Puzzling questions emerge when we consider the mitzvah of neirot Chanukah, the rabbinically mandated mitzvah of the Chanukah lights.
The talmudic sages structure the basic mitzvah as follows, in Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b:
Ner Chanukah ish u’veito. The fundamental obligation is to light one candle per night for an individual and his entire household.
They then, however, continue:
Mehadrin, those who beautify the mitzvot, kindle one candle per night for each and every member of the household.
Mehadrin min ha’mehadrin, those who beautify the mitzvot even further, kindle candles corresponding to the passing days. (According to Beit Shammai, eight candles on the first night and then counting down; according to Beit Hillel, one candle on the first night and then counting up.)
Two basic questions are immediately apparent:
1. Personal mitzvot in Jewish law invariably are structured as chovot gavra, direct obligations on individuals. Why, then, do the rabbis construct the basic mitzvah of the Chanukah lights as an obligation of one candle per household?
2. Hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of the commandments, is an overarching halachic mandate, applicable as an overlay to all mitzvot. We are obligated to beautify our performance of every mitzvah as much as possible.
With no other mitzvah, however, is the concept of hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of the mitzvot, built into the developing structure of the obligation itself, as it is with the Chanukah lights.
Why do the rabbis view hiddur mitzvah as such an essential component of the mitzvah of neirot Chanuka? And why did it become universal practice to fulfill the mehadrin min ha’mehadrin version of the obligation, as if that were the basic mitzvah? (Sephardim kindle one chanukiyah for the entire home with increasing lights on each of the passing days, while Ashkenazim kindle a chanukiyah for each member of the household, with more lights on each of the passing days.)
Let’s address the second question first.
Years ago, I heard a powerfully beautiful interpretation concerning the relationship of hiddur mitzvah to the Chanukah festival, in the name of Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, z”tl. (Please note that I received this interpretation third hand and that I am expanding upon it, so whatever portion of this approach that you like, assume that it is Rav Aharon’s, and whatever portion you disagree with, assume that it is mine.)
The great sage suggests that in order to understand the connection between hiddur mitzvah and Chanukah, we must return to the festival’s origins.
The decades before the Maccabean revolt were marked by tragic inroads of assimilation into the Jewish community. Bordered by the Syrian Greek (Seleucid) empire to the north and the Egyptian Greek (Ptolemaic) empire to the south, the citizens of Judea literally were surrounded by the overwhelming power and beauty of Greek society and culture. Over the course of years, countless Judeans fell prey to the enormous attraction of that culture. You could argue, in fact, that had the Syrian Greek Emperor Antiochus the 4th not pushed the Judeans against the wall through his onerous edicts, the Maccabean rebellion might never have occurred and the inexorable, devastating assimilation of the Jewish community might have run its course. When Matityahu raised his sword in Modi’in, he not only issued a battle cry against Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks, he directly challenged the Jewish Hellenizers within his own world.
The Syrian Greek army thus was not the only adversary confronting the Jewish nation at the time of the Chanukah story. An even more dangerous, pervasive threat was presented by the attractiveness of Greek culture.
The Chanukah festival thus emerges as the calendar festival that most clearly confronts the ongoing threat of Jewish assimilation into an outside world. Recognizing this fact, the rabbis use the festival’s central mitzvah, the mitzvah of neirot Chanukah, to make a powerfully essential point concerning the battle against external attraction:
The best way to fight the hiddur — the beauty — of an outside world is to be mehader — to beautify — your own.
The rabbis understood that significance and wisdom can exist in cultures other than our own. “If one states that wisdom exists among the nations,” the midrash declares, “believe him!” (Midrash Rabba, Eicha 2:13
How, then, are we to resist the powerful attraction of elements of those cultures that are contrary to our beliefs and practices? How are we to battle the siren song” of assimilation, powered by the apparent beauty that surrounds us?
The answer the rabbis proposed is direct and clear. In the face of the beauty of others, our task is to beautify our own; to examine, explore, emphasize, study, and teach the extraordinary significance and wisdom that exists within our own heritage. Only through such ongoing positive efforts can we hope to combat the powerful pulls that surround us.
To underscore this lesson, the rabbis weave the concept of hiddur mitzvah into the central mitzvah of Chanukah, the festival that mirrors our ongoing battle not just for Jewish survival, but for the very survival of Judaism.
Simply kindling the candles is not enough, they effectively proclaim; every effort must be made to kindle those candles in the most beautiful way possible. The neirot Chanukah must serve as a reminder that the task of beautifying our entire heritage is essential to the successful transmission of that heritage.
We now can propose an answer to our first question. Why do the rabbis structure the foundational obligation of the Chanukah lights as a responsibility on the household, rather than the individual?
The answer, I believe, is abundantly clear. The single most important medium in which the beautification of our heritage can take place is the Jewish home. When it comes to the attitudinal education of our children and grandchildren, the home towers over any other institution, including the synagogue and the school. A parental word, look, or gesture can have greater impact on our children’s feeling towards mitzvot, positively or negatively, than years of formal instruction. Our nuclear and extended families are deeply affected by the way we consciously and unconsciously model our approach to Jewish observance.
Do we beautify the mitzvot? Do we view, and therefore transmit, the mitzvot as opportunities or as burdens? Do we focus on bequeathing the spirit, as well as the letter, of the law? Do we take the time to make Shabbat, the holidays, and all of Jewish practice meaningful and enjoyable for our children and grandchildren? By fashioning the mitzvah of neirot Chanukah as a household mitzvah, the rabbis remind us that the battle against assimilation begins at home; in the warmth and beauty of Jewish family observance.
At a time when diaspora Jewish communities are assimilating into the outside culture at an alarming rate; at a time when Chanukah, the festival designed to fight assimilation, ironically has become the most assimilated Jewish festival in so many countries throughout the world; at a time when religiously observant families in the diaspora and in Israel are facing new challenges in the transmission of tradition to the next generation, the messages of neirot Chanukah must burn more brightly than ever against the night.
The best way to fight the hiddur — the beauty — of an outside world is to be mehader, to beautify, your own. And the place to begin that beautification is in the home.