I am privileged to share some Torah that I developed over the course of Chanukah 2020 with the help of my students, family members, and friends. As always, I enjoy hearing from readers in the comments if you have any constructive criticism or other feedback.
1) Chanukah on a Boat
The Gemara (Shabbat 23a) suggests that a person who merely sees a Chanukah candle which was lit by somebody else should nonetheless make a Beracha (שֶׁעָשָה נִסִים לַאַבוֹתֵנוּ, “Who has performed miracles for our ancestors”). While the Gemara rejects this as a standalone law, it does accept it as part of a pair of related laws:
אָמַר רַב חִיָּיא בַּר אָשֵׁי אָמַר רַב: הַמַּדְלִיק נֵר שֶׁל חֲנוּכָּה צָרִיךְ לְבָרֵךְ. וְרַב יִרְמְיָה אָמַר: הָרוֹאֶה נֵר שֶׁל חֲנוּכָּה צָרִיךְ לְבָרֵךְ. אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה: יוֹם רִאשׁוֹן, הָרוֹאֶה מְבָרֵךְ שְׁתַּיִם, וּמַדְלִיק מְבָרֵךְ שָׁלֹשׁ. מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ, מַדְלִיק מְבָרֵךְ שְׁתַּיִם, וְרוֹאֶה מְבָרֵךְ אַחַת.
Rav Chiya son of Ashi said that Rav said, “Someone who lights the Chanukah candle needs to make a Beracha. And Rav Yirmiyah said, “Someone who sees the Chanukah candle needs to make a Beracha. Rav Yehuda said: On the first day, someone who sees says two Berachot, and someone who lights says three. From then on, someone who lights says two Berachot, and someone who sees says one Beracha.
Taking the Gemara at face value, it would seem that I could walk around my neighborhood and make this Beracha dozens of times, consummate with the number of times that I see someone else’s Chanukah candles. Perhaps because it feels uncomfortable to say a Beracha on merely seeing candles, this concept seems to have become watered down over the ensuing millennia. Rashi, in his commentary on the above Gemara, accelerated the decline. Atypically, he quotes two other contemporaneous authorities, who believed that this Beracha should be limited to two situations: מִי שֶׁלֹּא הִדְלִיק בְּבֵיתוֹ עֲדַיִן, someone who has not yet lit in his house; and יוֹשֵׁב בַּסְּפִינָה, someone who is sitting on a boat.
Let us examine these two scenarios in Rashi. The first one includes the word עַדַיִן, yet, bolded above. By including this word, Rashi has introduced the possibility that a person could say the Beracha of She’asa Nissim on seeing someone else’s candles – possibly even several people’s candles – even if he knows that that he will light his own candles a short while later. In contrast, the Shulchan Aruch further waters down the idea of a person making a Beracha on seeing candles by adding an additional criteria: וְאֵינוֹ עָתִיד לְהַדְלִיק בְּאוֹתוֹ הַלַּיְלָה, and he has no plans to light that evening. So if I passed by your house and saw your candles at 5:00 pm, and I was planning to light mine at 5:15, Rashi would say that I should say a Beracha of She’asa Nissim at 5:00 anyway, while the Shulchan Aruch would disagree. Regardless, Rashi’s first case raises several intriguing questions: Would such a person repeat She’asa Nissim when he lights later, or has his recitation of that Beracha within his status as a רוׂאֶה (seer) exempted his Beracha later when he becomes a מַדְלִיק (lighter)? In other words, is the status of a רוֹאֶה qualitatively inferior to the status of a מַדְלִיק? Also, according to Rashi, would a רוׂאֶה also say She’hechiyanu on seeing someone else’s candles on the first night, knowing that he will light candles himself later? If so, would he repeat She’hechiyanu later that evening when he lights? Again, if the status of a מַדְלִיק is qualitatively different than the status of a רוׂאֶה, then it is not far-fetched to suggest that a person could say She’hechiyanu twice, first as a רוׂאֶה and then later as a מַדְלִיק.
