HANUKKA: The tradition of the Jews of Aleppo, Syria.

The tradition of many families of Aleppo (= Halab), Syria, is to light an additional candle in addition to the candles that are normally lit every night of Hanukka. Thus, the first night of Hanukka the Jews of the communities of Aleppo light three candles: 1. the candle of Hanukka, 2. the shamash or auxiliary candle and 3. an additional candle. Tonight, the fourth night of Hanukka, they will light the four candles, and the shamash and an additional candle, etc.

Now, not all the Jews of Aleppo follow this tradition, but only those families of Aleppo who trace their origins back to Spain. Let me explain. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 (and from Portugal in 1497) they escaped to different destinations. Some of them came to Italy, Turkey or Greece. Others to North Africa: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya or Egypt. Many also arrived in Israel and Syria.

In most of the cities to which these refugees from Spain arrived, called since then “Sefaradim” (= Spaniards) there were already local Jewish communities established since a long time. The Sepharadim integrated into the existing communities. But they still retained their ancient customs and culture for centuries. In many cases, the Sepharadim became the majority, or the dominant minority, and little by little the local Jews (in the Arab countries the local Jews were known as musta’arabim) absorbed the customs of the “Spanish Jews”. In most cases, over the time, these local Jews also considered themselves as “Sefaradim.”

For several decades after the expulsion from Spain, many families arrived in Syria, either directly from Spain and Portugal or after being sometime in North Africa, Turkey, Egypt or even Israel. The famous Spanish traveler, Captain Domingo de Toral (1598-1640), wrote in his memoirs “Relation of the Life of Captain Domingo de Toral y Valdés” that he visited Aleppo, Syria, in the year 1634 and that to his surprise had found there “more than 800 families of Jews who spoke Castilian (Spanish)”.

Now, why did those families who came to Aleppo from Spain adopt the habit of lighting an extra candle?

The Sepharadic Jews who came to Aleppo considered that having reached their new destination was nothing short of a miracle. Those Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal, no less than 300,000 Jews, were exposed to all kinds of dangers when traveling by sea. They were totally defenseless, with nothing and no one to protect them, and at the mercy of the captains of the precarious boats and their crew. To embark on a trip to overseas was an open invitation to all kinds of abuses. Once the ship left the port, many times Jews were thrown into the sea, without their belongings, or sold as slaves. And if the captain of the ship miraculously fulfilled his promise and tried to bring them to the agreed destination, travelers were still at risk of being attacked by pirates, dying of starvation, being exposed to the inclemencies of weather and storms that could sink those fragile ships, and worst of all, the threat of diseases and epidemics. All these tribulations claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Yehudim. Remember the story of Rabbi Isaac Caro? He left Portugal for Israel. He was not able to reach Erets Israel and eventually ended up in Turkey. On that terrible journey, he lost his numerous family, his wife and his children, all except for one daughter…

To understand the risks and dangers that those Yehudim who escaped forced conversions to Christianity experienced, see the tragic story of Rabbi Yehuda Hayyat HERE, who wrote a short autobiography in the book מערכת האלקות.

Having come safely to Aleppo, these families of Spanish Jews decided to remember their history and give thanks to HaShem for their miraculous salvation. And to convey that, they light an additional candle every night of Hanukka, since the first contingent of refugees from Spain arrived at Aleppo during Hanukka.

(It is worth clarifying that, unlike most Mitsvot, where it is forbidden to do anything extra, for example, we are not allowed to put 5 tsitsiot in a talit, instead of 4, etc., the number of candles that we light in Hanukka has a minimum, one candle per night, but does not have a maximum).