Illuminating melancholic winter nights, Chanukah flames have been lit all over the world for better than two thousand years – whether in menorahs of resplendent silver or humble wood and metal, opulent homes or dreary surroundings, days of glory or times of oppression – commemorating our spiritual ascent from the darkness of the Syrian-Greek decadence.
Keshet, the arching bow, is the sign of the month of Kislev, its three arrows symbolizing the three mitzvos revived by the Chashmonayim – Shabbos, Torah study and circumcision.
Sagittarians are an adventurous and energetic lot, filled with optimism and willing to fight for what they believe in. They are deep thinkers who exude confidence, spiritually alert and gifted with foresight, wisdom and organizational ability.
The Chashmonayim, it is well known, were hale and hearty. Why, then, the reference to chalashim (the weak), in Al HaNissim? (“Masarta giborim b’yad chalashim” – You gave the strong into the hands of the weak…) The Kedushas Levi notes that the Chashmonayim were tzaddikim, righteous individuals, who recognized that without Divine intervention and assistance they would be helpless and would stand no chance of vanquishing the enemy, their physical prowess notwithstanding.
Man’s greatest challenge (nisayon) lies in acceding to and being mindful that his personal achievements or extraordinary success is due not to his own qualifications or genius but the power and might of God.
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Sixty-four years ago, the Nazis, perceiving their imminent defeat, escalated their barbarity. Hungarian Jews were systematically delivered to Bergen-Belsen to be processed for destruction – that is, those who had not already succumbed to the scourge of hunger or feebleness.
One among those prisoners was a 60-year-old scholar who was exceptionally friendly to everyone around him and would lend words of encouragement to the dispirited souls, inspiring them not to lose faith in the Almighty.
Reb Shmelke, as he was affectionately known, would infuse his fellow captives with nostalgic memories of a time gone by. As they consumed their Shabbos repast, consisting of a ration of dried old bread, Reb Shmelke would create a semblance of an oneg Shabbos by regaling them with words of Torah and recounting fascinating tales of the Baal Shem Tov as well as of his great-grandfather, Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg.
Momentarily, at least, the physically and spiritually starved inmates, distracted from the reality of their circumstances, would be uplifted from their despondency.
His amiable ways garnered Reb Shmelke an “in” with the ruthless officers at the top, allowing him freedom of movement among the barracks and, to some degree, beyond. Reb Shmelke used this rare privilege to ensure the proper burial of his fallen comrades. He furthermore kept a record of the names of the deceased by scribbling them on small scraps of paper, using the charred tips of discarded matches that he collected for this purpose.
His aim was to avert disastrous consequences to war widows who would be spared the agony of having to endure an agunah status. (Reb Shmelke’s selfless act of chesed did indeed prove invaluable after the war, when many widows were enabled to substantiate claim of their husbands’ demise to the bais din.)
With the advent of Chanukah, Reb Shmelke was determined to illuminate the hearts of the downtrodden by celebrating the holiday, yet could not fathom how he would go about securing the means to carry out the lofty mitzvah of Chanukah candle-lighting.
The dilemma weighed heavily on him, even as he was in the process of burying a poor departed soul. Reb Shmelke found himself short a couple of stones to complete the partitioning of the gravesite and scoured his immediate surroundings, to no avail. But from a distance a pile of rocks caught his eye. As he removed some of them, he was shocked to uncover a small bottle of oil. Shoving aside some more of the stones, he discovered cups – and soon he unearthed a pack of wicks.
A stunned Reb Shmelke could hardly believe his good fortune; moreover, that night would be the first night of Chanukah. He lifted his eyes in a silent prayer of gratitude. Later that evening, when the guards were finally out for the count, a chorus of stifled but heartfelt amens greeted Reb Shmelke’s fervent blessing of “Shehechiyanu ve’kimanu ve’higiyanu lazman hazeh.”
When the war ended, Reb Shmelke returned to Hungary where he would become widely known as the Tchaber Rav. He eventually immigrated to Israel and made his home in Jerusalem.
