Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Kasis L'ma'or

"The most excellent way to fulfill the mitzvah is to use olive oil for Chanuka candles... and similarly... to take wicks of cotton or linen... We have the custom that the "shamash" should be a wax candle." (Shevach HaMoadim, Kitzur Hilchos Chanuka, 3:1-5) (translation my own).

In order to be mehader the mitzvah of neiros Chanuka this year, I sought out the nicest locally produced organic olive oil I could find, which happens to be Tehama Gold's Mission extra virgin olive oil, based in Northern California. It is a family owned operation and is certified kosher by the Vaad HaKashrus of Northern California, based in Berkeley, which is supervised by Rabbi Welton, with whom I am acquainted. I also bought a bag of Maxim organic cotton to use for wicks (they also claim their cotton is free of pesticides, herbicides, chlorine, and viscose), and pure beeswax candles made by Honey Candles of Canada for the shamash. Needless to say, I did feel like a yuppy at the check-out counter, what with buying all these luxury items.

Objectively speaking, these pure and high-quality ingredients are mehudar materials to use for the mitzvah of neiros Chanuka, as they are the most mehudar of the general category of materials that suffice for "mitzvah min hamuvchar" (namely, olive oil, cotton wicks, and beeswax). But subjectively speaking, I wondered if "organic" or some of the other standards I was seeking "count" as a hiddur as well.

The concept of hiddur mitzvah comes from the Gemara in Shabbos 133b, which discusses the passuk "zeh keli v'anvehu" (lit. "this is my G-d and I will glorify Him") (Exod. 15:2). R' Yishmael asks "Is it possible for a person to add glory to his Creator? What it really means is: I shall glorify Him in the way I perform mitzvos. I shall prepare before G-d a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful tzitzis, beautiful tefillin, a beautiful shofar, etc." But is the standard for beautification objective? In an essay on hiddur mitzvah, Rabbi Josh Flug notes, "The requirement to have 'nice' items used for the mitzvah clearly has no objective standards. There can be two sukkot that look nothing alike and the construction of both can be a fulfillment of hiddur mitzvah." For instance, in some communities to beautify the sukkah includes decorations and hangings, while in other communities, the hiddur is mainly the guests who sit inside the sukkah, their singing, and the words of Torah spoken there, with no hangings.

Rabbi Flug also cites there the idea to spend one-third more for the sake of hiddur than you would spend for the baseline product. Granted, organic and local definitely doesn't necessarily equal higher quality for hiddur mitzvah, and paying more for an inferior item is not a hiddur by any means. But let's say there are two olive oils of, as far as you can tell, equal quality, but one is organically grown four hours away from you and it costs one-third more than the non-organic which is from Turkey (and thus required a large amount of oil to be burnt in transporting it, and pesticides may have been applied, and the workers may have been treated worse). Is it considered a hiddur at that point? It seems like it depends on your personal and community standards. So for me, yes.

But, if you'll indulge me, I think there is a deeper reason for the choices I made, and that is that they make it more possible that my great-grandchildren will also be able to fulfill the mitzvah the same way that I am. There is a beautiful story in the Gemara in Taanis, 23b about Choni Hamaagal. If I remember correctly, Choni didn't understand what the first line of Shir Hama'alos (which we say before benching when no tachanun is said) meant. "A song of ascents. When Hashem will return the captives of Zion, we will have been like dreamers." This line is referring to the 70-year exile between the First and Second Temples, and Choni didn't understand what it meant to dream for 70 years. He later encountered a man planting a certain fruit tree, and Choni asked when the tree would bear fruit, to which the man replied "in 70 years." "But you're already a grown man, you won't be around to see it bear fruit," Choni wisely responded. [The man paused from his shoveling, wiped the sweat from his brow and took a good long look at Choni. Then he said,] “Just as my fathers planted for me, so will I plant for my children.” (I added the part in brackets for dramatic effect.) That was a partial answer to Choni's question.

To me, this story illustrates the idea in Yiddishkeit that we are meant to support sustainable farming practices for the sake of future generations, that we are meant not only to dream for ourselves, but to imagine those who will come after us and what world we want to hand down to them. I personally would like to pass on a world filled with trees and fruit, a world with clean air and clean water. Cotton, for instance, is responsible for "25% of global insecticide releases—more than any other single crop." (also see GM Cotton Fiascos). That includes not only common cotton used for Chanuka wicks, but also in mostly all cotton clothing. Honeybee populations are also threatened by the use of pesticides and spreading colony collapse disorder (CCD), which if continued unchecked will majorly limit the way we produce food in this country and the amount and variety of food we have access to.

The Honey Candles company claims to have a "commitment to sourcing from ethical beekeepers... [and] organically managed hives in the Peace River Region of Northern Alberta."
Also, unlike soy and parafin candles, "beeswax is used essentially in its native state. There is no bleaching or hydrogenating and does not require large amounts of agricultural land. Beeswax is the purest of all waxes (including vegetable waxes such as soy) with the least processing and no additives." And they burn slower with a beautiful flame, which makes up somewhat for the extra cost.

So, has it come to that, that my hiddur mitzvah is the baseline for ensuring that my great-grandchildren will have a beautiful world to beautify their mitzvahs in? Let's hope not. It is a Chassidic idea that a little light dispels much darkness. Happy Chanuka to all, and may we spread abundant light this year in every way possible.

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