchan Aruch, the Rema, and all those who insist upon the precedence of Chanukah candles over Havdalah, base their verdict largely upon the principle of pirsumei nissa, the “publicizing of the miracle.” The Chanukah candles, after all, are reminders of the miracles God performed for our ancestors “bayamim hahem bazeman hazeh”—“in those days, at this time”: The cruse of oil that lasted eight days, the victory of the sainted few over the diabolical many and so on. Basic to the mitzvah of ner Chanukah is this concept of pirsumei nissa—to make the Divine miracle known amongst all peoples. That is why we are to place the Chanukah candles in a conspicuous place—windows, doorway, et cetera. Therefore, since pirsumei nissa is basic to the whole festival of Chanukah, it requires of us to proclaim the miracle of Chanukah as soon as the holiday begins—before any other activity, sacred or profane, is undertaken. Before eating or drinking, or even Havdalah, we are to light the Chanukah candles, and by this act of performing this mitzvah before any other, we achieve pirsumei nissa. We let everyone know the greatness of the miracle, one which causes us to hurry to perform the commandment.

The Taz and other posekim, however, require Havdalah before kindling the Chanukah candles because they make use of a different and, they maintain, more fundamental principle, and that is the Talmudic rule: “tadir veshe’eino tadir, tadir kodem.” If I have before me two mitzvot to perform, one is a frequent mitzvah, it is tadir, constant (it is salient, observed regularly and periodically at set intervals), and the other is eino tadir (an irregular mitzvah, one which is performed infrequently, at only rare times), then tadir kodem—the usual, regular, more frequent mitzvah comes first. Hence, since Havdalah is tadir, as it is observed every single week of the year, whereas kindling the Chanukah candles is eino tadir, for it is observed only during the eight-day period of the year, Havdalah takes priority over ner Chanukah.

Reduced to its essentials then, this halachic controversy is based upon a clash of two principles: pirsumei nissa, the dramatization and publication of the unusual, the supernatural; or tadir kodem, the precedence of the regular, the constant, the usual, and the well-known.

It is remarkable that in our current practice we reflect both contradictory opinions. Faced with these two opposing decisions, the great majority of observant Jews have reconciled the two views by distinguishing between the synagogue and the home. In the synagogue we follow the practice of Shulchan Aruch and Rema, and we light the Chanukah lights first, thus emphasizing the principle of pirsumei nissa; and at home we usually follow the verdict of the Taz, making Havdalah first, and thus giving greater weight to the rule of tadir veshe’eino tadir, tadir kodem.

Copyright Yeshiva University, 2010

It is amazing how in deciding between two technical halachic opinions, the Jewish masses of men, women, and children have indirectly and perhaps unconsciously expressed a whole view of life, a substantial philosophy of Judaism in its public and its private aspects. For the concepts of pirsumei nissa and tadir kodem are two fundamental approaches to life—on the one hand, the need for pirsum, for publicizing, for the demonstration of the unusual, the dramatic and the record-shattering; and, on the other hand, the transcendent importance of constancy, of tadir, of the prosaic, regular, and bland routine of the religious life.

What our people did by its reconciliation of these two opposing views is to say that each one is valid, each one has its importance, but each has its own place: in the synagogue, in the public domain, in the open arena of Jewish life, there we kindle Chanukah lights before Havdalah; there we recognize the value of pirsumei nissa, of emphasizing the dramatic, the unusual, the outstanding, the miraculous. But at home, betzinah, in the privacy of one’s hearth and family, while pirsum is recognized as important, the value of tadir is far more significant and necessary. There we must first be sure that our daily lives, in both ritual and ethics–bein adam laMakom and bein adam l’chavero—are regulated by the Divine word through the wisdom of Torah. There we need not and ought not to play up the spectacular and the dramatic; that can wait for later. First, one must be a good Jew in the daily, ordinary, and therefore realistic and reliable sense.

There is no doubt that pirsumei nissa has an honored place in life; and in the public arena of communal Jewish life it has priority. No one doubts the value of the dramatic, the strikingly esthetic, the unusual and the miraculous. In order to influence the broad masses you must resort to the striking, the dramatic. Public relations is a neutral technique that can be cheap and vulgar, but pressed into dignified service for religious truth, it can be noble and worthy. The Hakhel— the great mass gathering at the end of the shemittah year, served the purpose of dramatizing allegiance to Torah. The pageantry surrounding the harvesting and the offering of the Omer in Temple days dramatically attracted attention to the debt man owes God for the bounties of nature. A public newspaper highlights not the everyday humdrum of living—both its noble and ignoble features—but rather pirsumei nissa, the sensational and the outstanding. We do not call mass rallies for the observance of kashrut or kibbud av vaem. We do so for bonds helping the miracle called Israel, and for UJA for saving human lives all over the world. This pirsumei nissa is emphasized in the synagogue, in public, and the media—and that is as it should be. It serves a high educational and noble purpose.

