Las Vegas’s Or Bamidbar Chabad Sephardi synagogue at Chanukah. (photo from Rabbi Yossi Shuchat)
The Las Vegas Strip is where all of the action is, an endless sea of attractions and hotels with casinos, exhibits and more. These hotels cater to a tourist’s every whim. However, during my last trip to Vegas, several years ago, I spent a majority of my time off the strip, away from the bright lights and glitz.
I met up with a group of friends who I had spent a year with in Arad, Israel, in 1990-91, on a World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) program that was for young Jewish professionals thinking of making aliyah. This was our second excursion to Las Vegas and members of our group hailed from Paris, New York, Boston, Toronto and Seattle. On our first trip, we stayed in the Egyptian-themed Luxor Hotel; this time, we stayed at Bally’s Hotel, in the heart of the strip.
We spent our first night wandering around the area near our hotel. The next day, on Friday afternoon, we ventured further afield to eat a fabulous lunch at an Israeli kosher restaurant called the Jerusalem Grill, which also offers pre-Shabbat delivery to hotels. As we dined on authentic Israeli dishes that could have come straight from the Holy Land, we reminisced about the good times we had had on our program and the many trips we took to explore Israel together.
We then explored the Palms Casino Resort and the Rio Hotel and Casino, which were near the restaurant. The Rio, where we would be going to see magicians Penn and Teller perform on Saturday night, after Shabbat, was also hosting the World Series of Poker.
On the Friday night, a few of my WUJS friends and I went to Or Bamidbar Chabad – East Las Vegas, a unique Sephardi synagogue, whose Chassidic spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok (Yossi) Shuchat, is from Venezuela. I had made arrangements with the rabbi prior to Shabbat to attend services and he graciously invited my friends and I to dinner at his house afterwards.
The synagogue features a picture of the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) but, other than that, it is a typical Sephardi house of worship, with the bimah in the middle, and Sephardi prayer books and a Sephardi Torah case. I felt right at home, as I have prayed at Sephardi and Chassidic congregations all over the world and have an affinity for the customs and traditions of both streams of Judaism.
After some spirited davening and a great drash by the rabbi, we and a few members of the congregation followed the rabbi to his home, where we were treated to a scrumptious Shabbat meal by his wife, Miriam Bryna Shuchat, who is co-director of Or Bamidbar.
Most of the guests were Sephardi and from Las Vegas, but there was also Baruch, a visitor from New York who was in town to play at the poker tournament. There was also Walter, a Jew who had moved to Las Vegas from Boston and, at one time, was a boxer and a blackjack dealer. After great conversation and food, I retired to a recently renovated mobile home right across from the synagogue, which was reserved for guests – and I had the honour of being the first one!
The next morning, I participated in the services and got to chant Birkat HaKohanim, the ancient priestly blessing that Sephardi shuls – including Beth Hamidrash in Vancouver – do every day, but Ashkenazi ones do not. At lunch, I had a lively discussion with a former Vancouverite who was encouraging me to leave Canada and move to Las Vegas’s thriving Jewish community, with its approximately 80,000 Jews, 20 synagogues, many Jewish schools and several kosher restaurants. When they had lived in Vancouver, both he and his mom had attended services at the Kollel and are fans of Rabbi Shmulik Yeshayahu. Interestingly, since my Vegas visit, the Pacific Torah Institute, which was located in Vancouver, has relocated to Las Vegas and merged with a local yeshivah.
After services, I was contemplating walking back to the hotel in the sweltering 32°C heat, but Walter, the former blackjack dealer, invited me to spend the afternoon at his house. It was a relaxing, enlightening and cool afternoon. Walter regaled me with stories about what Vegas was like when he arrived there in 1956. At that time in the city, which was founded by notorious Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel, most of the hotels were owned by Jews and, so, as a blackjack dealer – at a variety of casinos, including the Flamingo and Desert Inn – Walter got to know many of them. He also got to know Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and other members of the Rat Pack, as well as boxer Rocky Marciano. (When Walter was a boxer himself, he also met Muhammad Ali.)
After my stay at Walter’s – where I even got a Shabbat nap in – he gave me a lift to the Rio, where I met my friends to see the Penn and Teller show. The poker tournament was also in full swing, of course, but I don’t know how Baruch fared.
