Friday, 15 November 2013

Removing the Shel

This is my first time writing a blog. In this blog I'd like to answer any questions that people have in Judaism in the form of a She'ela u'teshuva - a question and a developed answer. First up is a question raised on the exact wording of the berakhot recited on the festival Hanukah.

Q: What is the significance of having the word של/shel in the first berakha of lighting the Hanukah candles?

A: There is a disagreement over the text of the first berakha said before lighting the Hanukah lights. Ashkenazi and a minority of Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese communities, Gibraltar and others) say the berakha is להדליק נר של חנוכה while most Sephardim recite להדליק נר חנוכה. So what's the significance of one little word של meaning of? To light the Hanukah candle or to light the candle of Hanukah? There doesn't seem to be too big a difference in English or in the simple understanding of the Hebrew.

One of my favorite books to look up when it comes to differences in text or custom are the books of Rabbi Shem Tov Gaguine. His set of sefarim are called the Keter Shem Tov and are an encyclopedia of explanations of different texts and minhagim. He writes (volumes 1-2 p.515) that the text in the gemara (Shabbat 23a)  uses the word של and that is followed by the Rambam, Rav Amram Gaon, The Tur and others. Haham Ovadiah Yosef zt"l also adds in Hazon Ovadiah that the Rif and the Rosh follow the text of the gemara.

However, Maran Rav Yosef Caro in Shulkan Arukh brings the berakha without the word של. Rav Gaguine explains why Rav Caro does not follow the gemara and the Rif and the Rambam by explaining that although the text of the Babylonian Talmud uses the word של the Yerushalmi version is על מצות הדלקת נר חנוכה (which no one uses today) and the version in Masekhet Soferim is להדליק נר חנוכה.

So how did the version of Masekhet Soferim which is not the usual source for halakha become the position of the majority of Sephardic communities? Haham Ovadiah writes (Hazon Ovadiah on Hanukah p.125 footnote 1) that Maran Caro bases his position on the words of the Arizal. The reason that the Arizal prefers the berakha without the word של is because the phrase להדליק נר חנוכה can be rearranged to be the abbreviation נח"ל. נח"ל in turn is an abbreviation of נצר חסד לאלפים and נפשנו חכתה לה

The Hida in Birkei Yosef gives a beautiful explanation of the significance of not using של. He explains that when we use the word של when lighting Shabbat candles it is because we are using the light and it provides shalom bayit - peace in the home. But on Hanukah we are not permitted to use the light for anything just to look at them. A second reason is that on Shabbat there are other mitzvot like making kiddush and having 3 meals but on Hanukah the lights are the only mitzvah so no connective word is needed.

To add to the Kabbalistic direction there are 13 words without using the word shel which is the gematria for the word אחד meaning Hashem is one. There are also 13 words in the second berakha too. 13+13 = 26 which is the gematria for the name of G0d which is not pronounced. The Maharshal combines the two words to form שלחנוכה in order to keep the best of both worlds of keeping the version of the gemara and also having 13 words for kabbalah.

I ponder to think if before the Arizal all Sephardim said של. But such is the influence of Kabbalah in our liturgy it is hard to imagine a world without it. But it wasn't just the Arizal that brought Kabbalah to our liturgy the Hida had a huge impact. Today with the Iraqi dominance of Sephardic practice, especially in Israel, Sephardic siddurim no longer even mention the word shel. 

Everyone should light the hanukiah in accordance with their tradition. Turkish Jews today do not use the word של while lighting the hanukiah. I hope you all found this illuminating! Special thanks to Yossi Babani for asking the question and Jack Babani for research on this topic.

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