Upon a subsequent visit to America, the Tchaber Rav looked up an old acquaintance, the Satmar Rebbe, R. Yoel Teitelbaum. At some point in their emotional reunion, the Satmar Rebbe quietly remarked to Reb Shmelke, “I heard of your Chanukah lighting in Bergen-Belsen and of your tremendous Kiddush Hashem. Allow me to enlighten you now – it was I who hid the oil, cups and wicks beneath the stones, hoping that the right person would discover them at the right time, with God’s help. And that is exactly what happened.”
Words failed the Tchaber Rav as tears flooded his eyes.
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The Jewish nation is likened to the olive tree. Olives produce oil by being beaten and squeezed; the more suppressed by other nations, the more we cry out to Hashem and forge ahead by intensifying our performance of good deeds. The Greeks attempted to goad us into assimilation, but like olive oil that does not mix with other liquids, we separated from them and – as is the nature of pure olive oil – we rose to the top.
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Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, known as the Sharigrader Rebbe, owned the most magnificent silver menorah anyone had ever beheld. The candelabrum stood nearly five feet tall and was etched with engravings of the holy places of Eretz Yisrael. Each of its eight arms depicted the shivas haminim, the seven species of fruit native to the land of Israel; the shamesh was topped by the luchos habris (the two tablets of the Covenant); and a golden crown inlaid with semi-precious stones was inscribed with the words “le’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.”
The majestically sculptured work of art was kept safely concealed in a cabinet of the rav’s court, carefully swathed with wads of cotton and draped with a large clean cloth. It was only on erev Chanukah that the Sharigrader Rav would remove the menorah, burnish it to a lustrous sheen in preparation for lighting and place it adjacent to the entrance door of his home.
One might wonder how R. Yaakov Yosef – of such moderate means that his wife would light Shabbos candles in tin candlesticks and the family would eat out of earthenware (R. Yaakov Yosef himself would virtually fast from Shabbos to Shabbos) – came into possession of such a treasure. Actually, the menorah had been an inheritance from his grandfather – the Prager Rav, the Tosfos Yom-Tov – who had purchased it from a Strassburg resident who had obtained it from a Spaniard of Toledo. Legend had it that the menorah had been the property of Shmuel HaNaggid, who had been chief minister in the king’s court.
One day a merchant arrived at the home of R. Yaakov Yosef to try to entice him to sell the valuable menorah. The rebbetzin prevailed upon her husband to strike a deal that would enable them to marry off and provide for their children’s needs. R. Yaakov Yosef proceeded to retrieve the menorah from its storage place. Just then, a stranger unexpectedly walked through their door, his mere presence casting a luminescence about him. The rebbetzin instinctively covered her face while the Sharigrader Rebbe felt the stranger’s gaze piercing the inner chambers of his heart.
The newcomer spoke briefly. “How can one possibly conceive the sale of such a holy artifact to this person?” he asked, and then promptly left. Needless to say, the transaction was aborted. The next day, R. Yaakov Yosef was startled to discover their prospective buyer had been an agent dispatched by the local monastery to obtain the menorah for its cloister.
On a Shabbos morning not long thereafter, the Sharigrader Rav arrived in shul only to find hardly anyone there; it seemed all had gathered outdoors to listen to the words of some orator. When R. Yaakov Yosef went out to satisfy his own curiosity, he was taken aback at finding his congregants entranced by the same personage who had arrived at his home and urged against the impending sale of the menorah.
The erudite speaker held his audience spellbound. “Hashem shomrechah, Hashem tzilchah – Hashem is your guardian and your shade . God is like your shadow that follows your every move, His ‘shade’ safeguarding you like the branches of a tree that offers shelter from the scorching sun,” he admonished.
