Fiddling While the Candles Burn

The origin stories of several Hanukkah customs practiced today as part of tradition.

The audience falls silent. Crowded in the stands, the Hasidim stretch their necks toward the holy ark and with mounting excitement follow the rebbe's every movement. In utter astonishment, they watch him as he begins to play the violin. It's not every day that the admor - whose life is devoted entirely to Torah study, prayer, charity and good deeds - plays a musical instrument. But the rebbe departed from custom and played for his followers - a special event that occurs once a year, on Hanukkah, immediately after the candles are lit.

Garbed in a splendid silvery green coat, the rebbe of the Premishlan Hasidic court in Bnei Brak starts by lighting the candles. The menorah is near the door, to make known to all the Hanukkah miracle.

haredim - Alex Levac - December 6 2010
Alex Levac

After the candle lighting the admor, sitting in the chair of honor, taps his fingers on the table and joins the congregation in singing familiar Hanukkah songs ("Maoz Tzur," "Hanerot Halalu" ). Later on, he even dances by himself in front of the Hasidim - an increasingly frenzied whirling, to which the devoted congregants respond with enthusiastic singing. The moment everyone has been waiting for arrives when the rebbe takes his seat again and picks up the violin.

But any expectation of hearing pristine, moving sounds is quickly shattered. The Hasidim are indifferent to harmony or quality, which are of no consequence when the rebbe himself is playing a Hasidic melody.

Light holiday

According to Menachem Friedman, professor emeritus of sociology at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on ultra-Orthodox society, Hanukkah is a time when lighthearted behavior is permitted. No work may be done while the candles are lit, but the time must still be filled with content. Many of the admors amuse themselves by engaging in the holiday customs: playing with the traditional spinning top, or dreidel; doling out Hanukkah gelt to the Hasidim; and, perhaps, playing the violin. At the same time, the essence of the festival - the relentless struggle of the sons of light against the sons of darkness - is not at all lighthearted.

The combination of the candles aglow, the rebbe dressed in holiday attire and the innocent face of a child transfixed by the light, make Hanukkah the perfect photo op. The more distinctive the ceremony the admor conducts, the more unique his gestures - singing or dancing and handing out gelt - the greater the prestige accrued to the sect.

Court musician

Melodies are an important element of Hasidic Jews' way of life, which consecrates the worship of God through joy. Some sects have a kind of court musician, who is both an accomplished instrumentalist and one who composes new tunes. The violin was selected as the salient Hasidic musical instrument, because according to tradition King David and the Levites played it in the Temple.

Before the Holocaust, leaders of Hasidic sects in Eastern Europe often played instruments. The Modzitz dynasty in Poland stood out in this regard, says Dr. Benjamin Brown, from the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The Karlin Stulin Hasidic sect (in today's Belarus ) was also a musical dynasty. According to legend, Brown says, the leaders of Karlin Stulin played instruments during the Melaveh Malkah meal after the close of Shabbat.

Abraham Rechtman, part of an ethnographic team that researched Jewish folklore and melodies in Czarist Russia in the early 20th century, provides additional testimony. In his memoir of the expedition, published in Yiddish in the 1950s, Rechtman describes the violin playing of Braslav Hasidim.

At a Melaveh Malkah meal he attended in 1913 at the home of the great-grandson of Rabbi Nachman from Braslav, the sect's founder, the descendant played a violin he inherited from his great-grandfather, Rechtman wrote, adding that the violin was also played in Rabbi Nachman's court as part of the Melaveh Malkah rite.

It is not clear why the custom of violin playing by the admors died out, or why it was preserved only during Hanukkah. Nowadays the custom exists in only a few Hasidic courts. Members of the Kretshnif Hasidic dynasty in Rehovot relate that their rebbe was taught how to play the violin by his father, the founder of the dynasty in Israel. The tradition itself dates from the time of the sect's founder, Grand Rabbi Meir Rosenbaum from Kretshnif, who was a follower of the founder of Hasidism itself, the Ba'al Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael Ben-Eliezer, 1698-1760 ).

The story goes that Rabbi Meir's son had a tutor he didn't like. To distract the boy, his father gave him a violin. The son started to play, and after that the Kretshnif Hasidim played the violin on every holiday.

Kabbala and dreidel

In contrast to the playing of the violin, preparing the hanukkiah is a complex matter. The rebbe spends the afternoon organizing everything needed. He pours oil into large receptacles, ensuring each is at the same height. The shamash - the candle used to light the others - is made from a real honeycomb. The rebbe melts the wax, inserts 26 wicks and braids them together to create a candle.

After the candles burn out, some admors distribute the wicks as an item of spiritual effect for the Hasidim, like the remnants of a meal. The Kretshnif sect does not do this, but they do distribute the left-over oil for healing purposes.

Most customs are practiced as part of tradition, without anyone wondering about their origin. Hasidim tell a joke about a rebbe who swept the floor on the evening of the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. The beadle asked him, rebbe, what are you doing?

"This is not a custom, this is not a custom," the rebbe answered in Yiddish, lest the Hasidim make the broom part of the Hanukkah ritual. And indeed, since then, they sweep the floor before the candle lighting chanting, "This is not a custom."

The Hasidic sects ascribe a deeper, almost metaphysical meaning to the dreidel. According to Rabbi Nachman from Braslav, the dreidel symbolizes a rotating wheel in the world, and in kabbala terms, incarnations of the soul. There is apparently something calming about the sight of the great rebbe spinning the little top. As though he were telling his Hasidim not to let their spirits flag, for all will be well.