I spent my last night in Vegas before returning home to Vancouver with my friends at a glitzy hotel watching a magic show. However, while I enjoyed all that I did, the highlight of my trip – in addition to hanging out with friends – was the gracious hospitality of the folks in the Jewish community. I will always remember my wonderful Shabbat in Las Vegas at Or Bamidbar Chabad.
David J. Litvak is a prairie refugee from the North End of Winnipeg who is a freelance writer, former Voice of Peace and Co-op Radio broadcaster and an “accidental publicist.” His articles have been published in the Forward, Globe and Mail and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His website is cascadiapublicity.com.
The schools of Hillel and Shammai debated how the chanukiyah’s candles should be lit. (photo by Gil-Dekel via commons.wikimedia.org)
The following is an excerpt from the Chanukah chapter of Inside Time: A Chassidic Perspective on the Jewish Calendar, published by the Meaningful Life Centre.
“The School of Shammai says: on the first day, one lights eight lights; from here on, one progressively decreases. The School of Hillel says: on the first day, one lights a single light; from here on, one progressively increases.” (Talmud, Shabbat 21b)
Visit, or simply pass by, a Jewish home on any of the eight evenings of Chanukah, and there will be the lights burning in the doorway or window proclaiming the celebration of the Chanukah miracle to the street and to the world at large. They will also be proclaiming which night of Chanukah it is. On each of the eight nights of Chanukah, a different number of flames is kindled, expressing that night’s particular place in the festival. On the first night of Chanukah, there will be one flame illuminating the street; on the second night, two flames, and so on.
Actually, the Talmud records two opinions on how each Chanukah night should identify itself and radiate its unique light into the world. This was one of the halachic issues debated by the two great academies of Torah law, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. The sages of Hillel held that the Chanukah lights should increase in number each night, in the familiar ascending order. The sages of Shammai, however, were of the opinion that eight flames should be lit on the first night, seven on the second, and so on, in descending number, until the eighth night of Chanukah, when a single flame should be lit.
The Talmud explains that the sages of Shammai saw the Chanukah lights as representing the “upcoming days” of the festival – the number of days still awaiting realization. Thus, the number of lights decreases with each passing night, as another of Chanukah’s days is “expended.” On the first night, we have eight full days of Chanukah ahead of us; on the second night, seven days remain, and so on. The sages of Hillel, on the other hand, see the lights as representing Chanukah’s “outgoing days,” so that the ascending number of flames reflects the accumulation of actualized milestones in our eight-day quest for light.
In practice, we follow the opinion of the Hillel school, and an ascending number of lights chronicle the progress of the festival. This is even alluded to in the very name of the festival: the Hebrew word Chanukah forms an acronym of the sentence “chet neirot vehalachah k’veit Hillel” (“eight lights, and the law follows the School of Hillel”).
Our acceptance of Hillel’s perspective on Chanukah is also expressed by the name traditionally given to the eighth day of Chanukah – the only day of the festival to be distinguished by a name of its own – Zot Chanukah.
The name Zot Chanukah is based on a phrase from that day’s Torah reading, and literally means, “This is Chanukah.” This is in keeping with the Hillelian vision of Chanukah, in which the final day of Chanukah – the day on which all eight days of light have been actualized – marks the climax of the festival. Only on the eighth day can we say, “This is Chanukah. Now we ‘have’ the entire Chanukah.” (From the Shammaian perspective, the first day of Chanukah would be Zot Chanukah.)
What is the basis for these two visions of Chanukah? And why is the view of the School of Hillel so decisively embraced, to the extent that it is implicit in the very name Chanukah, and in the name given to its culminating day?
There are two primary ways in which one might view something: a) in light of its potential, or b) by its actual, manifest state. We might say of a certain person: “He has tremendous potential, but his actual performance is poor.” The same can be said of a business venture, a relationship, an experience, or anything else. Or, we might say: “There’s potential for disaster here, but it can be contained and prevented from actualizing.”
Some of us are potential-oriented, which means that we would admire the person, invest in the venture, stick it out with the relationship and treasure the experience – depending upon its potential. Some of us are more actual-oriented, viewing things in terms of their actual, tactual impact upon our reality.
