Jewish studies scholars navigated Jewish law and fire-code to save their Chanukah

Jewish studies scholars navigated Jewish law and fire-code to save their Chanukah

They got some help from Teaneck…

Once they were assembled, these elements became the Association for Jewish Studies’ chanukiah.
Once they were assembled, these elements became the Association for Jewish Studies’ chanukiah.

The email landed like a batch of soggy latkes last week: Chanukah candle-lighting would not be permitted at the annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies.

“We recognize the sacrifice many of you will make to attend the conference during the holiday of Chanukah. We apologize that the conference hotel will not allow us to light candles in a separate room, as we have done in the past,” the professional group for Jewish studies scholars wrote in a message to its members, of whom approximately 1,200 were expected at the group’s meeting in Boston.

Thus began a MacGyver-like scramble by some of the country’s leading Jewish studies scholars to hack a Chanukah solution that would comply with both halacha and the Sheraton Boston’s interpretation of Massachusetts fire code.

And as is often the case in the Jewish world, the road to the solution went through Teaneck.

At first, the scholarly group directed conference-goers to details about a Chanukah celebration at a nearby synagogue, where menorahs could be lit, at least on the first night of the holiday. But that was little consolation for those whose personal practice of Judaism is rooted in traditional Jewish law, which says the Chanukah menorah must be lit in the place where the lighter eats and sleeps.

Some conference attendees said they would rely on Jewish law’s provision for travelers, which says that someone on the road can be considered as having fulfilled the commandment to ignite a Chanukah light if his or her family at home does so. But not everyone at the conference has a family, and even some who do were not satisfied with that option.

Electric menorahs offered another possibility. After all, such devices are frequently found in hotels and other public spaces, and Chabad sometimes uses them in its famous public Chanukah celebrations, this year scheduled for more than 15,000 venues around the world. But the use of oil wicks — or in the last few centuries, wax candles that offer a similar experience — is considered preferable, according to many interpreters of Jewish law; Chabad says that electric menorahs are ideal for symbolic use, but not to fulfill the mandates of Jewish law.

Anger was expressed, both on Facebook and over email. Impractical suggestions for the conference to relocate were made. And fear that some conference-goers would smuggle in contraband menorahs and light them in their hotel rooms mounted.

“You can’t stop people from breaking the rules, and it’s certainly much less safe to have that than something being watched,” Joshua Shanes, a historian at the College of Charleston who was part of the behind-the-scenes scramble, said.

Finally, last Friday morning, with some scholars already Boston-bound, Laura Arnold Leibman, a professor at Reed College and a member of the AJS board, announced a solution.

“We were able to negotiate with the hotel what I am referring to as the ‘Kaplan-Shanes compr[om]ise’ this morning that should allow for a halachic solution to the candle-lighting situation (see details below), and I was able to get a beautiful hanukkiah this morning from the Israel Bookstore in Brookline that will meet the fire code,” she wrote on Facebook, to plaudits from association members.

Under the plan, a single Chanukah lamp can be lit, under supervision, at the hotel. But each candle must be contained within a glass enclosure with at least 2 inches of space above the flame.

So Dr. Leibman bought glass votive holders used for yahrzeit candles, as well as a massive menorah to which they could be affixed.

“This was the only Hanukkiah I could find in Brookline large enough to handle them [and I] will clean them up before Sunday and glue them down for safety to the inserts,” Dr. Leibman wrote alongside pictures of the brass menorah on her hotel windowsill.

That solved the problem of the flames. But what of the obligation to light, which under traditional Jewish law each household must fulfill individually?

Enter the “Kaplan” of the compromise: Lawrence Kaplan, a professor of Judaic and rabbinic philosophy at McGill University who is perhaps best known for compiling and editing the teachings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of the philosophy of Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher. (Locally, he also is known as the brother of lawyer Joseph Kaplan of Teaneck, who regularly writes a column for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News.)

Dr. Kaplan wrote on Facebook that he had consulted Rabbi Daniel Fridman, the rabbi of the Teaneck Jewish Center and the top rabbi at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, for a way to have a single conference-goer fulfill the mitzvah of lighting a Chanukah lamp on behalf of others. He learned that a contribution of a penny (or more) could enable someone to buy into the mitzvah — so a bowl for coins will sit aside the jerry-rigged menorah.

“I really l appreciate the effort and expense to which you went,” Dr. Kaplan wrote on Dr. Liebman’s Facebook post. “It was easy for me to suggest the idea but it was you who transformed it into a reality.”

Now, the discussion has shifted to whether contributions in excess of a penny can be turned into donations to the Association for Jewish Studies — and what can be done to prevent such a snafu in the future. Next year’s conference in San Francisco starts after the holiday ends, and the 2024 conference will be online only. But in 2025, the first day of the conference again corresponds with the first night of Chanukah.

Dr. Shanes and Dr. Liebman both indicated that they expected the right to light candles to be written into the contract with any future conference host, marking a return to the old custom of having conference-goers light candles on their own schedule.

“At least for this year, we’re all coming together,” Dr. Shanes said. “It’s a silver lining, I suppose.”

Or, as Rabbi Fridman put it, “Maimonides famously states the Chanukah candles are a uniquely cherished mitzvah. The lengths to which the individuals involved went to secure their participation in the mitzvah is a reflection of the eternal truth of Rambam’s words, as much as it is a credit to those individuals.”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

read more: