Thanksgiving Day, Thanksgiving Days, and The Ten Branched Menorah

My weekly parashah lectures and halachah column for this past פרשת צו discussed the establishment of days of thanksgiving, as well as other rituals of thanksgiving. One fascinating practice that I discussed in the lectures is the custom of some Syrian Jews, of Sephardic extraction, to kindle an extra light on each night of חנוכה. Here is R. Haim Sabato’s explanation of the story behind the custom:

[S]he brought out an ancient lamp, many years old, inherited from his fathers and his fathers’ fathers, men of the Spanish exile. It was old and damaged and could not hold oil, or be used for any ritual purpose. He saw that engraved on it was the name Sapporta and the picture of a ship. They went and showed it to the foreign trader, and when he saw it he was overjoyed and offered a generous price for it, enough to keep the sage solvent for months.

And what was special about it? It was made to accord with a custom maintained by many of the people of Aleppo, that rather than light one candle, they lit two, thus on the first day of Hanukkah three candles were lit instead of the more usual two, up to the eighth and last day, when ten candles were lit.

This custom has been vouched for by my father, who saw his late father following the practice, and to this very day, in the Aram Zova community of New York, I have seen many doing this and not knowing why. I have heard it said that this tradition was instituted by exiles from Spain, who arrived in Aleppo at Hanukkah time and were saved from shipwreck by a miracle, and added an extra candle in memory of the miracle. So this ancient menorah belonging to Hacham Sapporta was designed to hold ten candles, and few of its type remained in the world. It was for this reason that the man was so delighted to have it and was prepared to pay so much for it. And he too did not lose on the deal, as it was eventually bought from him by the Louvre, for a substantial sum.1

When I read this some years ago, I was unsure as to whether this was fact or fiction. It is from Aleppo Tales, a novel, but Sabato’s writing is always remarkably meticulous and exhibits a marvelous verisimilitude. I consulted a Sephardic friend, who assured me that this was indeed an actual custom among some Syrians.

It turns out that the custom itself is documented, although I am not aware of a documented source for the reason Sabato gives and the legend he recounts. R. Avraham Adas, in דרך אר”ץ – מנהגי ארם צובה mentions two other explanations (as well as noting that Libyan Jews also have a similar custom, and that contemporary Aleppan custom varies):

בימי החנוכה נוהגים ק”ק ספרדים להדליק נר נוסף בכל לילה, דהיינו בליל ראשון מדליקים שלשה נרות – אחד למצות חנוכה שני נרות שמשים; וכן בכל לילה מדליקין שני נרות שמשים, פרט לנרות החובה, …

וטעם למנהג זה – שמעתי מהרב יצחק טוויל שליט”א, כי בני ספרד היו אנשים מכובדים ורמי מעלה, ובכל ימות השנה היו מדליקים שני נרות כדי להאיר את הבית, וכם כן בחנוכה לא היה היכר כאשר מדליקים בלילה הראשונה שני נרות בלבד – משום כך הדליקו שני שמשים; וממילא בכל לילה מוסיפים נר, ולכן המשיכו בכל הלילות להדליק שני שמשים [על פי השמועה];

ועוד טעם הוסיף מדעתו, והוא שחוששים משום “זוגות” – על פי הגמרא במסכת פסחים [דף קי.], ולכן הדליקו בלילה הראשונה בסך הכל שלשה נרות, [והעיקר שלא להתחיל בזוגות; אך אין חשש במה שמדליקים בליל ב’ ארבעה נרות, שהם שתי זוגות] – עד כאן מדברי הרב יצחק טוויל הנ”ל.

ועיין בספר היכל עבודת השם [חלק שני עמוד ש”ה] שכתב שגם יהודי לוב נוהגים להדליק שני שמשים – [בבית הכנסת].