This is a recurring theme in many of the disputes between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. For example, the sages of Shammai consider the moment of the Exodus to have been the eve of Nissan 15, when the people of Israel were free to leave Egypt, while the sages of Hillel place the moment at midday of the following day, when the Jews actually exited Egypt’s physical borders. In another debate, the sages of Shammai consider a fish susceptible to ritual impurity from the moment the fisherman pulls his catch out of the water, since at this point the fish has been removed from the environment in which it might possibly live; the sages of Hillel disagree, contending that as long as the fish is actually alive (though its potential for continued life has been destroyed), it is immune to contamination, as are all other living plants and animals.
This is also the basis of their differing perspectives on Chanukah. The School of Shammai, which views things in terms of their potential, sees the first day of Chanukah, with its potential for eight days of light, as the point in which all eight days are “there.” After one day has “gone by” and passed from potential into actuality, there are left only seven days in their most meaningful form – the potential form. The sages of Hillel, on the other hand, see the actual state as the more significant. To them, the eighth day of Chanukah, when all eight dimensions of the festival have been actualized, is when the festival is at its fullest and most “real.”
We are creatures of the actual. We cannot live on potential nourishment, or be emotionally satisfied by potential relationships. On the whole, we judge people by their actual conduct, as opposed to their potential to behave a certain way. Reality, to us, is what is, not what might be.
This is largely due to the fact that we are physical beings. It is a most telling idiosyncrasy of our language that “immaterial” means “insignificant”: if we cannot touch it or see it, it’s not real to us. Also, because of our finite and limited nature, we possess potentials that we will never actualize because we haven’t enough energy, resources or willpower to carry them out, or simply because we won’t live long enough to do so. So, the existence of a potential or possibility for something is not enough, for how do we know that it will amount to anything? Indeed, we often judge a thing’s potential by the actual: if this much has been actualized, this “proves” that there is potential worthy of regard.
Envision, however, a being who is neither physical nor finite; a being not limited by space, time or any other framework. In such a being, potential does not lack actualization, as everything is “as good as done.” On the contrary: potential is the purest and most perfect form of every reality – the essence of the thing, as it transcends the limitations and imperfections imposed upon it when it is translated into physical actuality.
For G-d, then, the potential is a higher form of being than the actual. This is why we say that, for G-d, the creation of the world did not constitute an “achievement” or even a “change” in His reality. The potential for creation existed in Him all along, and nothing was “added” by its translation into actuality. It is only we, the created, who gained anything from the actual creation of the world.
So, when the sages of Shammai and Hillel debate the question of which is more significant from the perspective of Torah law, the actual or the potential, they are addressing the more basic question: Whose Torah is it – ours or G-d’s? When Torah law enjoins us to commemorate the Exodus, when it legislates the laws of ritual impurity or when it commands us to kindle the Chanukah lights, does it regard these phenomena from the perspective of its divine author, in whom the potential is the ideal state, or from the perspective of its human constituency, who equate real with actual?
Whose Torah is it, ours or G-d’s? Both Shammai and Hillel would agree that it is both.
The Torah is the wisdom and will of G-d. But, as we proclaim in the blessing recited each morning over the Torah, G-d has given us His Torah, for He has delegated to mortal man the authority to interpret it and apply it. Thus, G-d did not communicate His will to us in the form of a detailed manifesto and a codified list of instructions. Instead, He communicated a relatively short (79,976-word) Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses), together with the Oral Torah – a set of guidelines by which the Written Torah is to be interpreted, decoded, extrapolated and applied to the myriad possibilities conjured up by the human experience.
So, while the entire body of legal, homiletic, philosophical and mystical teaching we know as Torah is implicit within the Written Torah, G-d designated the human mind and life as the tools that unlock the many layers of meaning and instruction contained within its every word.
The Torah is thus a partnership of the human and the divine, where a kernel of divine wisdom germinates in the human mind, gaining depth, breadth and definition, and is actualized in the physicality of human life. In this partnership, our human finiteness and subjectivity become instruments of the divine truth, joining with it to create the ultimate expression of divine immanence in our world – the Torah.
Which is the more dominant element of Torah, divine revelation or human cognition? Which defines its essence? What is Torah – G-d’s vision of reality or man’s endeavor to make his world a home for G-d? At times, the Torah indicates the one; at times, the other. We have the rule that “The words of Torah are not susceptible to contamination.” A person who is in a state of ritual impurity (tum’ah) is forbidden to enter the Holy Temple; but there is no prohibition for him to study Torah. Why is he forbidden to enter a holy place but permitted to think and speak holy words? Because the Torah is not only holy (i.e., an object subservient to G-d and receptive to His presence) – it is divine. It is G-d’s word, and the divine cannot be compromised by any impurity.
