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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Guest Post: An Orthonomic Chanukah Note

Thank you to Ariella of Kallah Magazine for allowing me to use one of her Chanukah posts as a Guest Post here. I thought this was a very appropriate post for Chanukah here at Orthonomics.

In Made in Heaven: A Jewish Wedding Guide, (Moznaim Publishing, 1983 p. 32), Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan brings up the issue of squandering money on lavish weddings that should be put to better use in providing the couple with necessities. He recalls an illustration offered by his friend, Rabbi Shmuel Mendelson. Hillel and Shamai had different views about the order in which Chanukah candles should be lit. As we know, we follow the opinion of Beis Hillel, which is to begin with one and add on a candle each successive night. However, Beis Shamai’s view was that the candles should parallel the cows offered during Sukkos, which began with the full number but went down one each day.

Rabbi Mendelson observed that Beis Shamai’s approach is followed by those who believe they must start out married life with everything. They are the ones who would register for the expensive china and silver sets, buy full suites of Italian furniture, and set it all up in a home they cannot afford to keep up. “When they begin, they have everything.” But when reality sets in and their income cannot keep up with their expenses, “they find their lives diminishing.”

Then there are couples who see the wisdom of Beis Hillel’s approach in their own life. “They can start off with one candle – with very little.” These are the ones who make do with a modest apartment furnished with second-hand pieces and dishes that are priced by the set rather than the place setting. So they do not begin in a blaze of glory. “But for the rest of their life they are adding.”

A Chanukah Sameach to all of my readers and wonderful commentors.


Simcha said...

Couldn't Rabbi Mendelson have found a way to say that without implicitly insulting one of the Tannaim?

G*3 said...

I had a simillar thought...

Its a cute d'var torah, but no one can seriously think that the discussion about the proper way to light on Chanukah has anything to do with an approach to economics.

It would have worked much better had he explcitly made it an analogy rather than implying that Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel held these different approaches to life.

megapixel said...

I have relatives who believe that it is better to get the best furniture and household goods when your parents are paying for it-- before you get married, because most young couples cant afford this stuff, and once they get married, they will never be able to get it, esp. once they have children. so that is why parents outfit their engaged children with the best they can afford, with the understanding that we are setting up your household for you and this is supposed to last you forever.

of course, if you are talking about a couple that they themselves are buying everything of course they should not buy out of their budgets, but if the parents are footing the bill as is traditional in many ortho circles...

Ariella said...

Simcha and G*3, are you not aware of the fact of halacha kebais Hillel? Is that a slur on Shamai? Not at all. And they did have a different approach to life. There is an instance when we pasken like Shamai. That is with respect to preparing for Shabbos. Shamai would everyday look for something fine to buy in honor of Shabbos. If the next day he would find something finer, he would then buy that and eat the previously purchased one. That way he was eating in honor of Shabbos all week. Hillel, on the other hand, would say "Baruch Hashem yom, yom." He would not shop for Shabbos on a daily basis.
While there is a consistency in Hillel's approach to Shabbos and his approach to Chanukah candles, which does reflect his approach, in this case the halacha is like Shamai.

Megapixel, R' Kaplan was talking about couples whose parents set them up with a more lavish wedding and more lavishly furnished household than they would be able to afford on their own. That is what he considered detrimental in the long-term, not because the couple is in debt but because they begin on a false basis and will go down from there. The furniture will wear out, the dishes will break, and they will not be able to afford to replace to the same standard. Then they really feel as if they went down from a blaze of glory to a piddling single candle.

Anonymous said...

megapixel: How do these parents afford to do this? If they are going into debt or shnorring for it, then that's not a good use of funds. If the parents want to do something for the children, might it not be a better use of money to set up a fund to help them pay tuition down the road. Finally, how are having young couples starting off with the best china, silver, furniture, etc. consistent with notions of modesty and spirituality?

G*3 said...

As an analogy it’s a cute vort. To say that when discussing whether or not Chanukah candles should parallel the karbonos on Succos the taanaim were really discussing economic philosophies strains credulity.

Ariella said...

G*3, if you get hung up on were they thinking about how to plan a household budget when they paskened how to light the Chanukah candles, then you miss the forest for the trees. I didn't think one has to be as great an intellect as R' Aryeh Kaplan Z"l was to appreciate the point.

