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NEWS (december 14, 2006) Eight Chanukah ‘lites’
A chanukiah in Federation Square, Melbourne. Photo: Peter Haskin/AJN file RABBI CHAIM INGRAM provides teasers and trivia, which might stand you in good stead at a Chanukah party or gathering.
CHANUKAH is a unique festival. Called the “Feast of Lights”, its name suits it in more ways than one! It is the “light” festival par excellence, because the unusual amount of pure leisure time it provides makes us lighthearted. During the time that the Chanukah candles burn, we are meant to do nothing that will distract us from “gazing at them in order to give thanks to Your Holy Name” (Hanerot Halalu prayer), which is how games like dreidel came about. And which is how it also came about that riddles, acrostics, numerological trivia and other light-hearted delights came to be particularly associated with Chanukah.
So here are eight Chanukah “lites” – one for each night of the festival – containing facts and figures, teasers and trivia, which might stand you in good stead at a Chanukah party or gathering.
1. Let us imagine we are in the middle of nowhere. It is Chanukah and we are very short of candles (or oil). Now the basic mitzvah of Chanukah is just one light per night per household. What we do – start with one and go progressively up to eight – is actually mehadrin min hamehadrin, the “super-kosher” way to perform the mitzvah. But if I only have eight candles to my name with no prospect of getting any more, I can still perform the mitzvah in the basic way – I don’t need a shammash, but must avoid using the lights for reading.
Now supposing I am blessed with nine candles – when would I use the extra one? On the one hand, I could use it to light “super-kosherly” on the second night. But if I did, I would have to go back down to one on night three, and the principle is ma’alin b’kodesh – we go up in matters of holiness, not down. Alternatively, I could save it for the last night, and then I am going “up” in holiness. A third option would be to use it for a shammash on the first (or last) night. What should I do?
The truth is that there is only one correct option – and it says everything for the Jewish attitude to life that “hope is never lost”. The right thing to do is to use it on night two when it should be used for mehadrin min hamehadrin and don’t worry about what happens after that – maybe some candles will turn up from somewhere! In the event that they do not, you’ll just have to continue lighting the basic way with what you’ve got!
2. Let’s talk about the dreidel. It’s a spinning top of course. Why a spinning top? To recall the “turnover” of events when Judah the Maccabee’s small army toppled the mighty forces of Antiochus. You might say it was the forces of good toppling evil. This would be borne out by the four letters that are on the dreidel – nun, gimmel, heh and shin. Maybe you learned in cheder that these letters stand for “Nes gadol haya sham” – a great miracle occurred there. But of course, there’s a deeper meaning too! The four letters add up in gematriya to 358, equivalent numerically to “nachash”, meaning serpent or evil spirit, as in the Garden of Eden. Why is the dreidel spun? To topple the evil spirit and bring forth the Messianic era establishing God’s kingdom, when everyone will declare God is king eternally! (“Hashem melech, Hashem malach, Hashem yimloch” – God is king, reigned and will reign.) And – yes you’ve guessed it – that phrase also adds up to the magic number 358.
3. Related to the dreidel is kvitlech shpielen – card playing. While it’s not normally an activity associated with Jewish festival observance, it again keeps us occupied while the lights are burning. Actually the original kvitlech was a special game consisting of 31 numbered cards, artistically coloured. These represented the 31 kings against whom the Israelites fought under Joshua, a biblical prelude to the Maccabean victory.
4. The traditional custom of giving children Chanukah gelt (money) rather than presents has a fascinating origin. Since Chanukah (related to chinuch, meaning education) was traditionally a time to think about remunerating the poor melamed (cheder teacher), parents often used to send monetary gifts along to him with their children. Of course, it would have been less than kind to give our children money for their teachers and none to spend on themselves. And so the custom of Chanukah gelt was born.
5. Did you know that there were hints about Chanukah (a post-biblical festival) even in the Chumash? Here are just two of them. When Jacob wrestled with his adversary, “vayizrach lo hashemesh”, which, according to its plain meaning, means, “the sun shone for him” (Bereshit 32:32).
However, by modifying the vowels of shemesh to read shammash, we have altogether a new and ingenious meaning. Bearing in mind that the numerical value of “lo” (lamed vav) is 36, the phrase can mean: the shammash candle will shine on (or will kindle) the 36 (other lights). (Apart from the eight shammashim, the total number of candles needed on Chanukah is 36.)
The Torah portion normally read on the Shabbat of Chanukah is Mikketz. The ancient scribes used to count every word of every portion to guard against scribal error, and they found that Mikketz has 2025 words. Unusually, they recorded the fact. In doing so they were hinting to us that the number 2025 encompasses the entire Chanukah story. The word ner, light, has a numerical value of 250. Multiplied by eight (the days of the festival) we arrive at a total of 2000. Add 25 – because the Chanukah miracle started on Kislev 25 – and what do you get? 2025!
6. Talking of six – everybody knows the famous five stanzas of Maoz Tzur, but there is actually a sixth! Most scholars believe it was added later and therefore never attained the popularity of the other five. Some scholars, however, cite a more sinister reason for its exclusion from many Siddurim. It condemns “the wicked nation” of Edom (interpreted as Rome by many Christians) and as such was subject to much censorship by Christian authorities. There is a view that this stanza was part of the original work and that the pejorative reference in it to Admon – “The Red One” – is an allusion to the then German emperor Frederic Barbarossa (1121-90), who was nicknamed “Redbeard” and who was perceived as symbolic of gentile oppression. Contemporary Siddurim, notably ArtScroll, have reinstated the controversial sixth stanza to the liturgy.
7. Acrostics have always been a favourite pastime on Chanukah. The name Maccabi is thought to be an acrostic of the biblical phrase “Mi chamocha ba’elim Hashem” (“Who is like You, O God”). Others say it stands for the full Hebrew name of Mattathias – Mattityahu Kohen ben Yochanan. There is yet a third theory – that the name Maccabi is actually a combination not of first letters, but of the last letters of the names of the patriarchs – Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Levi. Why Levi? Well he was the progenitor of the priestly Hasmonean dynasty – the Mamlechet Kohanim Bet Yisrael (kingdom of priests of the House of Israel)!
8. Another little-known acrostic concerns the name Chanukah itself. It can be taken to read: Chet nerot ve’halacha kevet Hillel (eight candles, and the law is according to the school of Hillel). This refers to what we spoke about in lite number one: our practice of starting with one candle and going up to eight – to show the growth of the miracle. This was Hillel’s teaching. Shammai, on the other hand, said: start with eight and go down to one to show how the oil diminished (or, also, to emulate the sacrificial rite on Succot, which began with 13 oxen on day one, declining each day to seven on day seven).
Chaim Ingram is rabbi-in-residence of the Jewish Centre on Ageing, Sydney, and itinerant rabbi of Surfers Central Synagogue, Gold Coast.