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27 Kislev 5766 - December 28, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
Inner Beauty: Hiddur Mitzva in Ner Chanukah

by Rabbi Daniel Yaakov Travis

Beneath the Surface

Special Offer: Three-hundred-year-old antique sterling silver menorah. Hand-crafted by expert Italian silversmith with exquisite engravings and intricate patterns. Solid silver weighing 500 ounces. Height approximately 75 inches. Shown by appointment only.


Before considering whether to purchase the above menorah, one must ask himself the following question: Yovon's world outlook was that life's supreme accomplishment is to achieve paradigm outer beauty. Considering this, does such an item belong in a Jewish home or perhaps it is actually a relic of ancient Greece, a mitzva item cleverly wrapped in the external trappings of Yovon?

At the beginning of time, Noach blessed his sons and said, "You endowed Yefes [the forerunner of the Greeks] with beauty, and it shall dwell in the tents of Shem [the forerunner of the Jewish people]" (Bereishis 9:27). Our Sages tell us that the outer attractiveness which characterized Yovon was actually meant to be a sign of inner perfection (see Vilna Gaon on Megillas Esther 2:7). This principle was clearly demonstrated by the Beis Hamikdosh, which was one of the most stunning architectural structures the world has ever known.

However, all of this is contingent on one vital condition. External looks must be an accurate reflection of the rich inner content concealed beneath the surface. Breathtaking loveliness that is not an expression of sublime underlying depth is what Rabbi Yehuda Halevi described when he warned, "Beware of chochmoh Yevonis [Greek philosophy]; it is like a flower that wilts and bears no fruit."

Golden Candles

The Mishna Berurah rules, "A person should go out of his way to acquire a beautiful menorah and candles" (Mishna Berurah 673:28). The poskim inform us which types of menorahs are considered to be the most desirable. Precious metals are the best, and therefore gold and then silver are the first choices. After that come cheaper metals which look like precious ones (golden brass followed by red brass, iron, tin and then lead).

If one cannot obtain a metal menorah, one may use less expensive materials such as glass, wood, bone, lead-lined pottery or even pottery (Chesed Le'Avrohom, grandfather of the Chida, as cited in Kaf HaChaim 673:60). Nonetheless, a metal menorah with glass cups placed on top has the same status as a totally metal one, for the cups become part of the rest of the menorah (Responsa Shevet Hakehosi 3:201).

The influence of modern art has introduced new types of artistic menorahs into the Jewish home. Before buying one of these menorahs, it is important to keep in mind that all of the lights of the menorah should preferably be of the same height and set up in a line (Chayei Odom 154:10; Kitzur Shulchan Oruch 139:9). Similarly, even though a menorah with holders set up in a circle is kosher (as long as each candle has a separate compartment), this detracts from the hiddur mitzva of one's lighting, and it is better to use a simpler, straight one (Biyur Halacha 671:4 in name of the Maharshal).

Spiritual Beauty

Although the concept of hiddur, beautifying the mitzva, applies to many mitzvos, Chanukah is unique in that one has the option to fulfill it mehadrin min hamehadrin, in a manner which is extremely special. Although it is technically adequate for each household to light a single candle each night of Chanukah, additional lights enhance the spiritual beauty of the mitzva through the message they relay; that each night there was an addition to the miracle that took place.

All poskim agree that there is a hiddur mitzva for each person to light his own candle every night. The extra mitzvos which are added through this practice imbue one's residence with an additional element of splendor (Rashi, Shabbos 21b). However, the poskim differ as to how to fulfill the mitzva mehadrin min hamehadrin. The Rema writes that each member of the household should light his own menorah containing the number of candles that are parallel to that night of Chanukah (Orach Chaim 671:2). The Shulchan Oruch (ibid.) rules that it is sufficient if the head of each household lights this number of candles.

Even according to the opinions that say that each member of the household should light his own menorah, the wife of the head of the household does not light, for she is included in the lighting of her husband (Mishna Berurah 671:9). The same ruling applies to all the women and girls of the household (Mishna Berurah 675:9).

Olive Oil

The Shulchan Oruch (Orach Chaim 673:1) rules that "all types of wicks and oils are kosher for Chanukah lights, even if the oil will not be drawn up to the wick and the light of the flame will not be held steadily by the wick. However, the best way to fulfill the mitzva is with olive oil."

Olive oil adds a special dimension of physical and spiritual exquisiteness to Chanukah lights. The Mishna Berurah (673:4) explains that, as one of the purest oils, olive oil is smoothly drawn up the wick, producing a very beautiful flame. At the same time, it provides us with a direct reminder of the original miracle: the olive oil that lasted eight days.

