Sometime things I know for a fact turn out to be anything but.
Chanukkah is just around the corner, and through discussions with my colleague Rabbi Avram Reisner (and an article by Ann in the Washington Jewish Week) I learned that the form of a chanukkiyah is not as rigid as I had thought. Like most rabbis, I have been teaching that to be ritually proper, the chanukkiyah must have all eight lights on the same horizontal plane, with the shamash at a different level. The ruling comes, like much of Jewish law, from the concise statements in the Shulchan Arukh, the authoritative code. But when it comes to something as well-known and universally accepted as a kosher chanukkiyah, who ever checks the source? After all, do I have to look up whether Shabbes is on Saturday?
It turns out that things are not as clear as one might assume. The description of the Chanukkah ritual makes clear that each flame must be seen as distinct. In the relevant section of Orekh Chayyim (671), Rabbi Moses Isserles notes that the flames must be in a line, level. With just that phrase, you might conclude that he could be referring to a horizontal level (even heights) or a vertical level (straight line). He continues to warn against setting up a series of wicks around a bowl of oil, lest the flames seem to combine into a bonfire-like appearance instead of eight separate flames. From that comment, it seems that he is prohibiting not staggered heights, but a circular configuration.
I know -- what possible difference could it make? This column is not the place for a justification of Jewish law in and of itself. I am a halakhic Jew, so what halakhah (Jewish law) has to say is of sacred concern to me. But the lesson goes beyond fidelity to a theological standard.
Chanukkah has inspired much creativity among artists as they reinterpret familiar ritual forms. A presumption, calcified by generations of presuming the presumption, has closed off the possibilities of some new expressions of old values. If such is the case with something as superficially inconsequential as the configuration of the chanukkiyah, it might be the case with other forms and ideas. Keeping ourselves open and educated, faithful to both custom and process, is the truest to both tradition and renewal.
It is the custom of our forebears to light a chanukkiyah with flames at the same heights. We should not be quick to discard the past for the mere sake of change. But neither should we be held hostage to old forms if, within our rich and flexible tradition, the possibilities exists of shedding a new kind of light.