Making It Better and Better

Successive generations of Jews have created different ways of enhancing the observance of the Hanukkah lights.

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It should be noted that in this period, Hanukkah candle lighting was still done with individual oil lamps. Although some historians claim that lamps with eight wells of oil originated in early times, there is no solid evidence for a Hanukkah candelabrum until several centuries after the Tosafot.

At about the same time as Rabbenu Isaac, Maimonides, the Sephardic author of the Mishneh Torah, took the opposite approach:

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Hanukkah 4:1-2

"And one enhances even more than this and does the most preferred form of the mitzvah:

one lights one candle for each person on the first night  and continues to add one candle each night. How is this?  If there were 10 people in the house on the first night he would light ten candles and on the second night twenty and on the third night thirty until he is found on the eighth night lighting eighty candles."

Maimonides does not refer to the Ashkenazic innovation of the concept of visual recognition. His model of hidur, builds upon the first enhancement that includes each individual, and seems to focus on the increasing illumination of the light. Eighty candles grouped all together are certainly visible in the darkest winter night.

More Is Not Always Better

Joseph Caro, the Sephardic author of the 16th-century code of law, the Shulhan Arukh, frequently follows his Sephardic forbearer, Maimonides. On the issue of lighting Hanukkah lights, however, Caro rejects Maimonides and restates the approach of the Ashkenazi Tosafot in order to maintain the concept of visual recognition. Caro's approach demonstrates that an enhancement does not require more candles or people. By following the Ashkenazi approach, Caro adopted an interpretation that may have been new for his Sephardic community, perhaps for the very purpose of doing something new.

Moses Isserles, the Ashkenazi rabbi whose glosses and comments completed the Shulhan Arukh, however, does not simply follow Caro's lead and adopt the approach of his Ashkenazi forebears. Isserles also innovates and creates a new synthesis:

Isserles in Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, 671:2

"And there are those who say that each member of the household lights, and this is the widespread custom, but each person should be careful to light his/her candles in a distinct place in order that there be visual recognition of how many candles one is lighting."

For Maimonides, eighty candles were lit all together. For Moses Isserles, the sets of eight candles were lit in distinct places (makom meyuchad) where the sets of candles would be seen as a unit, maintaining visual recognition of the night of the holiday. It was this innovative synthesis that led to the creation of the Hanukkah candelabrum, the Hanukkiyah, which is used today.

The irony inherent in having later Ashkenazi authorities adopt Sephardi customs and vice versa did not escape the notice of later rabbis. The 17th century Ukrainian Rabbi David ben Shmuel ha-Levi noted:

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.