By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
It is one of those Chassidish Chanukah Minhagim that Litvaks generally don’t really go for. Nonetheless, it is a genuine Minhag that dates back hundreds of years. In a nutshell, this is what is done:
In Chassidish communities of Poland and Hungary, it has been the custom when the Shamash is ready to light the Chanukah candles in shul, for children and others to throw hand towels and other items at him both before and during the lighting.
The custom is still practiced today in numerous Chassidish minyanim, and has now migrated to Youtube as well. This video was filmed at Bobov 45. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuA4GW4oU_Q&feature=youtu.be.
One can understain why Litvaks would not appreciate this particular custom. The Eliyahu Rabbah writes that talking to someone in the middle of a bracha may constitute Lifnei Iver — certainly throwing items at a person may cause a person to lose focus. There is the other issue of decorum within a shul and Beis Midrash as well.
Yet, on the other hand, is said that the Tzeshinover Rebbe was informed that one city that formerly had the practice had abolished it. He remarked, “Who knows what shall become of this city.” It is brought down that the Jewish community in that city was decimated r”l (See Pninei Chassidus [Vishnitz] page 31).
What is the reason for this custom and where does it come from?
The custom is cited in the name of the Sanzer Rav, but quite feasibly could have dated before this as well. The Halichos Chaim, written by Rabbi Aharon Kluger cites the minhagim of the Klausenberger Rebbe Rav Yekusiel Halbershtam (Chanukah p.18) and explains that the purpose of this custom was to vividly demonstrate how things were during the time of the Greeks and the Hellenists when a Jew wished to perform a Mitzvah. He was laughed and jeered at, unless the Mitzvah was performed in their specific Hellenizing way.
Yet another given for this custom by the Klausenberger Rebbe is that on the chance that the Shamash feels a sense of empowerment and haughtiness in fulfilling this Mitzvah so publicly. The clothing and towels are thrown at him to demonstrate that he has accomplished nothing (See Yehi Ohr 5733 p.67).
Yet a third reason is that both Lag BaOmer and Chanukah are connected to the Neshama of Rabbi Shimon Br Yochai. Tzaddikim are a type of Ohr HaMakif – all-encompassing light, according to the writings of the AriZal. Clothing signify this, therefore the custom is to throw clothing which signifies the all-encompassing light of Tzaddikim in this world (See Ben Yehoyada Sanhedrin 102a as cited in Nachalas Sadeh VaYikrah page 611).
The custom to light in shul only dates to the times of the late Rishonim. It is interesting to note that neither the Rambam, the Rif, the Rosh, the Ohr Zaruah, the Eshkol, Rashi, nor the Machzor Vitri mentions the custom of lighting in shul. The earliest authority to mention the custom is the Baal HaIttur. Indeed, the first to mention that a blessing is recited is Rav Yitzchok Perfet, the Rivash (1326-1408). The Maharam Shick (YD) stated that the Chasam Sofer actually did not recite a blessing when lighting in shul.
As far as lighting in shul in general, there are two reasons brought down. The Chayei Odom (154:17) explains that we light and recite the blessing in the synagogue because of Pirsumei Nisah — publicizing the miracle. The Levush (#8) gives a different reason. He says that it is so that guests who have no place to stay could also see the Chanukah lights. Dayan Weiss (Minchas Yitzchok Vol. VI 65:1) explains that according to the first reason a child who has reached the age of Chinuch may light in the Synagogue; while according to the Levush’s reason he may not. Rav Elyashiv zt”l (as cited in Yashiv Moshe p.86) states that according to either reason a child may not light in shul. Rav Elyashiv made no mention, however, about children throwing towels at the shamash. It is likely that he would not have been happy with this custom.
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By Rabbi Yair Hoffman