ולענין מנהג חלב היום – יש מדליקים שני שמשים כנ”ל, ויש המדליקים שמש אחד בלבד, – הרב יעקב עטייה שליט”א, ור’ חיים דאיה נ”י – [היום, כידוע התמזגו הקהילות – ואין “ק”ק ספרדים” לחוד).2

There is a custom observed by some Jews with roots in Aleppo to light an extra candle each night of Hanukah. This means that on the first night they light three candles – one for the Misva, and two to serve as the “Shamosh” – on the second night they light four, and so on. This practice is mentioned in the work “Derech Eretz,” which documents the customs of the Aleppo the Jewish community (listen to audio recording for precise citation). The author writes that this custom was observed specifically by the “Kahal Kadosh Sepharadim” – the community of Jews that observed the practices of the Jews of Spain. It appears that there was a particular segment of the Aleppo community that made a point of following the customs of the old Jewish community of Spain, and it was this segment which had the custom of lighting the extra candle.

The author of “Derech Eretz” mentions two possible reasons for this custom, in the name of Rabbi Yishak Tawil. One possibility is that the members of the “Kahal Kadosh Sepharadim” were wealthy and would always have two candles lit in their homes at night for illumination. (We have to remember that we are speaking of a time many centuries ago, before electricity, when not everyone had the means to properly illuminate their homes.) Therefore, the two candles lit the first night for Hanukah would not be recognizable as Hanukah candles, and so they decided to add a third candle to make it clear that the candles were lit for the Misva of Hanukah candles. And once they lit an extra candle the first night, they added an extra candle each subsequent night, as well. Another reason mentioned by Rabbi Tawil is that the members of this community were concerned about “Zugot” – dong things in pairs – a concept which the Gemara discusses in Masechet Pesahim, and which is based on the concern that this could pose danger. (Apparently, they were not concerned about having four, six or eight candles, but only two candles.) The custom therefore developed to add an extra candle the first night, and once this was done they added a candle each subsequent night.

My column:

Parashas Tzav discusses the thanksgiving-offering (korban todah). Although the sacrificial rites are unfortunately today in a state of desuetude, various other halachically sanctioned ceremonies of thanksgiving to Hashem for salvation and deliverance from catastrophe remain. One of these is the establishment by individuals or communities of local “Purims” (i.e., “Thanksgiving Days”) – days of celebration and expression of gratitude to Hashem in commemoration of particular incidents of His miraculous salvation from some grave danger.

R. Moshe Alashkar (Shut. Maharam Alashkar #49) endorsed the solemn enactment of the residents of a certain city and their beis din establishing “for them and for their descendants and for all who followed them, in perpetuity” the date of 11 Teves to be “like the day of Purim in all respects”, to publicize a “great miracle” that they had experienced on that day. Although R. Hezekiah da Silva (Pri Chadash OC #496 Dinei Minhagei Isur #14) dissents and rules that subsequent to the destruction of the [Second] temple, the institution of a new holiday is not binding, the halachic consensus apparently follows the view of R. Moshe Alashkar (see Magen Avraham siman 686 s.k. 5). The Chasam Sofer (Shut. OC #191) mentions a permanent “day of rejoicing” on 20 Adar established by the community of Frankfurt am Main in response to a miracle that had occurred there. He reports that he saw that his great teacher R. Nathan Adler, who had been born there, observed the day, and relates that he, too, observed it, even though he was [at the time of writing] living far from Frankfurt.

R. Avraham Danzig (at the very end of Chayei Adam) relates that he personally had established the date of 16 Kislev for his family as a day of commemoration and celebration of their having all survived a terrible (gun)powder conflagration that had claimed thirty one lives in their neighborhood.

R. Ovadia Hedaya (Shut. Yaskil Avdi 7:OC:44-12) ruled that immigrants to Israel from Tripoli, who had previously observed no fewer than three local Purims, must continue to observe them in Israel.

My lectures, along with accompanying handout, are available at the Internet Archive.

Update: My weekly halachah column of two years ago also covered some of the same ground:

Parashas Tzav discusses the thanksgiving-offering (korban todah). Although the sacrificial rites are unfortunately today in a state of desuetude, a formal halachic obligation to acknowledge Hashem’s salvation remains in the form of the “bestowal blessing” (birchas hagomel), recited upon surviving a dangerous situation. R. Asher (Piskei Ha’Rosh Berachos 9:3) explains that this blessing was instituted in place of the thanksgiving-offering. R. Avraham Danzig recommends that one should additionally set aside money equal in value to one of the types of animals brought as a thanksgiving-offering and disburse it as charity to students of Torah, as well as recite the Biblical passage of the thanksgiving-offering followed by a detailed explication he provides of its laws and procedures. He relates that he, himself, did so following a terrible gunpowder fire in which he and his family suffered severe property damage and personal injury, but fortunately all survived (Chayei Adam, Seder Amiras Korban Todah at the conclusion of the work’s first section, and cf. Hilchos Megillah 155:41).

