Shabbat lights and the Hanukkah lamp appear to have much in common, but they also have their differences.
On Shabbat one may not use a wick or oil that does not give an even, bright light, in order to prevent the light from flickering and going out. On Hanukkah, however, we may use any wick or oil.
The mitzvah of the Hanukkah lamp is that of kindling the lights, and if the light goes out it may be re-lit (though not on Shabbat).
According to the S’fat Emet this represents two different kinds of Jew. There is the "flickering" Jew whose Shabbat-Jewishness wavers. They deserve praise for trying, but they miss out on the day-long holiness of the day.
On Hanukkah the "flickering" Jew is not such a problem, and if he/she wavers in observance they can re-light their Judaism and try again.
One of the few liturgical reflections of Hanukkah is the "Al HaNissim" prayer, inserted in the Amidah and Grace After Meals.
It acknowledges "the miracles, the deliverance, the mighty deeds, saving acts and wars" which God wrought for our ancestors "in those days at this season".
Its origins are not ancient; it is mentioned in the 8th century Massechet Sof’rim 20:8, though our present version is more elaborate.
The 14th century liturgical authority Abudarham had a problem with the reference to "milchamot", "wars"; he preferred "n’chamot", "consolations".
In a passage which was still in a state of flux it is possible to have various renderings, and the choice of "n’chamot" clearly echoes the sages’ reluctance to stress the war aspect of the Maccabean story.
But even if the reference to wars is more authentic, the important point to note is that it is not human warriors to whom the prayer attributes the victories, but God.
MENORAH ON THE ARCH OF TITUS
The Arch of Titus in Rome carries a relief of the plundered Temple menorah. It has been there since 81 CE and is based on a triumphant procession with the sacred items from the Temple.
However, the menorah on the arch is rather lopsided, which could not have been because it was carved from memory. If it had been, the menorah shape would have been known and faithfully reproduced.
It is more likely that the misshapen menorah was deliberately carved on the arch to show disdain for the Jews and their symbols.
Another possibility is that the original graceful menorah in the Temple had already been replaced by King Herod the Roman puppet as a symbol of Jewish humiliation.
Herod was guilty of many offences against Judaism and used the opportunity of his works on and in the Temple to distort the menorah in order to gain favour from Rome.
LIGHT AS A SYMBOL
Not only on Hanukkah is light part of Jewish observance. Frequently, especially on Shabbat and festivals, joy and light go together; the Megillah says, "The Jews had light, joy and gladness" (Esther 8:16).
We honour a deceased person by kindling a light, since "the spirit of man is the light of the Lord" (Prov. 20:27).
An eternal light (ner tamid) burns in the synagogue, since “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1).
Light is a synonym for Torah: "the commandment is a lamp; the Torah is a light" (Prov. 6:23).
Without light we would be unable to see each other or the path on which to walk.
However, the Divine creation of light was too overwhelming for the world. The light was so powerful that it "shattered the vessels", and man’s task is to try to reclaim the sparks.
When Rabbi Chiyya and Rabbi Shimon saw the dawn breaking on the horizon, Rabbi Chiyya said, "So too is Israel’s redemption; at first it will only be slightly visible, then it will shine forth more brightly, and finally it will break forth in all its glory" (Shir HaShirim Rabba 6:10).
The Zohar, the great work of Kabbalah, likewise asserts that "the light of the Messiah" will gradually illumine the world and then break forth in its full glory.
Thoughts for this week's Torah Reading on the story of Joseph:
NOT EVEN A POSTCARD?
As a student I travelled across the world to study in London. I had little money and could not afford a phone call home. I wrote letters; the postal service was then reliable.
On the ship I read and re-read the Chumash – and I encountered the part which we read this week. It tells how the brothers of Joseph came to Egypt to buy corn and did not recognise as their brother the court official they had to deal with.
I got worried. Would my brothers recognise me after what might be a long absence?
I was more fortunate than Joseph because letters to and fro were possible. But without a postal system, Joseph couldn’t send home a postcard. Was there no other means of international communication? The rabbis had their ideas.
I applied the problem to myself and wondered what to do. My face was bound to mature and my voice to become more English, but would my brothers recognise me?
What I decided was that if we were separated by the world, at least we could keep one another in our thoughts, and we could try to imagine what the others were doing. In my case the answer would have been, "He’s studying, he’s living with books, he’s becoming a rabbi!"
Joseph as an Egyptian official told the Israelites (who actually were his brothers) that he had a special cup which he used for divination (Gen. 44:15).
The Midrash B’reshit Rabbah 92:5 tells us that by means of this cup he pretended to work out the age order of his brothers, though of course he already knew this from his youth and could not yet reveal who he was.
Yet the Torah is adamant that magical or semi-magical practices were not permitted to Jews (Deut. 18:12).
The Targum Onkelos re-interprets what Joseph told his brothers by suggesting that court officials carried out extensive tests – and outsiders thought it was all magic. Probably what was going on was that Joseph had to be seen as acting as a high Egyptian official would, but it was all an act.
Being a Jew in a non-Jewish environment was never easy; the danger is that after a while the play-acting becomes natural. There must always be red lines which a Jew must not cross.
JOSEPH YOUR BROTHER
The words Joseph used when he finally revealed himself were "I am Joseph your brother" (Gen. 45:1-4).
Centuries later, in quite a different context, Pope John XXIII said these same words to a delegation of Jews. He called himself Joseph, which was the name he was given at his baptism. He called himself their brother, to signify that a long period of hostility was over.
Some Jews heard but could not forgive; others rejoiced; most thought, "Let’s see what happens!"
Pope John meant what he said. Much will depend on what the rest of the world now says.
RECOGNISING YOUR BROTHER
Joseph is in charge of food supplies in Egypt. His brothers come from Canaan to buy corn. He recognises them but they do not recognise him (Gen. 42:7-8).
Brothers who don’t recognise brothers?
To be fair, they do not expect to find that the high official they see is anything other than a stranger.
Rashi adds a further reason to be fair to them. Since they last met, Joseph’s appearance had changed. He was no longer a 17-year old beardless youth.
But it seems that Rashi is not entirely satisfied with this explanation which, in fact, derives from earlier sources (Rashi’s genius is to see what the ordinary reader wants to know and to choose just the right answer from rabbinic sources).
In relation to Joseph, he goes on to quote a midrashic view that it was not just a matter of physical appearance but of attitude.
Even if they had realised that Pharaoh’s official was Joseph, they had never had any brotherly feeling towards him. They had always acted towards him without love or understanding as if he were not a member of the family but a complete outsider.
Even now, even if they did in fact see that this was their long-lost brother, they had no special feelings towards him.
Joseph, on the other hand, "recognised them", i.e. bore no grudge and wanted to be friends.
It might cost him some of his public prestige to acknowledge that his family came from elsewhere and that he was not a full Egyptian, but he was prepared to pay the price.
Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Jewish religious issues. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com