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The Mystical Significance of the 36 Chanukah Candles

The Mystical Significance of the 36 Chanukah Candles

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A standard box of Chanukah candles contains 44 candles. That’s exactly what you need when you include the shamash, the helper candle with which we light the other candles every night. But if you only count the actual Chanukah candles without the shamash, you will discover that there are 36 candles (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8=36).

Of course, this is not accidental. Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson sees deep significance to this number, related to the core of the Chanukah message.

In the words of the Al Hanisim prayer, the Greek occupiers worked hard to “Make [Israel] forget Your Torah.”

A careful look at the Chanukah story reveals that the Greeks’ primary battle to make Israel “forget” was waged against the rabbinic traditions that make up the Oral Torah. The actual Written Torah was something they know they could not cause Israel to forget. Sure, they tried to make the Jews stop practicing, but knew they could not make them forget something documented so well in thousands of Torah scrolls. Conversely, they did try to eradicate all traces of the oral laws carefully preserved in the memories of the Jewish people.

Hundreds of years after the Chanukah miracle, the framework of these oral laws was committed to writing in the form of the Mishnah, edited by Rabbi Judah the Prince. As the centuries passed, even more of the Oral Torah was written down, and two major bodies of Jewish law were formed, one in Israel and one in Babylon. The Babylonian Talmud, which gained prominence as the primary repository of Talmudic teaching, contains commentaries on exactly 36 tractates of the Mishnah.

And this brings us back to the number 36. The 36 Chanukah lights celebrate the survival of the Oral Law, which has since found expression in the 36 tractates of the Babylonian Talmud.

Another connection: One of the sages credited with collecting and redacting the teachings of the Babylonian Talmud was Rav Ashi, whose name is very closely linked to “aish,” the Hebrew word for “fire,” the medium for the Chanukah celebration.

This connection goes back in history to the pre-Chanukah period as well. The primary guardians and creators of the rabbinic traditions were the 71 members of the Sanhedrin, Israel’s highest court. In order for any decision to be made binding, there needed to be a majority of at least . . . 36!

So when you light your Chanukah candles this year, remember that we are doing more than celebrating the miracle of the oil. We are also celebrating the fact that we can keep the Torah in its entirety, including the vital Oral Law.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson (1878–1944) was a mystic and scholar who wrote commentaries on the most esoteric texts. As rabbi of a major Ukrainian city, he struggled valiantly to strengthen Judaism, in spite of Soviet persecution.
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