The idea of light plays a prominent role in Jewish thought. The first of the 10 “sayings” that G-d used to create the world was, “Let there be light!” According to the midrash, that light lasted 36 hours. Afterward, it was hidden for the future.
Interestingly, over the course of Chanukah, Jews kindle 36 candles. (The first night, one candle is lit; the second night, two candles are lit, etc.) These candles recall the miracle of the menorah that glowed in the Holy Temple.
What is the relationship between the 36 candles of Chanukah and the light of creation that lasted 36 hours?
Yet another light plays a significant role in Jewish life — Shabbos candles. The Code of Jewish Law says that lighting candles on Friday night brings peace into the home. In a practical sense, they eliminate dark areas so that people won’t fall. They also add an aura of serenity to Shabbos.
There are several differences between the mitzvot of Shabbos candles and the menorah. For instance, Shabbos candles are lit before sunset while Chanukah candles are lit after dark. Shabbos candles are lit to illuminate the interior of the house. Ideally, Chanukah candles are lit at the door or window to brighten the space outside.
These differences reflect the purpose of each mitzvah. Shabbos candles have a practical function — they make the home safe. They can also be used for studying or other permitted tasks. By comparison, Chanukah candles can’t be used for reading or to serve any other function. They testify to the light (i.e., presence) of G-d that exists, especially during the time of spiritual darkness. This explains the connection between the 36 hours of the initial light of creation and the 36 Chanukah candles. Both reflect G-d’s infinite presence in this finite world.
With that in mind, Chanukah lights might appear to be superior to the light of Shabbos candles. But they are not. The Rambam (Maimonides) rules that if one only has enough money (or enough candles) to perform one mitzvah, then lighting Shabbos candles takes priority over kindling the lamp of Chanukah! That seems like the ultimate contradiction, especially in view of the rule that one can use tallow (fats) for Shabbos, even though the light from tallow is dim and smoky. Yet for the Chanukah menorah to be truly kosher, the light must be pure and clean.
Nevertheless, the Rambam declares that if a person can only perform one mitzvah, he/she should obtain and light Shabbos candles. To stress the point, he places this rule in the section on Chanukah and not in the section on Shabbos in his book, the “Mishneh Torah.”
There are several possible explanations. There is a concept in Jewish law that that a more frequently practiced mitzvah takes precedence. Therefore, one could argue that Shabbos candles deserve priority.
Yet there is a deeper level.
Earlier, we noted that lighting Shabbos candles serves to bring peace into the home. Peace occurs when opposing issues become resolved so that the opposition no longer exists. For example, spirituality is viewed as beyond nature. The Hebrew word for “holy” is kadosh, which means being separate or apart from the mundane. Lighting Shabbos candles eliminates the potential obstacles found in the material world, allowing the spirit of Shabbos to permeate the atmosphere in the home.
Chanukah candles, by contrast, are intrinsically holy. They only exist to reveal G-dliness. For the same reason, they will
continue to be lit even in the days of the Messiah! A Good Shabbos and Freilichin Chanukah. PJC
Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum is CEO of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh and rabbi of Congregation Kesser Torah. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.