Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
The Oral Law – The Light that Illuminates the Darkness
It is no coincidence that the holiday of Hanukkah falls out at a time of the year when the nights are longest and the cold of winter permeates the land. Moreover, the moon barely shines, since Hanukkah coincides with the days immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh, when the moon wanes.
As the sun sets and a deep darkness begins to descend, and the long night casts its ominous, icy shadow over the world, Jews go out with candles in their hands and light the Hanukkah lamps. This symbolizes the mighty Jewish faith, which breaks through all forms of darkness. Even in the most somber of times, when the mightiest empires governed the world ruthlessly, we did not despair of the light of Torah and faith, and continued learning and teaching. Lighting the Menorah demonstrates how a small ray of our light disperses a great deal of the darkness of foreign cultures.
Hanukkah is the time to rejoice over the Oral Law, firstly, because it was established as a holiday by the Sages, the expounders of the Oral Law. In fact, the mitzvah of lighting the candles was one of the first mitzvoth the Sages enacted. Besides this, however, Hanukkah symbolizes the essence of the Oral Law. During the First Temple era, prophecy abounded among the Jewish people, and they studied primarily the Written Law. After the Temple was destroyed and prophecy ceased, the time came for the Oral Law to take its rightful place.
The Oral Law displays the high stature of the Jewish people, who share in the revelation of the Torah’s light. The cardinal principles are set forth in the Written Law, but the Sages of the Oral Law paved the way for their implementation. Granted, the light of the Written Law shines brighter, like the midday sun, while the light of the Oral Law resembles that of the moon and the stars. However, the Oral Law has the ability to descend to the hidden recesses of man’s soul and illuminate all the dark corners of the world. The foundations for the study of the Oral Law were laid during the Second Temple era – including all the edicts, “fences,” and customs. By virtue of the unique light of the Oral Law, which, similar to the Hanukkah candles illuminates the darkness, we have succeeded in overcoming all the tribulations of the exile.
Apparently, the ideas hidden in the holiday of Hanukkah are the deep-seated reason why Jews love and cherish it so much, to the point where almost every Jew, no matter how far removed from Torah observance, lights Hanukkah candles. Moreover, everyone follows the custom of fulfilling this mitzvah in the best possible way – “mehadrin min ha’mehadrin”.
A New Candle Every Day, Culminating with Eight
Everything in the world is transient and eventually withers away. This is true of ideas and memories as well; they lose their intensity and vitality over time. But in regards to lighting the Hanukkah candles, we discover that faith in Hashem never wanes. On the contrary, it continues to exist and even thrive, despite the hardships and surrounding darkness. The pure spirituality manifest in the Torah is eternal; therefore, it constantly increases. Other passing ideas fade away and expire. Embracing this wondrous idea, Jews are accustomed to fulfill this commandment in the most exemplary manner, "mehadrin min ha’mehadrin”, adding a new candle each night so that on the final day, eight candles are lit.
As is well-known, the number eight alludes to what lies beyond physical nature. The entire world was created in seven days, and similarly, there are seven days in a week. The number eight, on the other hand, hints to the supernatural, like brit milah (circumcision), whose purpose is to perfect and elevate nature to a higher level, and as a result, it is performed on the eighth day.
The Torah as well belongs to the eighth dimension, for it comes to elevate nature to a Divine level. This is why the Torah was given after the seven-week [Sefirah] count, which represents the wholeness of nature. After counting the seven weeks of Sefirah, we rise to a level above nature – the holiday of Shavu’ot, when the Torah was given. Likewise, we complete the reading of the Torah on Shemini Atzeret (the eighth day from the beginning of Sukkot), which is Simchat Torah, the culmination of the High Holy Days at the beginning of the year.
In a similar fashion, the days of Hanukkah belong to the realm of the supernatural, for they reveal the lofty stature of the Oral Law. For that reason, we light candles for eight nights, adding a new one each night.