On the other hand, another law states that, “A teacher of Torah who wishes to forgive an insult to his honor can forgive it.” This is in contrast to a king who, if insulted, has no right to forgive the insult, and has no recourse but to punish the one who insulted him. For a king’s honor is not his personal possession, but something that derives from his role as the sovereign of his people; one who insults the king insults the nation, and this is an insult that not even the king has the authority to forgive. Yet does not one who insults a Torah scholar insult the Torah? How does the scholar have the right to forgive the Torah’s insult? The explanation given is that “the Torah is his.” He who studies Torah acquires it as his own; G-d’s wisdom becomes his wisdom.
Whose Torah is it – ours or G-d’s? Both descriptions are valid; both are part of the Torah’s own self-perception. In certain laws and circumstances, we find the divinity of Torah emphasized; in others, its human proprietorship.
Thus, in a number of laws, the schools of Shammai and Hillel debate which definition of Torah is the predominant one. The sages of Shammai believe that in these particular applications of Torah law, the divinity of the Torah predominates. The Torah’s perspective is synonymous with G-d’s perspective, meaning that the potential of a thing is its primary truth. The sages of Hillel see these laws as belonging to the “human” aspect of Torah, so that the Torah’s vision of reality is the human, actual-based perspective.
The human festival
In the great majority of disputes between the sages of Shammai and Hillel, the final halachic ruling follows the opinion of the School of Hillel. Halachah is the application of Torah to day-to-day life. In this area of Torah, it is the human element which predominates; here, reality is defined in terms of the actual and tactual, rather than the potential.
But nowhere is the supremacy of the Hillelian view more emphasized than in the debate on Chanukah, where the very name of the festival, and the name given to its final day, proclaim that “the law follows the School of Hillel.” For Chanukah is the festival that, more than any other, underscores the human dynamic in Torah.
As noted above, the Torah consists of two parts: a) the divinely dictated words of the Written Torah; b) the Oral Torah, also communicated by G-d, but delegated to man. In the Oral Torah, G-d provides the guidelines and principles, while human beings follow these guidelines and apply these principles to derive and express the divine will.
The Oral Torah has two basic functions: to interpret the Written Torah and to legislate the necessary laws, ordinances and customs required to preserve the Torah and Jewish life through the generations.
Most of the festivals are explicitly ordained in the Written Torah. This is not to say that there is no “human element” involved in the biblically ordained festivals: the Oral Torah is still required to clarify each festival’s laws and observances. For example, the Written Torah commands us to dwell in a sukkah and take the “four kinds” on Sukkot, but the Oral Torah is needed to interpret the oblique biblical allusions that tell us how a sukkah is to be constructed and which plant species are to be taken. Still, the festivals themselves were instituted by direct divine revelation.
There are two festivals, however, that are rabbinical institutions: Purim and Chanukah. These belong to the second function of the Oral Torah – to institute laws and observances that derive not from a verse in the Written Torah, but which arise out of the historical experience of the people of Israel.
These, too, are Torah, for they were enacted in accordance with the principles revealed at Sinai. Before reading the Megillah on Purim or kindling the Chanukah lights, we say: “Blessed are You, G-d … Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to read the Megillah,” or “… to kindle the Chanukah lamp.” G-d is commanding us to observe these mitzvot, for it is He who granted the leaders of each generation the mandate to institute laws, ordinances and festivals. Yet, in these festivals, it is the human aspect of the Torah which predominates, while the divine aspect is more subdued.
Of the two rabbinical festivals, Chanukah is even more “human” than Purim. Purim was instituted during the era of prophecy, when G-d still communed directly with the greatest individuals of the generation. The story of Purim was written down and incorporated within the Holy Scriptures that are appended to the Written Torah. Thus, while Purim is technically an Oral Torah festival, it is closely related to the Written Torah.
Chanukah, however, occurred several hundred years later, when prophecy had ceased and the canon of the 24 books of the Tanach (Bible) had been closed. It thus belongs wholly to the Oral Torah – to the predominantly human aspect of the partnership. So, Chanukah is the environment in which the Hillelian perspective on Torah – Torah as it relates to our tactual experience of the world in which we live – reigns supreme.