12/26/2005

2nd Candle: Chanukah and Commercialism

These thoughts aren’t fully articulated, but I feel like I’m on to something, and would be grateful if anyone can help me flesh this out. Two quick stories:

  • Last week, in one of my proudest moments as a Jewish parent, my wife took my 5-year-old daughter to shop for a Chanukah present for a cousin with whom she ‘exchanged’ gifts. She couldn’t understand why we were buying a gift. After all, this cousin’s birthday wasn’t until the summer. I was very proud that, for my little girl, Chanukah hadn’t yet been commercialized.

  • Earlier today, I bought a 21-oz. bag of Reese’s Tree-shaped milk-and-white chocolate peanut-butter cups for a mere 99 cents. Comparing that to the buckfitty (thanks, Fred) that the qualitatively and quantitatively inferior chocolate coins cost, one is tempted to consider baptism.

Of course, the sale is directly linked to the fact that the hyper-commercialization of the American/Christian (let’s not be fooled by wishes for ‘Happy Holidays’; the sales start of the 26th) holiday season has passed its climax, and stores are purging whatever they have left (so stock up on Sukkah decorations).

It got me thinking that there are elements of our celebration of Chanukah which have a particularly anti-commercialist bent. The notion of ‘pirsumei nisa’, so central to the mitzvah of lighting candles, seeks to counter the adverse effects of hyper-commercialization which is endemic to our culture, and perhaps to the urbane and market-centered Greco-Roman world (see my discussion of R’ Shimon b. Yochai’s critique of ‘marketplaces’ here).

Two points from the Gemara in Shabbat 21b-22a, which discusses the lighting of Chanukah candles, reinforce this point. The first relates to the time of lighting, which is formulated as ‘until the feet are done at the marketplace’. Indeed, ideally the lights themselves should be as close to the public domain as possible. It almost as though the candles are intended to stand in opposition to the market, to serve as a reminder to those who traverse it that there is something else, something beyond, that ought to be kept in view.

The second point is a strange reiteration of Rav’s position that it’s forbidden to make use of the Chanukah lights. R’ Assi formulates it thus:
“It is forbidden to arrange (i.e., tabulate) money by the light [of the Chanukah candles]”
The Gemara concludes that this would be a disgrace of the mitzvah (and not because of any inherent sanctity of the candles, to the contrary of what we say in the ‘Ha-neirot Halalu’ paragraph after candle-lighting). Of all activities that can be performed by candle-light, the Gemara singles out the counting of money as being most incongruous with the theme of the Chanukah candles.
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