Wednesday, January 23, 2019 -
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Other people’s menorahs


Isn’t this odd? Do nothing, yet get something. This is the reality in one context of Jewish spirituality, which otherwise does not work this way. Judaism is a religion of actions, 613 of which are laid down in the Torah. How can I not act, not perform a mitzvah, yet it’s as if I did act?

I can think of no other Jewish instance where this is true except on Chanukah. In some sense (details below), if I merely look at a Chanukah menorah that is lit, it is as if I lit it myself! I must recite the very same blessings when gazing at a lit menorah that I myself did not light, as when I light my own menorah.

There is no spiritual meaning in merely looking at a shofar, a piece of matzah or a mezuzzah. I need to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, eat the matzah on Passover, or hang the mezuzzah on my doorpost. But there is spiritual meaning in merely looking at a lit menorah. For some reason, when it comes to Chanukah, vision alone counts.

Now, there are differences of opinion as to when vision counts, all based on a couple of lines in Talmudic tractate Shabbat (23a).

Rashi says that I recite the blessings over lighting a menorah that I merely gaze at only if I have not yet lit my own menorah (and, on the first day of Chanukah, I would also have to recite the Shehechiyanu blessing).

There is discussion as to what Rashi means. Does my recital of the blessing actually fulfill an obligation, or only constitute an expression of gratitude and praise to G-d for the ancient Chanukah miracle?

While there is much more to say by way of halachic detail — for example, if I have blessed my neighbor’s menorah that I gazed at, must I still light my own menorah? or, may I still light my own menorah? — let us put that aside. Let us use the idea of gratitude and praise of G-d as a jumping off point for exploring the spiritual meaning of gazing at a lit menorah.

Clearly, Chanukah establishes a relationship in a way that no other mitzvah does. Again, I recite no blessing when I watch someone else hang a mezuzzah (for example), but there is something about Chanukah that draws me into my neighbor’s life. I gaze at his menorah blazing in the window, or out on his porch. I respond with a blessing! I’m really praising not only G-d but also my neighbor. His light touches me.

And vice-versa. My neighbor or, for that matter, a total stranger may be passing by my window or porch, gaze at my menorah, and respond with a blessing of his own.

The anonymity of the recital adds to the meaning. My neighbor doesn’t know if I blessed his menorah and by extension him, nor do I know whether my neighbor, or a total stranger, did the same. The anonymity of the blessings means that I don’t need a reason for rapture; I don’t need, for example, my neighbor to have done a favor for me recently. I don’t even need my blessing to extend to anyone I know.

So on Chanukah all Jews are united by the ancient miracle. All Jews not only kindle the light but also respond to the light. All Jews are cross-lit, so to speak, because the ancient Temple was rededicated and the Creator made certain that the shining light therein would not cease for lack of pure oil. It would last eight days instead of one.

Eight is the number that connotes the supernatural. The world was created in seven days; eight signifies that which is beyond the natural world. A bris is on the eighth day of life, signifying a supernatural quality within the essence of the Jew. The miracle of Chanukah lasted eight days, signifying the eternal link between all Jews.

In the blessing I recite before kindling the menorah which praises G-d for the ancient miracle, part of the blessing, and part of the miracle, is the mutuality called forth by other people’s menorahs.

As Shlomo Carlebach put it,  “G-d’s dream was that people would say blessings over each others’ light. . . . Do you know what would happen if this was the way people were to each other?” On Chanukah, “we are giving G-d back His dreams,” namely, that people assist each other in bringing back their own dreams, their vision of what they can be in this world.

Do nothing, yet get something — not odd at all. It is the essence of Chanukah, when we are commanded to light our own lights, but also to bless each others’ lights and lives.

Copyright © 2017 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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