Chanukah – The Saturday Night Dilemma
A question comes up each year at least once. At the conclusion of Shabbat, once it is dark outside and the stars have emerged we go through a peculiar routine. We raise a glass of wine, recite blessings over fragrant spices as well as the light of a candle and we conclude with the blessing marking the distinction of Shabbat from the week ahead. We do this each Saturday night, the ritual of Havdalah.
There is no other obligation on Saturday night other than washing the dishes – except for one Saturday (sometimes two). On Chanukah we perform the Mitzvah of the lights each night, including Saturday. We thus have two obligations on that Saturday night, we need to light both the Havdalah candle and the Chanukah candles. Which comes first?
It is a simple question. What takes precedence, the lights of Chanukah or the recitation of Havdalah?
Questions like this throw us off. Immediately we try and recall what we did last year, but we usually find our memory of last year to be foggy. Then we get defensive. What is the difference which one comes first? Just get on with things!
But it does make a difference, apparently. A debate has been raging over the past thousand year with major players in Torah scholarship backing both sides of the dispute. There are numerous bases for each position, using Talmudic principles and simple logic. We won’t get into the nitty gritty of the discussion and cite all of the positions. However a sample is in order.
Our tradition follows a simple formula for the order of offerings in the Temple. The most common offering, the one most frequently brought, is the offering that takes precedence when there are two or more in the cue. The Tamid offering, the daily lamb that was slaughtered in the Temple, was always the very first offering each morning no matter how important the other offerings were. The rule is that the offering brought most frequently is the offering that takes precedence. This principle is applied to other areas as well as offerings. The order of blessings recited is governed by frequency in certain situations.
Although our question of Chanukah lights became a question well after this principle was founded, it nevertheless is beholden to this rule, and it follows that Havdalah should take precedence to the Chanukah lights since Havdalah is recited more often than Chanukah lights are kindled. Indeed, some authorities cite this principle in support of their ruling to recite Havdalah first.
Other authorities rule that the Chanuka candles are lit before Havdalah, noting that the ideal time for lighting Chanukah candles has already passed by the time Shabbat is over and it is important to proceed with the lighting immediately whereas no imperative exists to recite Havdalah at the first opportunity. Additionally, one has entered the obligation to kindle the Chanukah lights before Shabbat was even over. The obligation of Havdalah came later.
There are numerous other supports brought for either side of the debate and it is fascinating to study the different views and rationales. (Incidentally, this dispels the common notion that there are three opinions for every two Jews. There is no third option here. Either Havdalah takes precedence or else Chanukah takes precedence.)
In practice there are no set rules. Where Havdalah is recited in the Synagogue the Chanukah candles are lit first. At home, however, the halachah in practice allows for personal tradition to dictate which Mitzvah is performed first. In the final analysis there is no right and wrong, only a preference of order.
This presents a theological challenge. If it ultimately makes little difference which takes precedence then why do we waste our time debating something entirely academic? Is this simply about intellectual stimulation? There are clearly good reasons to go either way, but in the end it simply doesn’t matter! Or does it?
This, my friends, is the spirit of Chanukah. Of course it is OK to do it either way. It is also OK to light one candle each night and suffice with that. The Mitzvah is performed. No one does that, however. No one skimps on the one Mitzvah of Chanukah. We all follow the highest recommendation of the Talmud when it comes to Chanukah, lighting a number of candles corresponding to the day of the festival despite the fact that the Mitzvah can be performed with fewer. This is not typical. We have a tendency to do just enough to get away with, the bare minimum. But not on Chanukah.
The Maccabees were left with little choice but to observe their faith in secret. They were outnumbered, outgunned and outmuscled. Nevertheless they launched a suicidal campaign to restore their sovereignty over the Temple and enable the observance of their faith openly. Against all odds they were successful. They then came into the Temple and were again faced with a difficulty. There was not enough pure oil to light the Menorah as prescribed. They had every right to use impure oil. But they refused to compromise and their extra efforts were rewarded by the miracle of the lights, an endorsement of their sacrifice.
Of course we can fulfill the Mitzvah of Chanukah after that of Havdalah, or vice versa. But what is the best way to do it? What would be most pleasing to the Almighty? We will continue to debate this for the next thousand years, ever pursuing our quest for excellency in serving Hashem.