How can we explain the mitzvah of the Chanukah light? What about two of its features? One, the lights are to be placed by the door of one’s house that is next to the street or public domain, and they must be placed on the left-hand side of the door. These features have deep symbolism: our tradition tells us that the “left hand side” and the “public domain” both stand for the realm of the profane; by placing the lights there, we are bringing the Divine light into the area of existence that is most resistant to it.
The mitzvah of the Chanukah lights is similar in two respects to that of the mezuzah: both have to be placed by the side of the door of a house or courtyard, and both must be set on the “outside.” However, there are also two differences between them. A mezuzah must be fixed on the right-hand side of the door, while Chanukah lights are to be set on the left. Though both are placed outside, in the case of the mezuzah, this is only to mark the entrance. Chanukah lights, however, are intended to illuminate the outside, the public domain. The mezuzah points inward, while the menorah shines outward.
These points of difference may, in fact, be connected. We learn that the public domain, rishut ha’rabim, literally the domain of the many, suggests the idea of multiplicity or a lack of unity; the left-hand side is the name for the source of life in which there is a separation and disunity. Public domain and left-hand side, therefore, are related, both symbols for the dimension of division and alienation from G-d.
Interestingly, the precept of mezuzah is said to be equal in importance to all the other mitzvot together; it is said to include all other mitzvot within itself. Indeed, almost all mitzvot share the two features that characterize the mezuzah: the idea of the right hand, and of being directed inward.
Most mitzvot are to be performed with the right hand. For example, burnt offerings were vitiated if they were not offered with the right hand. Certain commandments must be performed indoors, and it remains evident that those that may be done outside have no integral connection with the idea of the public domain, since they may also be performed indoors. In short, they have no connection with place at all.
The Chanukah light – occupying the left-hand side and intended for the outside – has a different character to almost all other precepts in Judaism. The difference between the mezuzah (and all other mitzvot) and the Chanukah light is analogous to that of positive and negative commandments. The positive are those that can only be performed with objects that belong to the domain of the permitted; the negative covers the (non-performance of the) forbidden.
Every performance of a mitzvah brings spiritual light to the world, in the form of Divine light. The light that is drawn down by the fulfilment of a positive mitzvah is of the kind that can be internalized in the act itself, clothed or contained within it. The act “clothes” the light in the same way as the body “clothes” the soul. A Divine light that can be contained in such a way is finite; it takes on the character of that which contains it, and cannot descend to the realm of the impure or forbidden.
The light that is released by the fulfilment of a negative command, however, is infinite. It cannot be contained by the forbidden (or indeed by any) act, nor does it share its character, so it can be released only by refraining. Only an infinite light can reach that far, into impurity, in order to be undimmed where it shines. The Chanukah light is of this infinite kind; it brings light to the left-hand side and the public domain, both symbols of impurity and alienation from G-d. However, Chanukah light goes even beyond the negative commandment. Recall that it is, in fact, a positive command. Chanukah lights illuminate and purify, rather than negate, the world of outside, just as a positive command purifies the world of inside.
This is the connection between the Chanukah lights and the Torah, which is also called “a light.” The Torah also specifies acts that are forbidden and things that are impure. Through studying the Torah, the sparks of holiness embedded in the realm of the forbidden are released and elevated.
The miracle of Chanukah is apparent not only in the fact that “for your people, Israel, You worked a great deliverance and redemption as at this day” – a deliverance from a people who were “impure,” “wicked” and “arrogant,” and despite their being “strong” and “many”; but also in the result that “afterwards, Your children came into Your most holy house, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your sanctuary, and kindled lights in Your holy courtyards.”
May each and every one of us recognize the beauty in the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles, and may we be blessed with a fun, delicious and wonderful eight-day festival.
Esther Tauby is a local educator, counselor and writer. This article is based on the talks of the Lubavitch Rebbe, OBM.