Where is God found? In the still, steady, quiet, simple, regular labor of character-building, of living honorably and honestly…

But it is a grievous error for anyone to imagine that what holds true for the stage is true for the quotidian routines of daily Jewish living, that techniques invented to capture the attention of the public are proper for the quiet privacy of the home. That is decidedly not so. In the home we make Havdalah before kindling Chanukah candles. In the home we give priority to the tadir, the regular and constant actions, over the pirsumei nissa. In the home—that is where the great work of solid, basic training in Godliness must go on without flash and flourish.

When God first gave the Torah to Israel, it was in a most dramatic setting— thunder and lightning, then universal silence, and then the loud boom of the First Commandment. More than 600,000 people gathered about the smoking Mount Sinai. But while the drama of Matan Torah is appropriate to a large public, the slow and hard labor of kiyyum haTorah, the observance of the Torah life in all the nooks and crannies, must go on incessantly and without fanfare in the private life of each individual Jew.

It was because Jews forgot this that the Tablets were broken and Moses had to ascend Mount Sinai a second time—but now without any theophany, without an admiring yet stunned audience, and without the dramatic sound-and-light effects. It was the soft, ongoing labor of tadir, not the celebratory flourish of pirsum. Ordinary Jews then learned how Torah must be observed punctiliously, in their own lives, and that is why these Tablets were not destroyed.

The Prophet Elijah also had to learn this lesson. Remember his challenge to the priests of the Ba’al atop Mount Carmel (I Kings 18)? What powerful drama—with the bearded, mantled prophet of God appearing out of the desert to take on hundreds of idolatrous priests, challenging them to invoke the Ba’al to bring fire down and consume the sacrificial flesh! How thrillingly miraculous was the prayer of Elijah as the multitude gasped at the sudden bolt of fire out of the Heavens, the consuming of the sacrifice, the prostration of the masses as they called out “Hashem Hu haElokim.” God performed the miracle before all the people because it was didactically necessary, an opportunity for an educational experience. It deflected them from Ba’al-worship and brought them to Torah. Pirsumei nissa belongs to the assembled public in front of the masses, in the crowded synagogue.

But do you recall what happens immediately afterwards to Elijah, in the chapter that follows in the end of the First and the beginning of the Second Book of Kings? He flees from the evil king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, and hides out in the desert—alone, solitary, no other human in sight. “I am alone here,” he complains to God (I Kings 19:10). Elijah had been overly impressed and thus spoiled by the pirsumei nissa, the histrionic, the admiring crowds and the mass demonstrations. He could no longer be satisfied with the tadir, the ongoing uneventful task of prophecy without the crisis-to-crisis living, the daily grind, the regular and grueling task of serving God alone, in privacy. That is why God shows the prophet the whole panorama of dramatic, mighty natural phenomena—the mighty winds, the powerful thunder and the fire. To each of these, God proclaims to Elijah, “Not in fire is God to be found” and the same for the stormy winds and the thunder (I Kings 19:11-12). Not in the spectacular can God always be found. Where then? In the kol demama dakkah (19:12), in the still, steady, quiet, simple, regular labor of character-building, of living honorably and honestly, and perceiving the will of God in prosaic daily life, the worship of God in the mode of tadir.

Photo: Jono David

When the audience has gone home and the klieg lights are dimmed, when the noise has petered out and silence reigns, and all that can be heard is the kol demama dakkah of one’s heartbeat and the pulse of his conscience—that is when we leave pirsumei nissa and dedicate ourselves to the tadir, the regular and the unpretentious. That is when we give preference to Havdalah, to first distinguishing good from evil, sacred from profane, noble from vulgar, so that every year and every month and every day and every minute must be consecrated to God and His Torah–either by studying it or by living it with fealty and dignity.

This is a rewarding thought that Chanukah teaches us by taking second place to Havdalah in our homes. It reminds us that we ought not feel disappointed if we do not experience the kind of unusual sensation or uplift at home that we do when we attend rallies. It encourages us to continue on our modest paths of tadir, quietly observing God’s Torah, of developing nobility of character, of building a family and serving one’s fellow man, of bringing even a little light into the lives of our loved ones and into the heart of the stranger. It reminds us that if we dedicate ourselves to the sacred pattern of the Torah’s mitzvot, then surely the pirsumei nissa will come eventually, for there is a heroism in this modesty of daily Jewish life, a heroism and a poetry and a dramatic quality that makes itself felt not in a momentary clap of thunder, not as an extraordinary revelation, but as a long and slow but beautiful symphony that we first begin to appreciate as we go on with the accumulation of years of such harmonious living tadir in service of God and man. Then, when Havdalah gives way to Chanukah, does the miracle of the commonplace become evident, then do we realize that there is a heroism in modesty, that the ordinary possesses its own kind of extraordinary music of the soul, and that silence can be more meaningful than the most persuasive oratory.

“Not by power nor by might, but by the spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts,” (Zechariah 4:6).

Then we discover that Havdalah ultimately yields to Chanukah.

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm is the chancellor and former president of Yeshiva University and is rosh hayeshivah of its affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. A prolific author in the field of Jewish philosophy and law, a distinguished academician and a charismatic pulpit rabbi, he is one of the most gifted and profound thinkers of the Jewish community.

This article was featured in the Winter 2010 issue of Jewish Action.
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