The Candles of the Menorah
by Tzvi Avraham
Chanukah is a good time to ponder the meaning of the Menorah in the Temple, both because the eight Chanukah lights commemorate a miracle that happened to the seven branched Menorahת and because of the profound connection between the two suggested by the midrash cited by Rashi[i] that when Aharon was distressed by not participating in the offerings of the Nasiim at the initiation of the Ohel Moed, Hashem consoled him telling him that he was destined to something greater: the mitzvah of the Menorah, which the Ramban explains was intended to suggest the Chanukah Menorah.
The Midrah Tidasheh of R. Chaninah ben Dusah[ii] describing how the entire creation is suggested by features and kalim of the Beis Hamikdosh, tells us that the 7 candles of the Menorah are identified correspond to the seven planets, i.e., the seven planets visible without a telescope known in ancient times: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon. (The ancients numbered the Sun and the Moon among the planets.) That interpretation is also found in the Targum Yonasan.[iii]
The medieval Castilian mekubal Yosef Gikitilia also mentions it in his sefer Ginas Egoz[iv] while declaring, in keeping with midrashim and the opinions of most Rishonim, including Rabbeinu Elazar Hagadol, Harokeach, the Ramban[v], the Nimukei Yosef[vi], the Ran[vii] among others that “without a doubt,” the influence of planets governs the world subject to Hashem’s supervision and control. The seven candles, he tells us, correspond to the seven planets, and he invites the reader to ponder their deeper meaning. Let’s take up that task tonight, because we have help at hand: the interpretation of the planets which Rabbeinu Elazar Hagadol, the Rokeach, gives in his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah.
Everyone knows that Avraham Avinu was an astrologer. It’s even mentioned by Rishonim as a decisive justification of astrology. So it’s no surprise that Sefer Yetzirah, which was written by Avraham Avinu, has a considerable astrological content. In the fourth chapter, which discusses the creation of the planets, the Rokeach gives us his interpretation of the planets while explaining why each is assigned to rule its specific day and night of the week. His discussion of the planets complements the considerable and detailed astrological science in his magnum opus, Sod Razei. His astrological science is substantially the same as the Ibn Ezra’s – (Ibn Ezra was a renowned astrologer and wrote 12 treatises on astrology, some of which were translated into Latin and had a profound impact on the western tradition of astrology.) but his interpretations express ancient traditions transmitted to him through his Rebbe, R’ Yehudah HaChasid, his father, R. Yehudah b’rebbe Kolonimus - (so he tells us in his introduction to Sodei Razei and at the end of his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah) - a kabalistic tradition which flowered in the 12th and 13th centuries in Germany which we now call Chissidus Ashkenaz.
Saturn[viii], he tells us, is, as all agreed, the most distant of the planets. The ancient and medieval astrologers used the terms hot and cold, wet and dry when they described the nature of the planets, and Saturn, all agreed, is cold and dry. But the Rokeach explains why. Saturn is located just below the upper waters that are cold to protect the world from the heat of the angelic worlds above them. That cold is what makes him cold. Dry? He leaves that to us, but its pretty clear to me: His dryness is his thirst: he thirsts to know the world above the upper waters, and, for that reason, has little interest in worldly matters and tends to exercise his typically “gvuradik” influence that would induce us to turn from them to higher things. Saturn, the Rokeach adds, is Moshe Rabbeinu.
Jupiter is the next planet, just below Saturn. He is moderately warm and moderately moist, i.e., he has the qualities that promote life and virtue. He is universally identified with all the endeavors and institutions that promote prosperity and express the dignity of man. I like to think of Jupiter as turning the vision of Saturn into the spiritual ideals that bring dignity and prosperity to all who live by them. And I think that the Rokeach would agree, for he identifies Jupiter with Moshe’s brother, Aharon Hakohen, Kohen Gadol and celebrated for his compassion and pursuit of peace. He personifies the dignity of man in the service of Hashem.
