Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Story Behind the Ri's Chanukah Innovation

Most readers of this blog are probably aware of the debate over the third level of Chanukah lights. To review briefly, there are three levels for this mitzvah: 1) the base, which is one light per house; 2) mehadrin, which is one light per household member; and 3) mehadrin min ha-mehadrin, which is additional lights for each day. The dispute regarding mehadrin min ha-mehadrin is as follows: According to the Rambam (and others), each household member lights additional lights each day of Chanukah, so that a four-member household on the second night has eight lights (excluding the shamash) on four menorahs. According to Tosafos, the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin rejects the mehadrin approach of each household member having a light and reverts back to the base of there being only one light per household, except that the number of lights increases per day, so that this same four-member household on the second night has only two lights on one menorah. Conventional wisdom has it that this is one of the few cases in which Ashkenazim follow the Rambam and Sefardim follow Tosafos (see, most recently, R. Jacob Schacter's article on the subject).

However, this view attributed to Tosafos is not really that of Tosafos. It is the view of a single, albeit important, member of the authors of Tosafos -- the Ri (R. Yitzchak) of Dampierre. This fact raises a number of questions in my mind. Here is the language of Tosafos (Shabbos 21b sv. ve-ha-mehadrin min ha-mehadrin):
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It seems to the Ri that Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel are only referring to the "one light per household" because then there is more beauty [in the mitzvah] in that it is clear that when one adds or subtracts [from the lights] that it is corresponding to the days that remain or have passed. But if one has one light for each person then even if a single person adds [lights] on subsequent days it is not clear because people might think that there are multiple people in the household.
This is the Ri speaking about a practice that is done every single year. While he was the initiator of the Tosafist method, he was not the first scholar in this school. We know that he learned the tractate Shabbos with his uncle, Rashbam (mentioned by Urbach somewhere in Ba'alei Ha-Tosafos), and generally studied under his other uncle, Rabbenu Tam. What did they do every Chanukah? What did their grandfather, Rashi, do? The Ri is suggesting something radical here. If he grew up in a home in which every household member lit their own menorah then he was breaking with this tradition of his family and teachers with his interpretation of this Gemara passage. If so, and that is how it is generally presented nowadays, then the following questions arise:
  1. The passage in Tosafos, quoted above, does not present this as a radical interpretation. There is no discussion of the standard practice nor any "traditionalist" arguing with the Ri. Why not?
  2. I did not have the books available for a thorough search, but a brief browse through Ashkenazic halakhic literature did not even yield a discussion of the Ri's position! They just quote the Gemara without comment. Why don't the Semag and Semak cite the Ri as representing a new position on how to fulfill this mitzvah? Why doesn't the Hagahos Maimoniyos quote the Ri as the Ashkenazic alternative to the Rambam?
  3. And, of course, the standard question: Why do later Ashkenazim follow the Rambam and not the Ri?

If the Ri was not presenting a radical interpretation but was just explaining the Gemara based on standard Ashkenazic practice, then the following (generally similar) questions present themselves:
  1. Why doesn't the Ri or Tosafos note that his explanation is based on the standard practice?
  2. Why is the explanation attributed to the Ri when it seems fairly obvious based on the standard practice?
  3. If the Ashkenazic practice changed at some point, when? Why does the Ashkenazic halakhic literature ignore this issue if there was a change?

Here is what I would like to suggest to answer these questions, keeping in mind that this is all conjecture and I did very little research in the halakhic literature, no research whatsoever in general historical literature, and did not have access to academic Jewish studies such as R. Daniel Sperber's Minhagei Yisrael. So this is all extremely tentative and I would appreciate any feedback from people who research this topic more thoroughly.

It seems consistent with the above to assume that even the leading Torah scholars of the medieval Franco-German community did not perform the mitzvah of Chanukah lights at the level of mehadrin min ha-mehadrin. Perhaps they did it mehadrin but I'd go so far as to suggest that they just performed the base level of one light per household. That is why the Ri can offer a radical suggestion regarding how to perform mehadrin min ha-mehadrin without anyone getting excited and the halakhic manuals ignoring it. He wasn't breaking with traditional practice and probably did not even put his own suggestion into practice. His comment was an entirely theoretical suggestion.

[A short and probably inconclusive deduction: I saw that in Ma'aseh Ha-Ge'onim (p. 44), which records ruling from pre-Rashi Ashkenazim, that they discuss the Chanukah lights in the singular (ner Chanukah) except when dealing with multiple householders, at which time they change to plural (neros Chanukah). Is this a hint that they only lit one light per household?]

If we want to be even bolder, perhaps we can suggest that Spanish Jews similarly did not perform the mitzvah mehadrin min ha-mehadrin. While the Spanish commentaries to the Gemara discuss the dispute between the Rambam (and others) and the Ri, it is possible that neither view was put into practice until later. The Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 671) is often quoted as ruling like the Ri but that is imprecise. What he does is simply state that the common practice is according to the Ri. How could a family-based practice like that change over time? If people followed mehadrin min ha-mehadrin according to the Rambam, why and how would they change their practice? Perhaps at some point in time there was a transition from following the base level to the mehadrin and/or mehadrin min ha-mehadrin levels, at which time families intentionally deviated from their established practices in order to fulfill the mitzvah in a better way, as discussed in the Gemara. When that happened, for whatever reason people followed the practice as explained by the Ri.

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