The boat case in Rashi is likewise fascinating. This is probably meant to refer to a person who will have no access to candles, either to light them or to see them, that entire night. (A student had the intriguing suggestion that it may in fact refer to a situation in which, even if one were to light candles, they would blow out immediately anyway.) The question is why such a person, in the absence of any candles, makes a Beracha at all. The Shulchan Aruch does not allow this Beracha to be said without seeing candles in some form (either his own or someone else’s), but Rashi is suggesting that a person could say this Beracha even in the absence of any physical experience of fire or light. The words of the Beracha – שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאַבוׂתֵנוּ בַּיָמִים הָהֵם בַּזְמַן הַזֶה, Who did miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time – do not negate this suggestion. The Beracha is not about light. It is about recognizing the miraculous nature within which Hashem runs the world as it was manifested through the Chanukah miracles. Rashi suggests that one who does not and will not have access to candles or oil the entire night – someone who is neither a רוׂאֶה nor a מַדְלִיק – could say this Beracha simply out of the abundance of gratitude to Hashem that he feels on Chanukah. Could such a person likewise say She’hechiyanu, which is similarly a Beracha not on any particular phenomena but on the feelings that a person has at this auspicious time of year? Would Rashi suggest that a person who has no access to a Megillah on Purim could say the Beracha of הַרָב אֶת רִיבֵנוּ, Who fights our fights, which similarly presents as a Beracha not on the Mitzvah of Megillah per se but on the feelings engendered by Purim itself?
How do the opinions of Rashi and the Shulchan Aruch impact a situation in which a person forgets to make Berachot on lighting but realizes his mistake either while they are still lit or after they have burned out? It would seem that according to Rashi, even after the candles have burned out, a person could at least make the Beracha of She’asa Nissim, and perhaps She’hechiyanu, simply on the gratitude he feels on Chanukah, just as the person on the boat would do essentially the same thing. The Mishna Berura (676:2 and :4) feels that a person whose candles have burned out should no longer make any Berachot. However, in Sha’ar Hatziun (3), citing the Meiri, he is more deferential to a lenient argument based on exactly the assessment we made earlier, namely that She’asa Nissim and She’hechiyanu can be seen as general Berachot about the holiday which are not necessarily connected to the lighting of the Menorah. Although the Mishna Berura in the Sha’ar Hatziun quotes the Meiri, it would seem that Rashi would concur. A student of mine creatively suggested that in a situation where someone forgot to make the Berachot entirely until his candles had burned out, she could simply leave her home, walk around the neighborhood, and make the Beracha of She’asa Nissim (and She’hechiyanu) upon seeing the candles burning in someone else’s window. It is anyone’s guess how the Shulchan Aruch would handle such a suggestion, since this רוׂאֶה is no longer exempted by his future הַדְלָקָה, and his past הַדְלָקָה did not include Berachot. (I am positing this and other suggestions in this Halachic discourse merely as food for thought, not for practical purposes. In an actual situation, one should consult his or her own reliable Halachic authority. וַאַנִי אֶת נַפְשִׁי הִצַלְתִּי.)
2) Who is the “Shepherd” in Ma’oz Tzur?
A friend of mine asked what the last line of Ma’oz Tzur is referring to when it asks Hashem to “establish for us the seventh shepherd,” or in some versions “the seven shepherds.” Another friend in the same online conversation pointed us to this excellent article on the many covert references to Christianity in this Crusades-era song. The article suggests, for example, that the repeated word יְשׁוּעָה, salvation, may refer to Jesus (יֵשׁוּ), and that the word צַלְמוֹן may refer to Jesus as a צֶלֶם, false image or idol. However, the article does not cover the last line of the song thoroughly. I made a suggestion that the word הָקֵם, establish, may in fact hark back to the phrase נְקֹם נִקְמַת earlier in the verse, and mean take revenge on. The רוֹעֶה could then be Jesus, who is purported to have been a shepherd. The שִׁבְעָה, seven, would then be his seven apostles. (Christians differ on the number of apostles, with twelve being the most famous, but seven is another number given.) The line would then not read “establish for us the seven shepherds,” but rather “avenge for us the shepherd (Jesus) of the seven (apostles).”
This understanding of the line would also help to unravel an age-old mystery. As the first article above notes, the oldest manuscripts that we have of Ma’oz Tzur say רוׂעֶה שִׁבְעָה, the shepherd of seven. Perhaps because the identify of a single shepherd would be difficult to pin down, or else as an act of self-censorship, later printings changed the line to רוֹעִים שִׁבְעָה, the seven shepherds. This change is often cited as supported by Micha 5:4, which refers to seven (unnamed) shepherds in the context of the future redemption. (The Gemara [Sukkah 52b] identifies them as Dovid, Adam, Shet, Metushelach, Avraham, Ya’akov, and Moshe.) However, that connection does not make it what the original author of Ma’oz Tzur intended. A single רוׂעֶה could be Jesus, the שִׁבְעָה could be his formerly-Jewish apostles, and we can decipher the original text, “the shepherd of seven,” without rewriting it as “the seven shepherds.”
3) Were Haman’s Belongings Hung on a Tree?
Staying on the topic of Ma’oz Tzur, my father asked why Haman’s belongings are said to have been hung on the tree with him: רׂב בָּנָיו וְקִנְיָנָיו עַל הָעֵץ תָּלִיתָ, his many sons and possessions You hung on a tree. Besides the absurdity of picturing Haman’s bed and pots and pans being hung with him on the tree, my father pointed out that we are told in the Megillah that בַבִּזָה לֹא שָלְחוּ אֶת יָדָם, they (the Jews) did not lay their hands on the booty. So what is this line talking about?
It turns out that Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch wondered the same thing, and he suggests in his commentary on the Siddur that the comma is in the wrong place. Rather than the usual interpretation …
.וְאוׂיֵב, שְׁמוׂ מָחִיתָ
רׂב בָּנָיו וְקִנְיָנָיו עַל הָעֵץ תָּלִיתָ
And the enemy – his name You erased.
His many sons and possessions You hung on the tree.
… Rav Hirsch suggests this alternate reading:
.וְאוׂיֵב, שְׁמוׂ מָחִיתָ, רׂב בָּנָיו וְקִנְיָנָיו
.עַל הָעֵץ תָּלִיתָ
And the enemy – his name You erased, [and] his many sons and possessions.
On a tree You hung him [Haman].
While this may not be the most immediately intuitive reading, it is intriguing because it emphasizes the idea of מְחִייָה, erasing, and deemphasizes the idea of Haman’s having been hung a tree. I would posit that the word מָחִיתָ in the song is not an accident. The Mitzvah of destroying Amalek in the Torah is phrased as that of מְחִייָה, erasure:
ספר שמות פרק יז פסוק יד
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה כְּתֹב זֹאת זִכָּרוֹן בַּסֵּפֶר וְשִׂים בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כִּי מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם׃
Then Hashem said to Moshe, “Write this as a memorial in a scroll, and put it into the ears of Yehoshua: I will surely erase the memory of Amalek from under the Heaven.”
ספר דברים פרק כה פסוק יט
תִּמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּֽח׃ …
You should surely erase the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens – do not forget!
Haman is referred to in the Megillah as הַאַגָגִי, a descendant of Agag, who in turn was a descendent of Amalek. The fact that we mention in Ma’oz Tzur that he was erased by Hashem – מָחִיתָ – is perfectly in line with what Hashem guarantees He will do in the first Pasuk cited above: מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה, I will surely erase. That is the operative point being made in the song, that Hashem fulfilled His promise to erase the memory of Amalek during the days of Purim. The fact that Haman was hung is not an incidental point because it represents the nature of how that erasure took place – and so again it is phrased as if Hashem has personally done the deed (תָּלִיתָ), as He guaranteed He would do in the Chumash. The larger point being made, though, is that the Purim story is a fulfillment of Hashem’s promise that He would eventually erase the memory of Amalek.
Rav Hirsch’s arrangement of the verse calls to mind the pivotal incident in the Book of Shmuel in which Shaul lost his very kingship because he spared King Agag and his possessions during a war against Amalek. (See Shmuel Aleph 15:3-11.) From the Torah’s guarantee/prescription and the incident in the Book of Shmuel, it emerges that it was not enough to simply have Amalek or his literal descendent (Haman) be “hung on a tree,” as it were. Rather, as the poet describes, קִנְיָנָיו, his possessions, must likewise be מָחָה, erased, in order to bring about the fulfillment of Hashem’s command.
4) The Oil Miracle in Al Hanissim
Reading the Tefillah of Al Hanissim which is inserted into the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon throughout Chanukah, there is a jarring omission of the miracle of the oil. The fact that one flask of oil lasted for eight days is typically suggested as a major reason for observing the holiday (see, for example, Gemara Shabbat 21b), yet it is nowhere to be found in this seminal holiday prayer. I asked my students about this glaring omission. One student made the bright suggestion that while anyone would look at the miracle of the oil and realize that it is a cause for offering thanks to G-d, it is easier to forget that a military victory is truly His handiwork. To drive home this point, the military victory is emphasized instead of the miracle of the oil. This answer helps to explain why the Tefillah is inserted into the part of the Amidah in which we offer glowing thanks, הוֹדָאָה, to G-d. We should understand that our thanks is due not only for the miracles which are obviously the work of G-d, but also, or perhaps especially, for those for which we lack a burning desire to show thanks because they are so easily overlooked. (Did you catch all five puns in that paragraph?)
This is a very good answer, but it does not explain why we mention the seemingly superfluous fact that after cleaning out the Beit Hamikdash, הִדְלִיקוּ נֵרוֹת בְּחַצְרוֹת קָדְשֶׁךָ, they lit candles in Your Holy courtyards. Certainly the Jews did many things in the Beit Hamikdash after they had prepared it for use; surely they brought many Korbanot (offerings) and incense. Why mention that they lit candles? Also, why is the word בְּחַצְרוֹת phrased in the plural form? The Beit Hamikdash only had one courtyard, and it was not where the main Menorah was lit; that would be in the הֵיכָל, Sanctuary building, which was the subject of the previous line, וּפִנוּ אֶת הֵיכָלֶךָ, and they cleaned out your Sanctuary building.
If we still lit our Chanukah candles outside, we would typically light them in our חַצֵרוֹת, courtyards. The Gemara often speaks about the Chanukah lighting taking place in חַצֵרוֹת. The mention of חַצֵרוֹת in Al Hanissim may refer not to the Beit Hamikdash at all, but to the lighting of candles in people’s individual חַצֵרוֹת, outside their homes. Similar to the way in which the military victory represents a recognition of the oft-overlooked aspects of G-d’s many victories in our lives, perhaps the same can be said of the oil. For most of us, it would take a miracle on the level of a small amount of oil lasting for eight days to give us cause to thank G-d. Yet this Tefillah is offering us a unique perspective, that it is the “simple” miracle of our ability to create fire, which preceded that eight-day-long miracle, which is too often overlooked as we fail to see G-d’s hand in everyday life. In this sense, then, the “miracle of the oil” is in fact included in the Al Hanissim prayer, but it is the miracle of הִדְלִיקוּ נֵרוֹת בְּחַצְרוֹת קָדְשֶׁךָ, they lit candles in Your Holy courtyards. Like the military victory which we might overlook, oil burning is itself a shining example of a miracle we can each experience in our own חָצֵר קָדוֹשׁ, holy courtyard, and this is the greatest miracle of all. It didn’t take the Jews of that generation eight days or even two days to be wowed by the “miracle of the oil,” for they recognized that the simple creation of fire in their own home, despite being a daily occurrence, was nonetheless a cause for celebration.