After Jupiter, Mars. Mars is what we’d expect Mars to be, and what he is for Chazal: choleric, inclined to violence and aggression: the spirit of the soldier. But also the virtues of the soldier: the obedience, courage, persistence determination, decisiveness. And we need that, for that’s the kind of strength it takes to fulfill the ideals of Jupiter in this dark and chaotic world. Mars, the Rokeach tells us, is David Hamelech and the spirit of the Moshiach.
After Mars, the Sun.
The Sun is malchus, but not just any malchus, for three letters of Hashem’s name are inscribed on him. He is the proximal source of the warmth that sustains life and light that bestows sight, which is why he rules the first hour of the erev yom chimishi, when animals of all kinds were created.[ix] We might think of the light of the Sun as the shadow of Hashem’s Majesty.
Just below the Sun: Venus. The Rokeach’s description of Venus might be summarized as: the love of life that Hashem brings forth through the heat and light of the Sun. L’chaim!
Below Venus: Mercury. Every night of the week is ruled by one of the planets. Mercury rules Motzei Shabbos, erev yom rishon, the Rokeach tells us, because Mercury represents the chochmah with which Hashem created the world on the evening following the Shabbos that preceded the creation of the world.
And then the Moon, who governs leyl vav, i.e., Thursday night, because the Moon has the power to incline the heart to good or to evil, and it was then that Hashem thought of creating man with the freedom to do good and evil.[x] That is, the Moon which moves to good or evil also represents the freedom human beings have to choose to do good or to choose to do evil, for “just as Hashem gave power and dominion to the planets to exercise a good or evil influence, He gave power and dominion to man to subdue his natural impulses, and do what is good and right in the eyes of Hashem.” [xi]
The Rokeach tells us that the planets govern the entire natural order, even the heart—but not the will, and what he describes, with his interpretation of the planets, are the seven principles that govern the created world and the heart (though not the will) of man, for whom the world was created.
1. The spiritual longing to know the truths of Heaven and the joy of the angels—i.e., the Love of Hashem that makes it hard for a person to see any value in the pleasures of this world—Saturn
2. The ideals which move us to live in this world in a way that is worthy of that vision—Jupiter
3. The determination and drive to implement those ideals against the resistance of the dark forces that resist them--Mars
4. The creative force which brings forth the life of this world in which Hashem so delights—the Sun
5. Delight in this life brought forth by Hashem as a gift to all creatures—Venus
6. The understanding of world--the understanding of life--that empowers us to use the world and manage our lives to fulfill the Divine purpose of creation—Mercury
7. The freedom of will which introduces responsibility, merit, the possibility of sin, and the powers of darkness with which man must contend—the Moon
Even more succinctly:
1. The yearning to be close to Hashem – Saturn
2. The ideals and moral standards inspired by that yearning – Jupiter
3. The determination to implement those ideals - Mars
4. The creativity that brings forth a world in which those ideals are to be realized – the Sun
5. Delight in that world as a gift from Hashem – Venus
6. The wisdom and discernment that enables a person to use that world to serve its divinely ordained purpose - Mercury
7. The moral freedom which gives meaning and purpose to the operations of these principles – the Moon
I’ve described these seven principles as spiritual forces while identifying them with the planets. That may be confusing: do they govern the heart or do they govern the world?
The answer is that they are the powers which are the essential expression of created existence itself. Man is a microcosm: the powers which are the essential expression of created existence are the very same powers which govern his human nature.
These are spiritual powers (matter is governed by spirit) and spiritual powers are not mediated by things that are merely physical. There’s no reason to think that the Rokeach would take issue with Rambam’s description of the planets in Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah (3:9): They are
בעלי נפש ודעה והשכל הם והם חיים ועומדים ומכירין את מי שאמר והיה העולם כל אחד ואחד לפי גדלו ולפי מעלתו משבחים ומפארים ליוצרם כמו המלאכים וכשם שמכירין הקדוש ברוך הוא כך מכירין את עצמן ומכירין את המלאכים שלמעלה מהן ודעת הכוכבים והגלגלים מעוטה מדעת המלאכים וגדולה מדעת בני אדם
Clearly, the planets are good. There is nothing evil in them. Nevertheless, according to the Rokeach, the Ibn Ezra and all medieval astrologers, planetary influences can be destructive and even evil, according to their locations in the heavenly sphere and relations to each other. The otherworldliness of Saturn can turn into world rejection; the dignity of Jupiter into arrogance; the martial spirit of David into cruelty and hatred; the light and heat of the sun that brings forth life can also destroy it.
