The Talmud tells us that we may not use light produced by Hanukkah candles to count money (Tractate Shabbat 22a). The children’s classic “The Little Prince” sheds some light on the special meaning behind this halacha.
The most despicable character in the book is a businessman who devotes his life to counting the stars, believing that one day, they will be his. “Why do you want to own the stars,” the little prince asks him. “They’ll make me rich!” the businessman answers. “And why do you want to be rich?” asks the little prince. “So I can buy more stars!” says the businessman. (Page 41)
This story is a satire about how people relate to money. Instead of being a means to an end, money becomes the end unto itself. In the next chapter, we meet the most beloved character in the book – the lamplighter. The lamplighter lives on a planet that makes a complete turn every minute, so evening returns every minute, and every minute, he needs to relight the lamp. Despite how difficult it is to be so dedicated to his job, he doesn’t abandon his commitments.
And now, back to the Talmud. Someone who uses the light of the Hanukkah candles to count money, like the businessman did, confuses what should be nothing more than the means to an end, the money, with the end being the light.
I once saw two billboards in Manhattan that dealt with the pursuit of money and status:
One of the billboards had a picture on it of a father playing with his son. The sign said “Half the money, double the time”.
The second sign said “Why live on the fast track when there’s no one to hug you at the other side?”
The lamplighter is unlike the businessman. The little prince looks at the lamplighter and thinks to himself:
That man would be scorned by all the others… nevertheless, he is the only one of them all who does not seem to me ridiculous. Perhaps that is because he is thinking of something else besides himself…” (page 45).
We must ask ourselves what the light of Hanukkah means to us. We should reflect on our lives and ask ourselves what light we are seeking, and what light we yearn for and are willing to dedicate ourselves to.
In the halacha I began with, which forbids us from counting money in the light of the Chankkah candles, we find another axiom. Counting money reflects the belief that quantity is what counts in life. The two miracles of Hanukkah, namely, the miracle of the jar of oil and the victory of the few over the many, teach us that the opposite is true. Quantity isn’t what counts in life – the spirit is what counts, as we read in the Book of Zechariah: “Not by military force and not by physical strength, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah, 4:6).
This article was translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor.
Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.
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