11 Dec Chanukah and Community
I. Whose Oil?
Around 150 years ago, a Warsaw rabbi attempted to introduce a new chumra, a stringency regarding Chanukah lights. The reason for rejecting his proposal offers insight into the nature of family and community.
In his Talmudic commentary Zeicher Yehosef (Warsaw, 1859; Shabbos 20b), Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern of Shavel records a question sent to him by Rav Binyamin Dov Rabinowitz of Warsaw. Based on biblical wording, the Sages explain that a number of commandments require ownership — you must own the matzah you eat on Pesach to fulfill the mitzvah; you must own the esrog, etc. you take on Sukkos. Rav Rabinowitz asks whether the Sages, when they instituted the mitzvah of Chanukah lights tailored this rabbinic commandment on these biblical obligations? Do you have to own the oil or candles you light for Chanukah?
His sole piece of evidence is the rule of a guest on Chanukah. The Talmud (Shabbos 23a) says that a guest on Chanukah has to pay (at least) a perutah to the host to become a partner in the oil. Rav Rabinowitz sees in this rule the implication that you must own the oil in order to fulfill the commandment.
II. The Chanukah Guest
Rav Stern (Zeicher Yehosef, ibid.) replied with a learned analysis of the laws of Chanukah lights, which I will leave for another time. I want to focus on his father-in-law’s response. Rav Stern forwarded the exchange to his father-in-law, Rav Mordechai Gimpel Yaffe of Rozhinoy, later of Yahud. Rav Yaffe sent his own response, also published in Zeicher Yehosef. Rav Yaffe questioned the Rav Rabinowitz’s basic assumption that you must own the oil of your Chanukah lights. The only evidence for that claim is that a guest has to pay something (just one coin) to become a part-owner of the oil. Rather than reflecting an ownership requirement, it shows the nature of the Chanukah mitzvah.
Unlike most commandments, the rabbinic obligation of Chanukah lights resembles mezuzah, which falls on the home, rather than on the individual (Shabbos 21b). A guest has no home, and might be considered exempt. Rav Yaffe explains that by contributing toward the expense of the oil, the guest joins the household and can take part in the home’s Chanukah lights.
III. The Worth of Family
There is something surprising about paying to become part of a family. I don’t expect my family members to pay me. Quite the opposite — I give to them just like my parents give to me and I pray my children will give to their children. We don’t expect payment.
On the other hand, family is worth more than a small payment of one coin. In general US society, the cost of raising a child is estimated at upwards of $200,000. That is without considering the additional costs of kosher food, yeshiva tuition and Jewish summer camps. Getting all that for one perutah seems like quite a deal.
I believe we can understand this concept better by considering a different law. The Gemara (Pesachim 51a) tells stories about Yehudah and Hillel, the sons of Rabban Gamaliel. One time, they were in Cabul and bathed together. This caused a bit of a scandal because men are not supposed to bathe together. However, these two followed the letter of the law, which permits brothers to bathe together, because we do not suspect brothers of improprieties. Even though they were correct, they should not have acted that way in a place where it is not accepted. Similarly, those two brothers once spent a Shabbos in the town of Beri and walked outside in slippers. Even though this is technically allowed, their action caused a minor scandal because people in Beri did not wear slippers in public on Shabbos.
IV. The Cost of Community
Being part of a community requires accepting limitations. We sacrifice some of our freedom in order to function as a cohesive group. People’s judgments and temperaments differ. If we all insist that our opinions win every disagreement, there will never be any agreement. Unity requires a certain degree of conformity, of sacrifice, of willing to go along in order to get along. Otherwise we are a group of selfish individualists who split the minute we disagree.
No one would make this sacrifice, pay the cost of joining a community, if it wasn’t worth it. However, the benefits of family, community and society are manifold. Two heads are better than one. A group can accomplish more than an individual, and provide support to its members in multiple ways.
A guest makes a symbolic sacrifice to join a household. The membership fee, the small effort of paying for some of the oil, shows a desire to join the community of the household. The membership benefit consists of sharing in the Chanukah lights. Even a small, limited membership in a community offers a benefit much greater than the entrance cost. Similarly, most communities and societies offer benefits far greater than the costs of entry. The law of the Chanukah guest reminds us that we must sacrifice a bit of our freedom to join and benefit from society in general.