20 Dec Chanukah and Mesorah
Some years, my busy season intersects with Chanukah and I cannot get home from work until very late. On those nights, my family lights the Chanukah menorah, fulfilling the mitzvah for me as well (ask your rabbi for details on how to do this properly). When I eventually return home, I see the final flames of the menorah in neighborhood windows. On those Chanukah lights, I recite the blessing (without God’s name) of the ro’eh, the passive observer. While not ideal, the ro’eh plays a vital role in transmitting the Jewish tradition.
Chanukah, like the other Jewish holidays, marks the season, reflecting the rhythms of life. Throughout each year, we light the menorah, blow the shofar and shake the lulav like we did the prior year and will do again the next. We watched our grandparents live this ritual-filled life and pray that our grandchildren will follow in turn. Whether in Poland, America or Jerusalem, we end Yom Kippur with a shofar blast marking the conclusion of the Ne’ilah prayers.
Many of these practices emerge directly from the biblical text, some from a rabbinic interpretation. Those are written commandments, fulfillments of a scriptural mandate. Other practices are less direct, emanating from traditions and customs. Even if recorded in later books, these practices reflect an entirely different dimension of Judaism.
Chanukah is not a biblical holiday. The books of Maccabees are excluded from the Jewish Bible, relegated to the realm of historical rather than sacred works. And even those texts omit mention of the central mitzvah of Chanukah. As a post-biblical enactment, lighting the menorah is technically classified as a rabbinic commandment.
However, its non-scriptural origin places it into a different class of practice. It is part of the tradition, the Mesorah.
Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Days of Repentance, p. 173) explains:
“The obligation to light the Chanukah candles and to recite Hallel derives not from a written text, but from Mesorah. What obligates me to perform these actions is the fact that previous generations acted in the same manner. The Oral Tradition represents not only the continuity of study, but of action as well. The Mesorah precipitates the obligation to observe these mitzvot.”
We light the menorah because it is a tradition, a Jewish practice continued throughout the generations. While more binding than any of the multiple classes of customs, it is still classified as a tradition. We light the menorah because it is a rabbinic commandment and because it symbolizes freedom and represents the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. But we also light the menorah because doing so is part of our Mesorah, how Jews experience the Chanukah holiday.
On the one hand, this Mesorah remains elusive. It is the domain of the great scholar. Those unique individuals who continue the work of Moshe and Yehoshua, Ravina and Rav Ashi, Rashi and the Rambam, are the Ba’alei Mesorah, links in the chain of Torah transmission. We learn from them but can offer no contribution to their transmission. This often frustrates us because we wish to join this holy task of preserving the sacred word.
However, we all have a portion in the Torah. Our task of transmitting the Mesorah may not lie in deciding Jewish law but elsewhere, in the transmission of practice.
Rav Soloveitchik continues:
“Thus, we understand the role of ha-ro’eh, the person who simply sees the candles burning. Such a person may recite the blessing, ‘she-asah nissim la-avoteinu, Who performed miracles for our fathers,’ without having performed the mitzvah himself (Sukkah 46a). The ro’eh is not just an onlooker or passive observer. He is a participant in the transmission of the Mesorah. The person who lights plays a double
role: in addition to lighting the candles, he transmits to the ro’eh the particular mesorah of the Chanukah candles. There is a double connotation in lighting the Chanukah candles: the lighting itself, and the lighting as the medium of conveying the Mesorah. As far as the mesorah element is concerned, the ro’eh is as involved as the one who lights; it takes two to pass on a tradition. Therefore, the ro’eh, too, recites a blessing.”
Viewed from this perspective, we all play a role in the transmission of the Mesorah. Ruling on the nuances of Jewish law, deciding between different opinions and even offering new opinions, remains the domain of the Ba’alei Mesorah, the great Torah scholars who constitute a chain going back to Moshe. However, in our own ways, we are all part of the Mesorah transmission. When we teach our children how to be good Jews, when we live the Jewish calendar together with our family, we become links in the Mesorah.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (Leaves of Faith, p. 123) writes of the halachic authority’s “aware[ness] of his awesome responsibility as a custodian and transmitter of Mesorah.” In a different sense, Jewish parents also bear this great privilege and great responsibility of serving as a faithful link in the chain of the Mesorah.