Optimalism : A Chanukah View of the World

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Chanukah Candles
06 Dec 2007

Upon return from a fundraising trip from America for his Yeshiva, Chachmei Lublin, Rav Meir Schapiro gathered around his students who were eager to comprehend the Jewish mindset of the nyer velt (new world). Rav Meir, related a conversation he had with a baalabos (congregant) who was eager to impress with his piety. “Every day during the Omer, I eat a cheese blintz in anticipation of Shavuot (where the custom is to eat dairy).” Rav Meir was somewhat amused. The pious Jew was not done: “In order to mark the proper day of the Omer, I make sure to eat the commensurate number of blintzes.” A bit taken aback, Rav Meir asked: “and what, my friend, happens if you forget to count a day in the Omer?”, Our pious fool then responded: “then I eat the appropriate number of blintzes – but without the bracha”

American Jews tend to eat the blintz but often forget to make the bracha. Contrary to popular belief, Shavuot transcends cheesecake, Rosh Hashanah is more than a honey dipped apple; Chanukah is as much a big jelly doughnut and a fried food fest as Judaism is a bagel (with apologies to Sephardim who might be wondering “what’s a bagel?”)

Chanukah, our most intangible of chagim, possesses incredible depth. Not lost upon our great thinkers, they highlight the most sublime of themes. Finding light in the depths of our existence, primacy of oral law, clash of cultures are among its luminescent motifs. In Chanukah’s lone mitzvah performance, however, one theme outshines them all.

Mehadrin, the notion of embellishing a mitzvah beyond the basics, is the compelling Chanukah idea.

Consider: Basic Chanukah law requires one candle a day, period. The Talmud delineates a mehadrin practice of lighting one candle per family member each day and finally presents a third level known as super mehadrin (mehadrin min hamehadrin) where one lights a candle per day (and for Ashkenazim, by each member of the family). While hiddur mitzvah (mitzvah embellishment) as a category applies in many other mitzvah contexts, nowhere else do we find a dual level mehadrin.

Further, the mehadrin notion is so de rigueur that the basic one candle law, an almost unheard of practice, barely receives a mention in the Shulchan Aruch; in practice, it is completely ignored except for the most dire circumstances.

Third, hiddur mitzvah generally enhances the basic mitzvah. One who uses a cheap esrog to fulfill a mitzvah gains nothing by subsequently using a nicer esrog. One may not make a bracha on that nicer esrog. The mitzvah is done, period. In marked contrast, on Chanukah, family members light a second and third menorah with a bracha solely to fulfill mehadrin.

Finally, the financial limits associated with embellishing a mitzvah (up to thirty three percent beyond basic) are completely obliterated with Chanukah (where we go up to 450 percent beyond basic – from 8 candles to 36).

Why is Chanukah associated with a celebration of mehadrin? Perhaps it is rooted in the surprising idea that the Chashmonaim did not have to use pure oil at all. Although somewhat controversial, many claim that the halachic principle of tuma’ah hutra b’tzibbur (an impure community may still engage in beit hamikdash service) permitted lighting the menorah with impure oil. And yet ….

The Chashmonaim understood that Judaism will not be preserved by doing just enough “to get away with it.” Rather, it is what my teacher called l’chatchilaism – doing mitzvos in the optimal way that ultimately propels the Jewish spirit.

A local Jewish organization advertises a particular service that serves as a fundraiser for their work. Their flyer reads “kill two mitzvos with one stone.” Pure intentions? Surely! For me, it is a cringe moment. An act of Divine service is not to be murdered, nor is it an impediment to be hastily removed. In its ideal state, the mitzvah experience of connecting with Hashem is a feeling that we want to linger on.

Shver Tzu Zein A Yid. (It is so difficult to be a Jew) – an oft repeated Yiddish refrain on the lip, hearts and minds of many immigrant Jews who tried mightily to maintain their traditions with great mesirus nefesh. Rav Moshe Feinstein would point out that it was this constant kvetch that broke the spirits of the next generation.

To smell the mitzvot, to enjoy and revel in an encounter that is the great romance between Hashem and his people is the call of the Jew. And yet, in a world that is so pressed for time, is it not hard to enjoy the moment? In an environment far more hostile than our own, the Chashmonaim tapped into the secret of mehadrin for illumination. Let us capture their light.

A Freilichen Chanukah, Asher Brander

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.