On Hanukkah, while lighting candles, we declare we're lighting the candles for Hanukkah, and that we're not allowed to benefit from their light.
This declaration, in Hebrew known as "Ha-Nerot Hallalu" (These Candles) appears in the "Tractate of the Scribes" (Masechet Sofrim). In this early Halachik work, written in Israel around the 8th century (the Gaonic Era), we have a description of the ceremony of lighting Hanukkah candles, as it was done in ancient Israel.
On the first day, the person lighting the candles blesses upon lighting them. He then states the following declaration (translation based on the Rabbi Birnbaum's siddur):
We light these candles on account of the triumphs and miracles and wonders which You performed for our fathers through Your holy priests. Throughout these eight days of Hanukkah, these candles are sacred, and we are not permitted to make any use of them, but we should observe them in order to praise Your great name for Your wonders and Your miracles and Your triumphs.The person lighting then adds two additional blessings: Shehecheyanu and the blessing over the Hanukkah miracle (Al Ha-Nissim). The participants repeat the last two blessings.
On the other days of the holiday, the person lighting the candles blesses upon lighting the candles and makes the aforementioned Declaration. The participants say the blessing for the Hanukkah miracle.
This Israeli custom was generally forgotten and was not mentioned by any other Halachic books in the centuries following .
That is, until the 13th century, when the Israeli tradition was revived thanks to the custom of a German Rabbi. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, also known as the Maharam of Rothenburg, loved the Israeli traditions. He adopted the custom to say the "These Candles" declaration, based on the language of Masechet Sofrim.
His students reported this custom, and the prayer went viral. The custom to say "Ha-Nerot Hallalu" was adopted all across the Jewish world by both Ashekanzi and Sephardi communities.
The Maharam of Rothenburg didn't just love Israel from afar. In 1286 he led dozens of Jewish families towards Israel. However, he didn't make it. He was caught in Italy and accused of leading a mass escape from Germany, a crime at the time, as the Jews were by then property of the king. He was imprisoned and died in a dingy pit, sacrificing his life for the right of return to Palestine!
An edict confiscating the property of the "escaping" Jews, documents that they came from various towns in Germany: Mainz, Worms, Speyer, Oppenheim and Wetterau.
I had often wondered, if Jews love Israel so much, why didn't they just get up and come here. The Mahram's Aliyah attempt showed that Jews did. They weren't always successful, many times they perished on the way or soon after they got here, but they continued trying. Over and over again.
We now have the privilege of retuning to our homeland. We can now adhere to the original Israeli custom of lighting the candle by the door of our homes or the gate of our yard, without fear. When we recite "Ha-Nerot Hallalu", we should remember its origin in that obscure period of Palestinian history, and the great leader who died in a dark pit but spread the light of hope and salvation around the Jewish world.
See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.
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