Jeremiah tells the people (10:2)
ב כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, אֶל-דֶּרֶךְ הַגּוֹיִם אַל-תִּלְמָדוּ, וּמֵאֹתוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם, אַל-תֵּחָתּוּ: כִּי-יֵחַתּוּ הַגּוֹיִם, מֵהֵמָּה
Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the nations are dismayed at them.
Why should they not fear them? The Malbim explains, the pagan nations are subject to the influence of the planets, but not you, for so long as you are live true to the ways of Hashem, You are governed by Him, and He will intervene to moderate their influence in accordance with his judgment.
How then, can they exercise an evil, destructive influence?
The Rokeach explains Divine government through the planets, and the Maggid of Mezritch, as the Bnei Yisaschar summarizes his doctrine, says substantially the same thing[xii]: When Hashem created the world, He surveyed the entire history of man, and ordained from the very beginning the way each person’s life would be directed according to his nature. So long as person conducts himself according to his nature, doing averas when he is, by nature, so inclined, and doing mitzvahs insofar as he is, by nature, so inclined, he will live subject to the Divine Government Hashem established b’maaseh b’reishis when, knowing his nature and foreseeing his behaviour, Hashem placed the planets in their orbits to be located and to interact in a way which subjects him to the appropriate governing influence, presumably an influence that would subject him to experiences that would move him to take his life in hand and make the effort to serve Hashem for which he was created.
For Hashem created us to do teshuvah, i.e., to do more than what we are inclined by nature to do to serve Him. Clearly, when a person fails to do that, he needs a push, perhaps even a shock (though, of course, sometimes he needs is an extra measure of chesed). That push or shock will likely come in the form of an existential challenge, perhaps even a crisis, which lifts him out the indifference of a person who serves Hashem according to the flow of his inclinations. What is called the evil influences of the planets is the gevurah that causes that to happen, the experience of gevurah that awakens a person to teshuvah.
Hashem foresaw the need for that gevurah, and programmed it into the revolutions of the planets, so that each one of us would get a taste of it as it would be required. But when the time comes, if Hashem sees that a person doesn’t need to be treated with gevurah, that he doesn’t need a shock to awaken him, He protects him from it and moderates the gevurah the planets would have exercised, or turns it into a chesed. With that in mind, let’s consider the mitzvah of lighting the Temple Menorah.
In Temple times, when a person did teshuvah for an averah, he would typically bring a korban. The animal that was shechted and burned on the altar represented the body of the one who brought it, the repository of his natural inclinations and evil inclinations which moved him to sin. The act of sacrifice gave them up to the will of Hashem, subordinated his natural impulses and willfulness to the Will of the Creator and King.
The kohen’s role of setting up the wicks and filling the cups with oil is comparable to his role of performing the physical part of offering a sacrifice. Only he can set the flesh of the sacrifice on fire—place it onto the fire burning on the altar – because the purpose of that fire is to extract from the flesh the pleasing fragrance that ascends to Hashem. His act symbolically purified the body that had served the sinful will of the person who brought the sacrifice. He was the instrument of that symbolic purification.
But that sacrifice had to be lit, as a candle is lit, with another fire before the sacrifice would find favor: the fire that purifies a sinful will. That fire, of course, is the teshuvah that ignites the heart with the glowing ember of a burning soul, so that it bursts into flame as it beholds the Light of Truth and Goodness. Even a Yisrael--the one who brought that sacrifice for his sin - could light that fire.
Each candle corresponds to one of the planets, one of the seven fundamental forces that are the essential expression of created existence – nature—coordinated, orchestrated by Hashem b’ma’aseh breishis to govern the lives of every Jew who acts as he is naturally inclined, whether to do mitzvos or to do averos.