At times, however, we overlook this glorified outer appearance in lieu of an even greater splendor. If someone has just enough money to either light one ner with olive oil each night or to perform mehadrin min hamehadrin by lighting the amount of candles corresponding to the day of Chanukah with wax candles, it is preferable to use candles. The additional attractiveness of oil falls to the wayside when faced with the extra publicity of Hashem's glory that comes from fulfilling the mitzva mehadrin min hamehadrin (Mishna Berurah 671:7).

However, there is an even deeper beauty than the one described above. The Ran states, "If there is one Jew who has not fulfilled his mitzva, it is as if you have not done yours." If one has enough money for mehadrin min hamehadrin, but his acquaintance (who is not part of his household) does not have money to light at all, it is preferable to forgo the hiddur in one's own mitzva and give the money to one's friend to buy neiros (Mishna Berurah 671:6).

Collecting for Candles

The Rambam (Hilchos Chanukah 4:12) rules that "the mitzva of ner Chanukah is exceptionally precious, and a person must be extremely vigilant in its fulfillment." Our Sages generally regulated that one should spend up to an extra third in order to beautify a mitzvah. Not so with neiros Chanukah. Any sum of money that one spends to add to Hashem's glory through lighting the menorah is considered as part of the mitzva (Oruch Hashulchan 671:2).

In the same vein, a person who does not have sufficient funds to pay for a mitzva is generally not obligated to go knocking on doors to acquire the money to fulfill it. However, mitzvos which publicize Hashem's miracles, such as ner Chanukah, are an exception to this rule. Therefore one must forgo his pride and accept tzedokoh in order to honor his Creator (Orach Chaim 671:1).

How many candles must one collect for? One does not need to collect for more than one candle each night. If he has enough money for this without taking tzedokoh, he certainly does not need to ask others for the money to buy extra candles (Mishna Berurah 671:3). Nonetheless, since the menorah publicizes Hashem's honor, it is certainly praiseworthy to make every effort to acquire enough candles to do the mitzva mehadrin min hamehadrin (Ohr Somayach, Hilchos Chanukah 4:12).

The Ultimate Beauty

Occasionally Hashem makes overt miracles, momentarily revealing His Presence for the sake of strengthening the faith of His nation. However, these miracles are sporadic and their effect quickly wears off. Three times a year, on Chanukah, Purim and Pesach, we are given the opportunity of pirsumei nissa, publicizing Hashem's miracles via rabbinic commandments, to rejuvenate their effect and keep the miracle alive and vibrant.

In order to fulfill these mitzvos, one is expected to sell the coat off his back, hire himself out or even resort to taking charity to acquire the funds to fulfill them. All of these acts require a tremendous sacrifice in the emotional realm; a request that our Sages, who had a profound value for man's self-respect, generally steered away from (Brochos 19b). Why did they see fit to make an exception in regard to these mitzvos?

When it comes to glorifying Hashem, a Jew is called upon to sacrifice much more than he is generally accustomed to. We find a similar ruling in regard to preparing for Shabbos. "Even if an individual is so important that he never goes shopping or does household chores, he must actively participate in Shabbos preparations, for the more a person lowers his own honor, the more he glorifies the Shabbos" (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 30:6). When it comes to kiddush Hashem, the mitzva of sanctifying Hashem's name in public, a person is required to give up his very life for Hashem's honor.

In this light, we can understand why Chazal required us to go so far for the sake of fulfilling the mitzva of hadlokas neiros Chanukah. Next to offering our lives, publicizing Hashem's miracles is the ultimate honor we can offer Him. Therefore our Sages made an unprecedented deviation from their unwavering value of human dignity, all for the sake of glorifying our Creator.

Herein lies the ultimate inner beauty: a Jew is ready and willing to sell the clothes off his back, to sweat and toil doing hard labor, or to go from door to door to ask others for help in acquiring the funds for the mitzva — all for the sake of glorifying his Creator. The exquisite attractiveness of sacrificing one's emotional comfort for the sake of Hashem's honor is analogous to giving up one's life for Him, and is much more magnificent than the superficial outer allure that exemplified the philosophy and culture of Yovon.

In the merit of fulfilling the mitzva of ner Chanukah in the most beautiful manner that our means allow us, may we merit seeing the light of redemption and the splendor of the Menora of the rebuilt Beis Hamikdosh.

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