Many of us are familiar with the expression mehadrin min ha'mehadrin from the realm of kashruth. It signifies, or is intended to signify the very highest halachic standards in the preparation of kosher food.
This term actually comes from the realm of Chanukah: When the Sages instituted the nightly lighting of candles during the eight days of the festival, they delineated three different levels of observance. The minimal level calls for each family to light a single candle each night.
The next level up (mehadrin) calls for each family member to light a single candle on each night of Chanukah. But the highest level, what we term mehadrin min ha'mehadrin, calls for the lighting of one candle the first night, two the second, three the third, and so on.
Why is This Mitzvah Different?
The question that comes rushing to the fore is: "Why did the Sages see fit to delineate three levels of observance here but not for other Rabbinic Mitzvos?" To the student of Torah, the question looms even larger since the Sages themselves promulgated the principle that Rabbinic legislation ought to parallel Torah law (Tractate Pesachim 30b). And the Torah does not differentiate between levels of observance.
We might note parenthetically that in the real Jewish world, different levels and degrees of Mitzvah observance have long been known. That is hardly surprising since the more a person invests in his relationship with G-d, in Torah study, and in the performance of its Commandments, the more he wants to serve G-d in the finest way possible. Glatt kosher meat, high-quality tefillin, charity donations that exceed 10% of one's income… are just a few of the hidurim that suggest themselves.
But still, we may ask, why is all this necessary? If something is kosher for one, shouldn't it be kosher for all? And if its treif for one, shouldn't it be treif for all??
Before we formulate an answer to that familiar, but none the lest stilted question, let us take a slight detour via the kitchen of our local yeshivah, where the cook is preparing a hearty salad for lunch. If she is Israeli, she will probably dice those tomatoes and cucumbers rather fine, and throw in a bit of onion as well as salt and pepper.
Now, while the yeshivah student may enjoy the salad, the gourmet will certainly turn up his nose at this simple fare. For his refined palette, something more sophisticated is called for – a "Caesar Salad," for instance.
For anyone not familiar with this earthly delight, the Caesar Salad is born the night before its appearance on the dining room table:
Two garlic cloves are cut lengthwise (not widthwise), and left to soak overnight in a third of a cup of pure olive oil. After they are washed, two heads of lettuce are cut in half and the best leaves are washed again and dried thoroughly. The leaves are then bagged in plastic and placed in the refrigerator for several hours (to guarantee crispness!)… "The leaves are then cut into one-inch squares and the punctilious (i.e., mehadrin) do not use a knife, but rip them by hand."
Going back now to the dressing: Two tablespoons full of the garlic-saturated olive oil are poured out and stirred gently. To the oil are added: vinegar, lemon juice and a beaten egg. The entire mixture is whipped by hand seven times…
There is more to the procedure, but suffice it to mention the coup de grace: The salad is served on chilled plates and eaten with chilled forks!
"They've got to be kidding!" some of us may be groaning by now.
But the fact is that human beings are not kidding about their willingness to invest inordinate amounts of time and trouble in things they like – regardless of how trivial. Thus, the concept of mehadrin – and even mehadrin min ha'mehadrin – which we encounter on Chanukah, is actually very familiar to us regardless of our religious orientation. The only question is what we choose to be "mehadrin" about. If it happens to be food, a Caesar Salad is worth the effort. If it happens to be spectator sports, a box seat at Madison Square Garden is worth the price. If it happens to be jewelry, artificial pearls are out of the question… regardless of how authentic they look.
To Build and to Beautify
In their Song at the Sea, the Jewish people who had recently emerged from Egyptian slavery exclaimed: "Ze Keili Ve'Anveihu" (This is my G-d, and I will beautify Him). Our Sages note that the root of that last word, anveihu, denotes both building (neve) and beautification (noy). The nation at once sang about the building of a spiritual center (Holy Tabernacle/Temple) and about the performing of mitzvos in the most beautiful way possible.
The two concepts are linked: For in building the Holy Mikdash, we put spirituality in the forefront at our consciousness. And once that happens, we begin to appreciate the importance of carrying out Hashem's Commandments in the most beautiful way possible.
Covering All the Bases
Another aspect of this concept of mehadrin involves choosing the course – or the product – whose permissibility raises absolutely no questions. In the realm of kashruth, this is known as glatt kosher. Before illustrating, let us recall that our halachic authorities sometimes disagree on questions of Jewish Law. (The disputes generally arise over fine points or borderline cases.) Latter-day authorities choose one view over the other – for practical purposes – based on established principles of decision-making.
Thus, for example, in compiling his authoritative Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) in the fifteenth century, Rabbi Yoseph Karo based himself largely on the rulings of three of his greatest predecessors. In the event of a disagreement between them, Rabbi Karo usually confided the majority view as binding.
Now, let us say than an animal is slaughtered and a question arises about its kashruth. If the Shulchan Aruch rules that the animal is kosher, we are free to eat.
Still, in so doing, we may be going against the halachic conclusion – i.e., the understanding of G-d's will – of a towering authority such as the Rambam. To avoid this sort of predicament, many Jews make an effort to eat only meat about which no questions have arisen: i.e., glatt kosher. This approach obtains in many other areas as well.
Let us say, for example, that we are buying on credit from a certain Jewish merchant and we have a doubt about whether the arrangement violates the prohibition against taking interest. We consult a competent Orthodox Rabbi and learn that the majority view allows this sort of financial arrangement.
We have the possibility, however, of modifying several of the particulars so that the deal also meets the objections of the minority halachic view. By taking those measures, we make our purchase "glatt kosher," so to speak.
And we demonstrate our desire to fulfill G-d's will in the fullest and finest way possible – le'Mehadrin.
To return now to the question with which we opened this discussion: it is no accident that the Sages specifically incorporated the concept of mehadrin observance in the commemoration of Chanukah. The Greek enemy defeated by our Hasmonean ancestors did not seek to destroy our bodies, like Haman, Chmielnicki, Hitler, et al. Rather, they sought to separate us from Torah and Mitzvah observance.
By lighting the Chanukah menorah in mehadrin fashion, we re-affirm the rebuff of that attempt and announce to the world that our commitment to Torah and Mitzvos is unqualified and unshakable.