By Rabbi Nachum Aaron Kutnowski
(AJNews) – Many mistakenly view Halacha (Jewish Law) as an unchanging entity, devoid of evolution or nuance. This perception is challenged by the laws of Chanukah, shedding profound light on this misconception.
The Gemara states the following: “The Sages taught in a Braita: The commandment of Chanukah is to kindle a light for himself and his own household. And the Mehadrin – the way to perform this more meticulously is to kindle a light for each person in the household. And the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin – the way to perform this even more meticulously is … as Bet Hillel say: On the first day one light is kindled, and from there and on, add to the number of lights [until, on the last day, eight lights are kindled]”(Tractate Shabbat 21b).
In this rare mention within the Chanukah’s laws, we encounter the concepts of Mehadrin and Mehadrin min Hamehadrin. To better understand these concepts, we turn to another Gemara: “It was taught in a Braita: “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him” This teaches us to beautify ourselves before Him in Mitzvot, which means to make before Him a beautiful Sukkah, a beautiful Lulav, a beautiful Shofar, beautiful Tzitzit, a beautiful Torah scroll, that His name is written in beautiful ink, with a beautiful quill, by an expert scribe, and wrapped in beautiful fabric” (Tractate Shabbat 133b).
This Gemara introduces us to the concept of Hiddur Mitzvah, the beautification of a Mitzvah, which is linguistically connected to the word Mehadrin, as they both share the root Hebrew word Hayh Dalet Reish, meaning to beautify, and teaches us to do our Mitzvot in a beautiful form or fashion.
Returning to the Chanukah lights, the question lingers: Why such emphasis on Mehadrin min Hamehadrin by Chanukah? Moreover, why have the Jews universally adopted the meticulous approach in kindling the Chanukiah?
We begin with the dictum: “In accordance with the effort is the reward” (Pirkei Avot 5:23). The greater the effort invested in the Mitzvah of lighting the Chanukiah, the greater the anticipated reward. This notwithstanding, why is this principle highlighted specifically within the context of Chanukah?
The historical context of this Rabbinically instituted holiday provides a crucial reality. The miracle of Chanukah, detailed in the Al Hanissim prayer, happened when the wicked kingdom of Yavan sought to eradicate the Torah and Mitzvot. G-d’s mercy prevailed, turning the impure over to the pure, the wicked to the righteous, and the sinners to those who toil in His Torah. The Hasmonean victory was not merely political, but specifically spiritual – a war between good and evil, light and darkness. The war waged by the Yevanim was more significantly a spiritual battle as can be seen by the fact that King Antiyochus of Yavan decreed the following punishable by death; sacrifices in the temple, keeping the Shabbat and festivals, and disallowed circumcisions (see Book of Maccabees I 1:46-49).
To internalise the nature of the miracle of Chanukah, the meticulous performance of the Mitzvah is emphasised. The true significance of the rebellion waged by the Hasmoneans against Yavan was the spiritual battle, and Chanukah’s practices serve as a poignant reminder. It calls us to recognize that we are engaged in an ongoing war of good versus evil, light versus darkness, religious freedom versus religious subjugation.
In this light, Mehadrin min Hamehadrin takes on profound significance. It becomes more than a beautification; it becomes a declaration of commitment to illuminating the world with the light of G-d and His will. Each additional light symbolises a dedication to intensifying the radiance, echoing the triumph of the Hasmoneans over the forces that sought to extinguish the flame of Torah.
As Jews worldwide unite in the universal custom of lighting their Chanukiot in the fashion of Mehadrin min Hamehadrin, they partake in a collective act of defiance against the shadow left by the lack of Jewish expression. Chanukah, therefore, is not merely a historical commemoration but an ongoing call to infuse our lives with the radiance of Torah and an unwavering commitment to beautify the world with the brilliance of the Divine.
Rabbi Nachum Aaron Kutnowski is the Head of Judaic Studies at Halpern Akiva Academy.