Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays
Tonight, immediately after the Sabbath is over, we shall be confronted with the observance of two precious mitzvot: the kindling of the Hanukkah candles, for Hanukkah begins tonight; and the Havdalah, which marks the end of Sabbath. The question of which shall be performed first is one which engaged the attention of some of the most illustrious latter-day talmudic sages, and the solution most Jews have accepted is one which, implicitly and indirectly, expresses a great idea in Jewish ethics and moral philosophy.
The Shulhan Arukh and Rama (R. Mosheh Isserles, the chief commentator on it) record with approval the custom of kindling the Hanukkah light first, and only then reciting the Havdalah (Orah Hayyim 681:2). Other authorities, such as the author of Turei Zahav (Taz), and many others, emphatically disagree. They insist that we ought to recite the Havdalah first and only afterwards light the Hanukkah candles.
While the controversy involves a large number of proofs and counter-proofs of halakhic dialectic, which are too involved to present completely at this time, it will, however, be worth our while to examine the basic ideas involved in this controversy.
The Shulhan Arukh, Rama, and all those who insist upon the precedence of Hanukkah candles over Havdalah base their verdict largely upon the principle of pirsumei nissa, the “publicizing of the miracle.” The Hanukkah candles, after all, are reminders of the miracles God performed for our ancestors ba-yamim ha-hem ba-zeman ha-zeh—“in those days, at this time”: the cruse of oil that lasted eight days, the victory of the sainted few over the diabolical many, and so on. Basic to the mitzvah of ner Hanukkah is this concept of pirsumei nissa—to make the divine miracle known amongst all peoples. That is why we are to place the Hanukkah candles in a conspicuous place—windows, doorways, and so on. Therefore, since pirsumei nissa is basic to the whole festival of Hanukkah, it requires of us to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah as soon as the holiday begins—before any other activity, sacred or profane, is undertaken. Before eating or drinking, or even Havdalah, we are to light the Hanukkah candles, and by this act of performing the mitzvah before any other, we achieve pirsumei nissa. We let everyone know the greatness of the miracle, one which causes us to hurry and rush to perform the commandment.
The Taz and other posekim, however, require Havdalah before kindling the Hanukkah lights because they make use of a different and, they maintain, more fundamental principle, and that is the talmudic rule of tadir ve-she-eino tadir, tadir kodem: if I have before me two mitzvot to perform, and one is tadir, or constant, namely a frequent mitzvah—salient, observed regularly and periodically at set intervals, while the other is eino tadir, an irregular mitzvah, performed infrequently, at only rare times, then tadir kodem—the usual, regular, more frequent mitzvah comes first. Hence, since Havdalah is tadir, because it is observed every single week of the year, whereas kindling the Hanukkah lights is eino tadir, for it is observed only during the eight-day period of the year, Havdalah takes priority over Ner Hanukkah.
Reduced to its essentials, then, this halakhic controversy is based upon a clash of two principles: pirsumei nissa, the dramatization and publication of the unusual, the supernatural; and tadir kodem, the precedence of the regular, the constant, the usual, and the well-known.
It is remarkable that in our current practice we reflect both contradictory opinions. Faced with these two opposing decisions, the great majority of observant Jews have reconciled the two views by distinguishing between the synagogue and the home. In the synagogue we follow the practice of the Shulhan Arukh and Rama, and we light the Hanukkah lights first, thus emphasizing the principle of pirsumei nissa; and at home we usually follow the verdict of the Taz, making Havdalah first, and thus giving greater weight to the rule of tadir ve-she-eino tadir, tadir kodem (that is, the usual, the regular, the periodic is more important and thus comes first).
It is amazing how, in deciding between two technical halakhic opinions, the Jewish masses of men, women, and children have indirectly and perhaps unconsciously expressed a whole view of life, a substantial philosophy of Judaism in its public and private aspects. For the concepts of pirsumei nissa and tadir kodem are two fundamental approaches to life—on the one hand, the need for pirsum, for publicizing, for the demonstration of the unusual, the dramatic, and the record-shattering; and on the other hand, the transcendent importance of constancy, of tadir, of the prosaic, regular, and bland routine of the religious life. What our people did by its reconciliation of these two opposing views is to say that each one is valid, each one has its importance, but each has its own place: in the synagogue, in the public domain, in the open arena of Jewish life, there we kindle Hanukkah lights before Havdalah; there we recognize the value of pirsumei nissa, of emphasizing the dramatic, the unusual, the outstanding, the miraculous. But at home, be-tzin‘ah, in the privacy of one’s hearth and family, there, while pirsum is recognized as important, the value of tadir is far more significant and necessary. There we must first be sure that our daily lives, in both ritual and ethics—bein adam laMakom and bein adam lahavero—are regulated by the divine word through the wisdom of Torah. There we need not and ought not play up the spectacular and the dramatic; that can wait for later. First, one must be a good Jew in the daily, ordinary, and therefore realistic and reliable sense.
This is a rewarding thought that Hanukkah teaches us by taking second place to Havdalah in our homes tonight. It reminds us that we ought not to feel disappointed if we do not experience the kind of unusual sensation or uplift at home that we do when we attend rallies. It encourages us to continue on our modest paths of tadir, quietly observing God’s Torah, of developing nobility of character, of building a family and serving our fellow man, of bringing even a little light into the lives of our loved ones and into the heart of the stranger. It reminds us that if we dedicate ourselves to the sacred pattern of the Torah’s mitzvot, then surely the pirsumei nissa will come eventually, for there is a heroism in this modesty of daily Jewish life, a heroism and a poetry and a dramatic quality that makes itself felt not in a momentary clap of thunder, not as an extraordinary revelation, but as a long and slow but beautiful symphony that we first begin to appreciate as we go on with the accumulation of years of such harmonious living tadir in the service of God and man. Then, when Havdalah gives way to Hanukkah, does the miracle of the commonplace become evident, then do we realize that there is a heroism in modesty, that the ordinary possesses its own kind of extraordinary music of the soul, and that silence can be more meaningful than the most persuasive oratory.
“Not by power nor by might, but by the spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6).
Then we discover that ultimately Havdalah yields to Hanukkah.