Ask the rabbi

December 4, 2018 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the Rabbi on Chanukah.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Why do we need a shammash these days when we have easy access to electricity?

A. The technical answer is that – regardless of using the shammash as a “servant” to kindle the lights – there must always be an extra light (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 673) because the Chanukah candles are there to look at and not to be used for a utilitarian purpose.

This is the message that we clearly derive from the “HaNerot Halalu” paragraph – “ein lanu reshut l’hishtammesh bahem”.

But when the menorah is in a place where there is electric light, surely it is by the electricity that we see and we don’t need the shammash?

Perhaps there is also a theological consideration.

Ideals do not come about on their own; they need a visionary to promote them and an activist to bring them to realisation… in other words, a shammash!


Q. If there is no Torah law about Chanukah, why does the blessing state that God “commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light”?

A. This one of the seven rabbinical mitzvot, introduced by the sages in the spirit of the Torah.

Their authority is based on Deut. 17:8-11 which tells every generation to heed “the judge that shall be in those days”.

Other mitzvot of the sages include kindling Shabbat lights, reciting Hallel and reading the Megillah.

Add the seven rabbinical mitzvot to the 613 written commandments and you get 620, which is the numerical value of “keter” – “crown” (of the Torah).


Q. Why are the Chanukah Torah readings about the princes of the Israelite tribes and not specifically about the festival itself?

A. Because Chanukah is not Biblical, there cannot be any direct Scriptural readings about the festival.

However, the sages (see Mishnah M’gillah 3:6) chose passages from Parashat Naso which deal with the gifts the princes brought to the dedication of the Tabernacle. The gifts are stated as being for “chanukat ha-mizbe’ach”, “the dedication of the altar”.

The key word, “dedication”, is, of course, the theme of the festival, which marks the rededication of the sanctuary after the enemy had been defeated.


Q. What was the worst thing that the Maccabees had to handle?

A. Dryden says, “Of all the tyrannies of humankind, the worst is that which persecutes the mind”.

That’s your answer. It is not that the people of Judea couldn’t live under the yoke of the enemy, but that an intolerable form of spiritual and mental oppression was placed upon them.

The Maccabees had to win the war for the Temple but they also had to cleanse the minds of the nation from false ideas and unacceptable ethics.

They rekindled the “ner tamid” in the sanctuary not merely for ritual purposes but because it symbolised the pure light of belief in God, the flame of Divine truth, and the principle of Jewish moral illumination of the world.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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