Lighting the candles (which is not an avodah and can be done by any Jew) is comparable to the interior act of teshuvah which ignites the heart with a Light which transforms it, inspires and guides it to a love for Hashem that serves Him without consideration of natural inclinations.
The purpose of burning the oil is not to offer a pleasing fragrance to Hashem – if it were, it would be an avodah that only a Kohen may do—but rather to produce a fire and light like the fire and light which inspire the heart to teshuvah when bringing a sacrifice. That fire is the flame of the Glory that governs all those who proclaim it, governing them directly, setting aside the order of Divine government that operates through the planets which the candles represent. That Light, concealed in the oil, is now revealed, that all may know and be assured: אין עוד מלבדו … השם הוא האלוקים!
The candles of the Menorah burned from evening to the morning with one exception: the Ner Ma’aravi, which was to be kept burning throughout the day, relit in the morning if it had gone out. But during the Kehunah Gedolah of Shimeon Hatzaddik, the Ner Hama’aravi never went out. It always miraculously continued to burn straight though from evening to the evening of the next day. The merit of Shimeon Hatzaddik was so great, that the Ner Ma’aravi didn’t have to be relit in the morning. Hashem kept it lit it for us. That was the miracle of the Ner Ma’aravi.
Which of the seven candles was the Ner Ma’aravi? There are three opinions: It was the first candle of the Menorah closest to the Kodesh Hakadoshim; the middle candle, or the second from the candle furthest east. Each of these candles represented a different planet. Applying the Rokeach’s explanation of their meaning, we might interpret this machlokes as a disagreement in Hashem’s response to the merit of Shimeon Hatzaddik.
The first candle would correspond to the first planet, Saturn. If the miracle occurred on the first candle, i.e., if Hashem sustained the light of the first candle, it would mean that Hashem responded to Shimeon Hatzaddik’s merit with a gift of what Saturn, i.e., Moshe, would give us: a gift of Torah, by bestowing an extra measure of the Light of Torah on his generation
The middle candle corresponds to the Sun. If Hashem kindled the middle candle, it would mean that Hashem responded to Shimeon Hatzaddik’s merit with a gift of what the Sun represents: the Light of His Presence and Majesty.
The second to the last candle corresponds to the Mercury. If Hashem kindled that second candle, it would mean that Hashem responded to Shimeon Hatzaddik’s merit with a gift of what the Mercury represents: the knowledge, insight and discernment that enables us to order our lives and create the things through which we live in the ways that best serve the ultimate purpose of our lives: avodas Hashem.
The miracle of Chanukah was that Hashem kept all seven candles lit for eight days—a miracle much like the miracle of the Ner Ma’aravi in Shimeon Hatzaddik’s time. Shimeon Hatzaddik’s tzidkus was such a great testimony to Hashem’s Malchus, that once the Ner Ma’avi was lit, Hashem kept it lit as a proclamation of His Malchus: His rule over the planet which the Ner Ma’aravi represented, and with that the assurance that the active principle it mediated would be implemented by Him to maximize the welfare of Klal Yisrael.
The miracle we celebrate when lighting the Chanukah Menorah was similar, only on a much greater scale corresponding to the much greater scale of the declaration of Hashem’s Malchus by the m’sirus nefesh of the Maccabim. It was dramatic demonstration that when we kindle our hearts with the Light of Torah and turn ourselves to Hashem, He turns to us and keeps those Lights burning, doing for us far more than what we could do for ourselves: for when we transform ourselves for Hashem, He transforms the world for us.
[i] במדבר ח:א
[ii] Perek 1
[iii] סדר פקודי מ"ג
[iv] הוצאות ישיבת החיים והשלום תשמ"ט דף רלז
[v] See, for example, his commentary on the name א-ל ש-די (בראשית יז:א)
[vi] טור קעט
[vii] See the eighth and eleventh droshos in דרשות הר"ן
[viii] The following interpretations of planets are found in his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, esp. on pages 48-52
[ix] SY 52
[x] SY 52
[xi] Commentary on SY 71
[xii] See ספר בני יששכר מאמרי ר"ח מאמר א'