It is commonly noted that the first rabbinic text, the Mishnah (c. 200 CE) lacks a tractate—or even a chapter—dedicated to the laws of Hannukah, which too many have taken as evidence that the rabbis did not value Hannukah. But the Mishnah also lacks a tractate on how to write a Torah scroll, and they obviously didn’t consider that unimportant; the better explanation of this absence is that the Mishnah is an “incomplete” document. Besides, consider this Mishnaic law:
A camel that was loaded with flax and passed through the public thoroughfare, and its flax entered a store and was ignited by the lamp of the storekeeper, and the city went up in flames, the owner of the camel is liable. If the storekeeper had put his lamp outside, the storekeeper is liable. Rabbi Judah says: In the case of a Hannukah lamp, he is exempt. (Baba Kamma 6:6)
So Hannukah is so accepted by, and so important to, the rabbis that the obligation to light the Hannukah lights in public takes precedent over cautions that are demanded at other times of year. To facilitate the observance, the normal burden of caution is reversed.
The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21b) offers the well-known explanation of Hannukah for the first time:
What is Hannukah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hannukah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed and defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient to light only one day; a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were fixed and appointed a Festival with Hallel and thanksgiving.
But the Talmud’s discussion of Hannukah is far richer than this, and it is worth reviewing more of its details:
The religious duty in its regard pertains from when the sun sets until pedestrians have left the marketplace.
Our rabbis have taught: The religious duty in respect to Hanukkah: There is to be a lamp for each man and his household. But those who excel have a lamp for each member of the household. And the most zealous – The House of Shammai say, “On the first day one lights eight candles, and from that time onward, diminishes them from day to day.” The House of Hillel say, “On the first day one lights one candle, and from that time onward, adds to them from day to day.”
‘The operative consideration of the House of Shammai is that the number of candles corresponds to the bullocks of the festival [of Tabernacles], and the operative consideration of the House of Hillel is that, in matters of sanctity, we go up, not down.’”
Our rabbis have taught on Tannaite authority:
As to the Hanukkah lamp, the religious duty is to leave it at the door of one’s house on the outside. But if he lived in an upper room, he puts it on the window nearest the public domain. But in time of danger he leaves it on his table, and that’s enough.
(23A) R. Hiyya bar Ashi said Rab said, “He who lights the Hanukkah light has to say a blessing.” Jeremiah said, “He who sees the Hanukkah light has to say a blessing.”
What blessings does he say? Said R. Judah, “On the first day, the one who lights the flame says three blessings and the one who sees it says two. From that night onward, the one who lights the light says two blessings, and the one who sees it says only one blessing.”
Which one does he leave out?
He leaves out the blessing of the season [“who has brought us to this season”].
Why not leave out the blessing over the miracle?
The miracle was every day.
What blessing does one say?
“Blessed…who has sanctified us by his commandments and commanded us to light the Hanukkah light.”
Raba raised this question: “If one has to choose between buying a lamp for Hanukkah and wine for saying a prayer of sanctification for a holy day, what is the rule? Should the sanctification of the day take precedence, since it is a permanent and recurrent obligation, or perhaps the lamp for Hanukkah should take precedence, because it thereby publicizes the miracle?”
After he raised the question, he went and solved it: “The lamp for Hanukkah should take precedence, because it thereby publicizes the miracle.”
There are two parts of this discussion that are worth paying attention to:
- There is no such thing as a special, dedicated Hannukah lamp in this discussion. Hannukah was celebrated by taking common oil lamps and lining them up outside the door to one’s courtyard—in the public domain—at the appropriate time and with the recitation of blessings.
- Hannukah was so important—on account of its capacity to “publicize the miracle”—that its observance took precedence over the recitation of Kiddush over wine on Shabbat. Pretty powerful!