A mysterious overnight mitzva

The Hanukkah lights declare that even in times of darkness and oppression, the Shechinah is with us - this is the essence of Hanukkah.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Judaism ancient menorah seall
ancient menorah seall
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Parshat Tetzaveh commences with the mitzvah of preparing and lighting the Menorah in the Mishkan and the Beit Ha-Mikdash. The Talmud (Pesachim 59A) notes that this is the only Avodah (Mishkan/Mikdash service) which pertains overnight; all other Avodah is exclusive to the day.

Is there anything unusual about the Menorah, such that it relates to the night?

Nighttime is identified as a time of insecurity, vulnerability, fear and loneliness. This is why we recite the blessing of Hashkiveinu specifically at night, in the Ma’ariv prayer, as Hashkiveinu is a request for protection, needed most during the night.

Normative Avodah occurs during the day, when things are secure and clear. This is because the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash represent a state in which Hashem’s Presence is conspicuously manifest, denoting security and clarity. 

 The Menorah, however - despite being part of the Mishkan and Beit Mikdash - conveys a very different message.   

The Ramban (on Bamidbar 8:2) invokes midrashim about the Menorah and expounds that the Menorah represents a perpetual mitzvah which would apply even after the Churban (destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash), via the kindling of Hanukkah lights. What is the significance of this?

The Gemara (Shabbos 22B) states that the Menorah testifies that the Shechinah dwells among Klal Yisrael, the Jewish People. Understood in light of the above interpretation from the Ramban, what emerges is that notwithstanding the Jews being in Galut (Exile), devoid of discernible Hashra’at Ha-Shechinah (the manifestation of Hashem’s Presence), the Shechinah is always with us, even in gloomy periods; such is the message of the Menorah. 

And this is the connection with Hanukkah, for although Klal Yisrael was living in the :and of Israel during the Hanukkah period, it was a time of darkness, exemplified by unprecedented religious persecution. The performance of many mitzvot was banned by the Syrian-Greek occupiers, with torture and death imposed for violation of their numerous edicts, which were designed to eradicate Torah study and observance and strip the Jewish People of its connection with Hashem. The Hanukkah lights declare that even in times of darkness and oppression, the Shechinah is with us - this is the essence of Hanukkah. The Syrian-Greeks denied this concept, and that is apparently why they stole the Menorah in the course of their ransacking and defiling the Beit Ha-Mikdash, as the Menorah represents the message they so violently rejected.  

We can now better understand why the Menorah is the exclusive overnight Avodah. The Menorah informs us that the Shechinah resides among Klal Yisrael even in Galut, and Galut is identified with nighttime, when insecurity, vulnerability and loneliness are prevalent. Even in the incredibly long night of Galut, Hashem is with us, as the Menorah testifies. 

There is another unique aspect of the Menorah – its oil. The Mishnah (Menachot 86A, cited by Rashi on Shemot 27:20) explains that the olive oil used for the Menorah must be of utmost purity, with absolutely no residue (pulp). Whereas oil with residue is kosher for Menachos (flour offerings), it is not acceptable for the Menorah. What is the symbolism here?

It can be suggested that this special purity requirement indicates that Hashem’s Presence can be most properly perceived in Galut by those who retain pure emunah (faith) despite the darkness and bitterness of all that is transpiring. The pure oil which fuels the Menorah is akin to purity of emunah, which enables us to retain a connection to Hashem at all times and know that He is with us.