Emma Lazarus, of Statue of Liberty fame, was an ardent Zionist. The second stanza of her “The Feast of Lights,” written for Chanukah, reads:
Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain,
The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
With crowns and silken spoils…
Certainly a symbol of Jewish muscle and might throughout history, especially for early Zionists, the image of Chanukah has an additional dimension in this poem: one of “golden shields,” “crowns and silken spoils.” In short, one of riches. Not ragtag guerilla warriors, but conquerors that bring home their booty. Paralleling the very material, physical strength is the very material, physical wealth.
For some, this image seems accurate. Gifts aplenty, games for gelt: in some families, each night’s gifts surpass those of the night before. But what of that one flask of oil — the origin of the miracle — that ancient green energy-conservation program of one flask for eight days? Where are the caves of the original Maccabee soldiers, who, far from playing games for money, were running out of supplies as quickly as they could find them?
Or perhaps a better question: which view is more authentic?
Tractate Menahot 89a of the Talmud deals with the daily kindling of the Temple menorah, not just on Chanukah. Each evening, the priest supplied the lamp with enough oil to burn all night. But how much is enough? Enough for a drawn-out winter night? A short summer night? The amount determined was half a log of oil for each candle, which would cover even the longer nights. How did they reach this amount? One suggestion: they started with excess oil (more than half a log) and checked how much was left in the morning. The other view: They started with the minimum, adding as necessary night by night, eventually reaching half a log.
A strange thing to argue about. Quite simply, the Talmud explains, those who put in extra would throw away that excess in the morning, and they were willing to do so because “ein aniyut bim’kom ashirut”: where there is wealth, there will be no poverty. Those who are willing to spend will reap the benefits of financial stability as their reward. No harm in using some extra oil, even if it is ultra-fine, virgin, expensive oil, even if it will be thrown out. The other side disagrees. “HaTorah chasah al mamonan shel yisrael”: the Torah is concerned for the wealth of Israel. A sort of “waste not, want not.” Two perspectives: spend it or save it; flaunt it or defend it.
The great 10th-century scholar, light of the exile, Rabbeinu Gershom (ben Judah) suggested that this is not just about original measurements: it’s a blueprint for how they always lit the candles. One side said that placing more than the exact amount was acceptable, even though the extra might be thrown out. After all, if we don’t spend on beautifying the Temple (a metaphor for Jewish life?), where should we spend? The other side would have us measure how much is necessary for each night and even put in a quarter log if that will do the trick. Save your money where you can; don’t spend unnecessarily. The Jewish value system embraces this kind of responsible behavior.
So, the golden shields or the unearthed lonely flask? It seems the question is one of two opposing camps. Or perhaps, they’re a yin and a yang of Jewish life — sometimes to spend, sometimes to save? Perhaps these perspectives need not oppose one another, but should complement each other as we each set our personal and communal priorities.
Elana Stein Hain is the community scholar at Lincoln Square Synagogue and is pursuing a doctorate in religion at Columbia University.