Chanukah and Our Right to Personal Property
Lo tachmod beit reyecha… / Do not covet your neighbor’s house…
Shmot (Exodus) 20:14
V’lo taavat beit reyacha…/ Do not desire your neighbor’s house…
From the Ten Commandments
Rabi Yosef omer: Y’hi mammon charerach chaviv alecha k’shelach / Rabbi Joseph said: Your friend’s property should be as precious to you as your own (respect his property rights).
Pirkey Avot 2:17
Kinah v’ahf y’katzru yamim / Envy and anger shorten one’s days.
Ben Sira 9:1
The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If “Thou shalt not covet,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.
John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1787
As we enter November, the weather chills and we begin to don our favorite sweaters, jackets, coats, and the like as we feel the chill of winter approaching. We also begin to plan some wonderful and enjoyable seasonal activities. Soon, like Americans of other faiths, we will gather with friends and families to enjoy Thanksgiving. Besides enjoying the feast, we need to always remember that it is “Thanks-Giving” and “Thank G-d” for what we have been blessed with. Ben Zomah teaches us in Pirkey Avot, “Ayzehu asher/ Who is wealthy? Hasamayach b’chelko/ The person who rejoices in his portion.” We are to celebrate what we are blessed with, not be envious over what another possesses.
Next up in December is Chanukah. This is our unique Jewish winter celebration. While it’s nice to wish our Christian friends a “Merry Christmas,” it is important to remember that Chanukah is not the “Jewish Christmas.” Chanukah has unique Jewish messages and wisdom for us. There are so many lessons that Chanukah offers, and there is one I want to focus on that harmonizes with the message of Thanksgiving. It can be shared with our fellow Americans of other religious traditions.
In the Talmud (Mesechet Shabbat 21b) there is a fascinating discussion of the correct manner to kindle the Chanukah lights. The two competing rabbinical schools of the time, Hillel and Shamai, take opposite approaches to lighting one’s Chanukah candles. Of course, they agree on the number eight. This references the legend of a single day’s cruse of pure sanctified olive oil for the Menorah, which miraculously burned for eight days at the time of rededicating the Temple after its liberation at the hands of the Maccabees from Selucid occupation and defilement.
Shamai rules that we begin with eight lights, each day removing one until there is only a single light at the end of the holiday. Hillel rules the opposite and says we begin with one and each day add another, culminating in eight. The Talmudic rabbis subsequently ruled that we light according to the custom of Hillel.
There are many explanations and drashas to explain Hillel’s custom and why the rabbis ruled in his favor. The most typical explanation is that we should always be increasing in holiness, we should always be increasing light, not diminishing it.
I would like to offer another explanation. There is always a tension between the rights of the individual and the obligations to the collective. On Yom Kippur we klop on our hearts together in unison as we chant the ashamnu confessional prayer. We confess and repent in the collective whole. In unity we fulfill the mitzvah (as explained in the Babylonian Talmud Mesechet Shevuot 39a on the passage in Bamidbar) of Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh / Every Jews has an obligation to every other Jew. If one of us transgressed, we together “own it” as a family, fix it, and repent together.
On Chanukah, however, we celebrate our individuality, our uniqueness, and our individual rights, which include our property rights. This means our right to work hard, achieve success, and enjoy the fruits of our efforts unhindered and with liberty. Here in the USA we are blessed that our property rights harmonize with other constitutionally protected rights of the individual as enshrined in the Bill of Rights, which begins with a First Amendment right to freedom of speech and religion.
Shamai starts with eight lights, the collective. In Shamai’s view it appears that the collective takes priority over the individual. Sometimes that could make sense, such as during WWII when rationing was imposed and everyone had to pitch in and work cooperatively for the good of the nation to defeat the Axis Powers who attacked our country, threatened to conquer the world, and were in the process of the extermination of the Jewish people. It is important to point out that we have individual rights, but we also have numerous civic obligations and are bound to regulate our behavior by legislated, constitutional laws. As Jews, we also have our mitzvot/commandments, as redacted in our system of Halacha, which obligates us, for instance, to donate a portion of our income as tzedakah/charity. However important our civic duties are and working together is when the collective is routinely prioritized over the individual, there are implicit dangers. Symbolically, when we start with eight lights it appears that the collective, the state, has control of all of the lights. When the individual has become nullified to the collective, in the end the light has diminished to only one, thereby creating a poverty of light for all.
Hillel, however, exalts and celebrates the liberty of the individual to create his or her own light. Unhindered, the individual works hard for personal benefit, symbolized as the light that his or her efforts create. As each individual creates light, additional light is actually added each day to the whole. As Chanukah concludes, we end with eight lights shining brightly and providing greater illumination for all. As individuals we have together created a wealth of light.
We are so blessed to be citizens of a nation where our system of government, like Hillel’s Chanukah custom represents, respects our individuality, protects our liberty, and gives each of us the opportunity to let our own “light” shine. We must be like powerful Macabbees in always exulting and protecting the rights of the individual.
It is important to note that the story of Chanukah took place in the Land of Israel. When faced with danger, such as during Israel’s many wars for survival, Israelis of all political stripes will unite against that threat. As time moved on, the modern State of Israel eventually rejected the collectivist economic ideology that dominated at its founding. Instead Israel embraced the individualist principles of a free market economy, which has led to Israel today becoming an economic powerhouse and one of the world’s leaders in technological innovation.
Wishing us all a happy and grateful Thanksgiving and freedom loving Chanukah Samayach,
[The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Bellerose Jewish Center.]