The Talmud (Berachos 54b) declares that “Four are required to give thanks: seafarers, desert travelers, one who was sick and became healed, and one who was confined in prison and left.” The exact definitions of these categories, their applications to scenarios of modern life and the basic question of whether the listed situations are the only ones requiring the blessing, or are merely commonly arising ones, from which we generalize to any situation involving serious danger, are subject to considerable dispute. In practice, the two most common experiences upon which the blessing is recited are airplane trips and illness (or childbirth).

  1. Haim Sabato, Aleppo Tales, pp. 61-62. []
  2. דרך ארץ (עדס: בני ברק ה’תש”נ), סדר הדלקת נרות חנוכה אות א’ עמודים קמג-מד []

The Tower of Ensisheim Revisited

I recently discussed the reliability of the legend that Maharam forbade the payment of the ransom demanded for his release from captivity. Rabbi Dr. J. J. Schacter kindly directed me to, and provided me with a copy of, Dr. Irving A. Agus’ comprehensive discussion of the entire tragic affair of Maharam’s attempted emigration and subsequent imprisonment, which includes a detailed analysis the failure of the Jews to obtain his release via the payment of a ransom:

Moreover, the detention of R. Meir in prison presents another perplexing problem: Why was he not released from custody? Both Jewish and non-Jewish sources tell us that the Jews made strenuous efforts to ransom their Rabbi. The Chronicon Colmariense, for the year 1288, records the fact that the Jews promised the emperor Rudolph twenty thousand marks to bring to justice the murderers of the Jews of Boppard and Oberwessel, and release their learned and highly honored Rabbi. This Rabbi. whom the Chronicon describes as the head of the Jewish school and as being divinely honored by his fellow Jews, could be none other then Rabbi Meir. At the same time, Rabbi Hayyim b. Yehiel of Cologne tells us in one of his responsa that in 1287 twelve communities promised to give to King Rudolph twenty-three thousand pounds, if he would grant their request. The two sources speaking of promises made to the emperor of twenty thousand marks and twenty-three thousand pounds respectively, probably refer to the same request made to him, viz: justice and protection for the Jews of Boppard and Oberwessel, and the release of R. Meir. Thus we see that the Jews were prepared to expend an enormous sum of money in order to ransom their beloved teacher; why, then, was he not released?

Graetz and Back believe that R. Meir did not allow the communities to ransom him at such a high price, so that the Gentile should not resort to the capture of great rabbis as a means of extorting large sums of money from the Jews. This assumption is based on the statement of R. Solomon Luria …

This report heard by R. Solomon, however, cannot be entirely true. R. Asher, commenting on the Talmudic statement אין פודין את השבויים יותר מכדי דמיהם, explicitly decides that talmudic scholars should be ransomed at any price, and makes no mention of the heroic gesture ascribed to R. Meir. Further in a responsum written in prison R. Meir says:

ופי’ זרעים וטהרות שלי לכשאצא בשלום אטרח ברצון שיהיו מועתקים לך. ובתפיסתי את בוראי לא שכחתי ובתורתו וביראתו דבקתי. והמתנדבים יחזו את ה’ בנועם. וכתם זהב לא יועם.

This shows he expected to be released soon. On other occasions he also wrote that a Jew cannot expect to be released from the clutches of his captors unless he pays a heavy ransom. He must have expected to be released through the payment of a ransom. Furthermore, the clause והמתנבים יחזו את ה’ בנועם must be interpreted as an expression of thanks to those princes in Israel, the leaders of the various communities, who volunteered to raise the ransom money; while the words וכתם זהב לא יועם express a prayer and a wish that the payment of such money be effective in obtaining his release. Again, in the responsum of R. Hayyim b. Yehiel cited above, the author asserts that at first Rudolph promised to grant the request of the communities, but subsequently refused to live up to his promise; that nevertheless he enforced collection of the sum promised by the communities. Thus we learn from this source that the ransom money was paid, but that Rudolph still refused to release R. Meir.