“Every action of man is repaid ‘midda kenegged midda.’ Every act of kindness is repaid in kind. A happy disposition creates an aura of happiness in the heavens on your behalf. ‘Sur meirah v’asseh tov’ – do away with evil and do good. There is good in everything; it is up to each individual to extract the good from the bad. The Jews in the wilderness could not drink the water from Marah; because they were bitter, the water tasted bitter to them.”
The lecturer was none other than the holy Baal Shem Tov, and from that day onward R. Yaakov Yosef became one of his ardent supporters and adjusted his lifestyle accordingly, altering some of his theretofore self-denying practices, such as frequent fasting.
Years later, R. Yaakov Yosef, formerly a staunch opponent of chassidism, authored the influential chassidic sefer Toldos Yaakov Yosef. By that time, he was rav of Polanya in the Ukraine.
Once, during a period of unrest, officers were dispatched to various districts of Polanya to restore and maintain order. It was erev Chanukah when three officials canvassing the area happened upon the rav’s home. Mesmerized by the extraordinary sight of the menorah that had just been polished and placed by the door, they took the liberty of entering the house. After plunking a couple of rubles down on the table, they attempted to abscond with the menorah. The rebbetzin sent one of her children to quickly fetch the rav who had gone to shul.
When R. Yaakov Yosef arrived home, his mere glare rendered the three hoodlums motionless on the spot, mouths agape, eyes glazed, arms dangling at their sides. The rav washed the menorah, repositioned it by the door, filled a receptacle with oil and proceeded with the blessing of the first Chanukah light.
In the meantime, General Pototzky wandered the streets, puzzled at how his three officers had simply vanished into thin air. When he finally located them at the rav’s home, they were still “frozen” in their tracks, while R. Yaakov Yosef was sweetly absorbed in the melody of Maoz Tzur.
The general entreated the rav to have mercy on his officers, who were desperately needed for duty elsewhere, and to forgive them for coveting the precious menorah. The rav raised his eyes in the direction of the three stony figures and exhorted them to leave his home without further ado. As if emerging from a hypnotic state, they shuffled their way outdoors.
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The attribute of Kislev is sleep. The Sagittarian is psychically inclined, attaining vision and understanding through dreams.
“I am asleep but my heart is awake (Shir HaShirim 5:2).” Though we were immersed in a spiritual slumber, we awoke from our lethargy and, like arrows shot from the archer’s bow, our prayers reached the heavens and revitalized us. For even as we sleep, our heart is awake – God is in our hearts, keeping a constant watch on us.
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The element of the month of Kislev is fire; the nature of fire is to rise upward. Of the thirty-six lights kindled during the eight days of Chanukah, six are representative of the number of days of the holiday that are celebrated in Kislev, while the balance of thirty correspond to the thirty days of the month of Teves that follows.
Teves is the month that marked the beginning of the destruction of Jerusalem. On the eighth day of Teves the Greeks forced the seventy-two Sages of Israel to translate the Torah into Greek – a most unfortunate occurrence that brought spiritual darkness upon the Jewish people. The lights of Chanukah lit in the month of Teves serve to illuminate all of its days and nullify its forces of evil.
The attribute of the month of Teves is anger – rogez, numerically equivalent to yirah, fear. Yiras Hashem (fear of God) is the purpose of our existence and transforms the negative element of Teves into positive, spiritual fulfillment. For though the constellations rule and govern the mundane world, the people of Israel are not under the absolute rule of the astrological signs.
A total of 15 lights are lit the last two nights of Chanukah, observed in Teves. Intriguingly, the reduced numerical value (mispar katan) of 15 (1 plus 5) equals 6. With the insertion of just one letter – vav (six) – the month of Teves would become tovas, goodness.
As we contemplate the golden flames that permeate the atmosphere around us with their warm and magical glow on each night of Chanukah, we can almost hear them whisper of the hidden light of Creation that illuminates the souls of those who allow the light of Torah to guide them through life.
It is only then that we are able to rise above the stars – to be under the sole dominion of God, Who reigns supreme above and beyond the zodiac.
Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.