G*3 said...

I don’t’ see why appreciating the point he was making and taking issue with his faulty characterization of the gemera’s discussion are mutually exclusive.

Chaim B. said...

First point: the relationship between chanukah and sukkos is the *second* explanation the gemara gives for the dispute. The first explanation is that B"H holds you add candles to correspond to the increase in days; B'Sh holds you subtract to correspond to the days which have already passed.

Second point: This explanation begs the question of what conceptually underlies the dispute. Why should one give preference to the incoming days over the outgoing or vica versa? And whatever explanation you offer for one side, you must offer an equally compelling explanation for the other, otherwise there would be no argument.

The "economic" theory explains the truth found in both sides: the significance of the incoming days is found in potential for growth, but it does not disguise the minimalist beginning which offers little to celebrare; the outgoing days focuses on the initial lavish opening as most worthy of celebration, but does not disguise the fact that this makes for diminishing returns.

Chaim B. said...

Fourth point: If you get hung up on the literalism of chanukah=korbanos of sukkos, the gemara makes no sense -- what does one have to do with the other?

Last point: The Chasam Sofer writes in his intro. to the Torah that one should not be perplexed by reading in his commentary ideas like the dispute between Moshe and Pharoah parallels a dispute between the Rambam and Ra'avad -- how can a Biblical tug of war parallel a technical halachic dispute centuries later between Rishonim? The C.S. answers that the conceptual underpinnings of both ideas are parallel. Economics itself has a lot to do with conceptual ideas and not just dollars and cents, as books like Freakonomics illustrate. Our job when reading a gemara is to dig into the conceptual underpinnings and uncover the root theories behind what is going on (i.e. lomdus). On the broad conceptual level an idea that is uncovered in a sugya about chanukah can certainly have a relationship with conceptual ideas also found in the field of economics, as well as even more far flung areas.

G*3 said...

> The "economic" theory explains the truth found in both sides:

Possible, but too much interpretation. We can speculate as much as we like, but without any support from what the gemara actually says it is impossible to say which interpretation is right, let alone assert that this discussion represents global approaches to life by Bais Hillel and Bais Shammai.

> Fourth point: If you get hung up on the literalism of chanukah=korbanos of sukkos, the gemara makes no sense -- what does one have to do with the other?

According to Sefer Maccabe, the first celebration of Chanukah was a delayed Succos.

Projecting our own views onto historical figures without any solid evidence that they shared those views is disingenuous at best. Again, I have no problem with the use of the gemara’s discussion to make a point. The problem is pretending that this single discussion about a very specific topic is sufficient to extrapolate entire worldviews for two factions.

Chaim B. said...

>>>it is impossible to say which interpretation is right,

I don't know what you mean by this. There are, for example, hundreds of books offering interpretations of Shakespeare's plays. One can amass a library on Hamlet alone. Do you dismiss that entire body of scholarship because we can't really prove which interpretation is right or wrong? The goal of study is to raise questions and to explicate various possible interpretations, all of which may contain a grain of truth. The text is a springboard to get us to think more deeply, not an answer key.

>>>According to Sefer Maccabe, the first celebration of Chanukah was a delayed Succos.

And Bais Hillel was not aware of this? If they were aware but chose to emphasize a different theme, that begs the question of why each side of the debate chose to stress what it did. Answering that question may take us into the realm of speculation, but not asking that question or thinking about it seems to me to circumvent the very type of reflection which the text should inspire.

G*3 said...

> I don't know what you mean by this. There are, for example, hundreds of books offering interpretations of Shakespeare's plays.

The difference is that interpretations of Shakespear often don't even claim to be trying to figure out what Shakespear meant, let alone ascribing entire philosophies to historical figures. There is no right or wrong interpretation of literature, just plausible and implausible. Hillel and Shammai were real people with real thoughts, not characters in a story whose motivations we're free to speculate about. Either they hald a particular philosophy or they didn't. Making a claim without any real evidence in order to strengthen a point (one that works just as well without the dubious claim) is irresponsible historic revisionism, albeit on a petty scale.

> And Bais Hillel was not aware of this?

I have no idea. You asked what the connection might be, and I answered. That's all.