R. Meir, therefore, remained in custody not because he forbade the communities to ransom him, but because of the treachery and double dealing of the emperor.1

In a footnote, Agus elaborates on the unreliability of Maharshal’s account:

We must draw a clear distinction between R. Solomon’s Responsum 29, where he inserts a copy of an historical document that was written by a contemporary of R. Meir, and this statement in the ים של שלמה, which was based on an oral report, notoriously subject to error. An oral statement made almost three hundred years after the event is usually devoid of historical truth.2

Baruch She’kivanti.

Agus’ marshalling of the ruling of Rosh that “talmudic scholars should be ransomed at any price” as evidence against the veracity of Maharshal’s account is rather careless; he neglects to mention that Maharshal himself already raises this question:

מתניתין אין פודין את השבויים יתר על כדי דמיהם שראוים למכור בשוק בתורת עבדות מפני תיקון העולם … [וכתבו] התוספות והרא”ש אחריהם … וכן תלמיד חכם שנשבה בהא לא תקון רבנן כדאמרינן פרק הניזקין דר’ יהושע פדה תינוק שבוי בדמים מרובים לפי שראוהו חריף ומפולפל ואפשר שיהא אדם גדול וכל שכן מי שהוא כבר אדם גדול. ע”כ.

שמעתי על מהר”ם מרוטנבר”ק … ותמה אני מאחר שהיה תלמיד חכם מופלג ולא היה כמותו בדורו בתורה ובחסידות, ושרי לפדותו בכל ממון שבעולם, ואם מרוב ענותנותו לא רצה להחזיק עצמו בתלמיד חכם מופלג, מכל מקום היה לו לחוש על ביטול תורה, כאשר כתב בעצמו, שהוא היה יושב בחושך וצלמות, בלי תורה ואורה, והיה מקונן שלא היו אצלו ספרי הפוסקים והתוספות, ואיך לא היה חש לעון ביטול תורה, מאחר שרבים צריכים לו.

ובודאי דעתו היה, שאם יפדו אותו, אם כן יש למיחש שלא יעשו כן כל השרים לתלמיד חכם המופלג שבדור, בעבור רוב הממון, עד שלא יספיק ממון הגולה לפדותם, ותשתכח התורה מישראל.

כי גם שמעתי שהיה בדעת אותו הצורר לתפוס גם הרא”ש תלמידו, ונודע לו, וברח לטוליטילא, ונצול ברחמיו וברב חסדיו.

ומשום הכי אמר החסיד, מוטב שתאבד מעט חכמה היתרת מישראל, ממה שתאבד חכמת התורה עיקר, וזה האות שאז פסקה אותו הדבר והשמד לתפוס חכמי הגולה3

Perhaps Agus feels that Maharshal’s resolution is unpersuasive, but it seems quite plausible to me. Maharshal is suggesting that although Tosafos and Rosh rule that the injunction of the Mishneh, which is possibly motivated by the concern of דלא לגרבו ולייתו טפי4, does not in general apply to the redemption of potential, and certainly actual, Talmidei Hachamim, nevertheless, when we judge that in a particular situation the payment of an exorbitant ransom may have dire long term consequences, it is wrong to pay it.

Alternatively, perhaps Agus’ primary argument is from Rosh’s failure to “[make any] mention of the heroic gesture ascribed to R. Meir”, since even if Maharshal is correct, Rosh should still have noted Maharam’s position as a counterpoint. I’m not completely persuaded by this argument either, since Rosh’s ruling, following Tosafos, permitting the redemption of Talmidei Hachamim, is a classic Tosafist resolution to a contradiction between two different Sugyos of the Gemara, and those familiar with the Piskei Ha’Rosh will recognize that in the vast majority of cases, Rosh merely records conclusions reached by him or his predecessors, derived from the Sugyos under discussion, without necessarily setting forth a systematic presentation of the Halachah.

Nevertheless, I do concede that Rosh’s omission of Maharam’s purported stand is at least something of an argument against the story’s veracity.

  1. Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg (Second Edition), Ktav, New York 1970, pp. 129-132 []
  2. p. 130 n. 20 []
  3. ים של שלמה, גיטין, פרק ד’ סימן ס”ו []
  4. See Gittin 45a []