Toward Shabbat: Hanukkah
Last January, I began studying Daf Yomi, a seven and a half year journey through the entire Babylonian Talmud, at the rate of one page a day. Thousands of people all over the world take part in this practice; 11 months in, we have completed the first three tractates of the Talmud and are part way into the fourth. The constant encounter with lengthy rabbinic debates about granular aspects of ritual and practice is simultaneously challenging and enjoyable. Studying Talmud every day pushes me to connect these minutiae of Jewish law to my own spiritual life, and to try and understand how they might have been part of the Sages’ spiritual lives, as well.
The Talmudic discussion about Hanukkah is a great example of this dynamic. Mai Hanukkah what is Hanukkah?—the Talmud asks. The answer: it is a holiday of thanksgiving for the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days. Beautiful! What comes next?, I wonder. Some deep wisdom about miracles? Teachings about light in the darkness?
No. The Talmud does not linger in this overtly spiritual realm; it returns to a legal discussion begun earlier on the page, about the specific ways in which the Hanukkah lights must be kindled: what types of wicks and oils are permitted? Exactly what time of evening should they be lit? How many candles on each night? How high off the ground must the hanukkyiah be?
What all this has to do with light in the darkness and gratitude for miracles and whatever other spiritual message I hope that Hanukkah has in store for us, I am not quite sure. But there are pages and pages of these details, so I ask myself, why is this all so important to the Sages? What is here that I am not yet seeing?
And indeed, buried in the details of one of these laws is something extraordinary.
Ravina said in the name of Rabba: That is to say that it is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp within ten handbreadths (approximately 3 feet) of the ground.
This is a curious, perhaps somewhat random, statement. Why is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah menorah so low to the ground? What are Ravina and Rabba teaching us here?
To make meaning of this instruction, we can read it together with two other Talmudic statements. The first, from Tractate Sukkah teaches that the Shekhina, the divine presence, does not descend lower than ten handbreadths from the earth. In other words, there is no divine presence between the ground and about three feet above the ground. The second, from Tractate Menahot, teaches that the light of the menorah in the Temple (which is the lamp that the hanukkiyah is meant to evoke) is a symbol of the Shekhina.
So let’s do a little Talmudic logical reasoning:
God’s presence does not reach below ten handbreadths above the ground…
And the menorah symbolizes God’s presence…
And it is a mitzvah to place our Hanukkah menorah within ten handbreadths of the ground…
By placing the menorah within ten handbreadths of the ground, we are bringing the divine presence to a place where it does not (cannot?) dwell on its own.
In this instruction to light the Hanukkah menorah relatively low to the ground, the Sages use the somewhat dry language of rabbinic discourse to offer us a profoundly spiritual message about this holiday: on Hanukkah, our task is to bring divinity to the places that divinity doesn’t reach.
Hanukkah, in this read, is not about bringing forth just any light in the darkness. It is about bringing forth God’s light in the darkness. It is about helping God reach certain spaces of human existence that would otherwise remain untouched by God’s presence.
As we enter into the second night of Hanukkah, and the reflective pause of Shabbat, let’s consider the many spaces in our world today that are bereft of the Shekhina. Let’s pay attention to those spaces, let’s seek out those spaces and say: I will bring the light here. I will bring God’s presence here.
As Ravina reminds us: it is a mitzvah to do so.