Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
18 December 197[?]:
During the power-cuts some people used yahrzeit candles or Chanucah candles for illumination. Is this permitted?
Both the Yahrzeit candle and the Chanucah candles may be used for the purpose you mention except that the Chanucah lights must not be used while they are actually burning on Chanucah.
A distinction is made in the sources between things used for sacred purposes (tashmishe kedusha) and things used in the performance of a mitzva (tashmishe mitzva). The former (e.g., an ark in which the sefer Torah is placed or a wrapping for a sefer Torah) must not be used for any secular purpose but the latter (e.g., a shofar or a talit) may.
There is a debate in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 48b) whether a thing set aside for sacred purposes may be used for secular ones (e.g., a cupboard set aside to be used as an ark). Now both the Yahrzeit candle (which is only a reminder of the deceased) and a Chanucah candle have no sanctity, and there can be objection to their use for secular purposes.
The Talmud (Shabbat 22a) states explicitly that a Chanucah lamp has no sanctity and that the reason one may not use it while it is actually burning on Chanucah is out of respect for the mitzva. (The reference to the Chanucah lights being “sacred,” Singer’s Prayer Book, p. 372, must not, consequently, be taken too literally, and means only that no use must be made of the candles while they are burning).
There is no problem at all about reading etc., by the light of the Sabbath candles since the original purpose of the Sabbath lights was to provide the home with illumination. It is thus permitted to enjoy the light of the Sabbath candles just as it is permitted to eat (indeed, it is a religious duty so to do) the special Sabbath foods.
By the side of the Chanucah candles it is customary to kindle another candle called the “shamash,” which is used to light the others. What is the reason for this?
Since it is forbidden to use the Chanucah lights themselves for any secular purpose, it is customary to have the shamash at their side so that if, inadvertently, such use is had of the lights it can be said that the use is, in fact, of the shamash.
The word shamash means “retainer.” Some moralists derive the lesson that those who assist whenever spiritual light is kindled perform as much a service as those who are mainly responsible. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
5 March 1971:
Would you say Purim is a religious festival ? If it is, why the jollification in synagogue?
Purim celebrates not only the deliverance of the Jews from Haman’s plot to destroy them but also the constant miracle of Jewish survival. To rejoice at this and to give thanks to God for it is surely “religious.” Unless religion is always to be identified with solemnity, it is hard to see why it should be incompatible with jollification. One of the reasons for Jewish survival has been the Jew’s capacity to laugh, not least at himself. Some modern thinkers have seen in the light-hearted Purim approach to the Jewish faith a means of finding, at least once a year, a measure of psychological relief from what otherwise might tend to become an oppressive burden.
I am told that God’s name is not mentioned in the megila which we read on Purim, and that there is no suggestion that the Jewish people’s deliverance from Haman was the work of God. How then did the book find its way into the Canon?
It is true that the megila is the only book in the Bible in which there is no reference to God. The Talmud (Megila 7a) records that as late as the second century CE it was still debated whether the book of Esther was written under the inspiration of the holy spirit, but eventually the book was admitted into the Canon. It has been noted that there are references to fasting in the megila (Chapters 4, vv 3 and 16; 9, 31) and this only seems to have significance in a religious context. Ibn Ezra, in the introduction to his Commentary to Esther, discusses the absence of God’s name from the book. He rejects the view that the words “another place” (Esther 4, 14) refer to God since the word makom (“place”) as a name for God is Rabbinic and, in any event, how can Mordechai refer to God as “another God”? Ibn Ezra advances the well-known suggestion that since the book was to be included in the annals of the Persian kings the name of God was intentionally omitted in order to prevent its being replaced by the name of a pagan deity.
A careful reading of the megila would seem, in fact, to show that the divine name was consciously avoided. The late Professor A. Marmorstein (of Jews’ College) made the interesting conjecture that the book was compiled during the Greek period and was influenced by the Greek idea that it was positively blasphemous to give God a name.
Other Jewish teachers see the megila as teaching the lesson that God is not only at work in the obvious miracle but is in control of His world at all times, behind the scenes, as it were, as in the story of the megila. Hence God is not mentioned directly, but His power is to be discerned in all things by men and women of faith. The suggestion has also been made that the divine name was omitted because the megila is read on Purim when a degree of levity prevails and His name might be taken lightly. But this is far-fetched. The Midrash homiletically reads every reference to ha-melech (“the king”) in the megila as referring to the King of the universe. This is why in some megilot each column begins with this word (the hamelech megila).
15 March 1985:
What is the background to the special mitzvot for Purim (outlined in an article on this page)?
Describing the celebration of Purim, the Book of Esther (9:22) states: “They should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.”
To rejoice adequately involves the participation of others, hence sending of presents. And it would not be a Jewish form of rejoicing if those in need were forgotten—hence the gifts to the poor.
Since the verse speaks of portions “one to another,” using the plural for “portions” and the singular for the recipient, and since “sending” is used, the rabbis understand the mitzva to consist of sending, by messenger, at least two “portions” to at least one person.
The portions should be of food or drink of such a nature that they be enjoyed on Purim, without requiring further preparation.
There is, of course, no objection to sending presents of books and so forth, and some do this; but that would be an extra, the mitzva itself being understood as gifts of food and drink.
Since the word “gifts,” not “portions,” is used and the word for the needy is in the plural (la’evyonim), the rabbis understand this third mitzva as the giving of a sum of money to at least two poor men. If there are no poor nearby, the money should be set aside to be given later.
That the poor must be cared for as part of the festive rejoicing is, in fact, found in the Torah: “You shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter . . . and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst” (Deuteronomy 16:11).
The Zohar observes that God says, “If the poor have a share in your rejoicing, it is called My festival; otherwise it may be your festival, but it is not Mine.”