Ner Mitzvah details the four main exiles that the Jewish people have faced throughout history: Babylonian, Persian, Grecian, and Roman. Through his exposition, Maharal helps us to understand the purpose of each of these exiles and the nature of the struggles of the Jewish people to overcome them. These bitter exiles were designed as part of Hashem’s grand plan to reveal His Oneness and Sovereignty over all of creation. The main entrée of the sefer is the historic conflict between Israel and Greece, which culminated with Hashem saving us from their hands through the miracles of Chanukah.
Part One: The Four Empires
The sefer opens in the palace of Belshazzar in Babylon, almost seventy years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. There, the Prophet Daniel saw a vision of four great beasts emerging from the sea. Maharal explains in depth how the four beasts represent the four empires which exiled and ruled over the Jewish People: Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. These four nations are the historical expression of critical deficiencies in human consciousness: attachment to the physical, the insatiable lust for conquest, and exalting human intellect over the divine, with Rome encompassing and surpassing them all. Maharal then elaborates on the exiles, bringing sources from all areas of Torah. The dichotomy between the holiness of the Jewish People and the depravity of the empires and corresponding exiles is re-examined from a number of perspectives. At the end of the first section, he describes the final redemption and the returning ascendency of the Jewish People as the breaches in human consciousness are finally repaired.
Part Two: Hilchos Chanukah
The second half of the sefer deals mostly with the laws and customs of Chanukah, in particular candle lighting. Maharal waxes halachic on a number of laws, including the inadmissibility of candles made of wax or congealed fat. The rest of the book is dedicated to elucidating the gemara in Shabbos 23b which describes the reward for exacting performance of mitzvos. Towards the end of the work, he turns to the subject of yayin nesech. He describes “the wine of the nations” as that which separates us from our eternal purpose. The antidote to this is to remain a pure Jewish nation, connected to the mitzvos, which are eternally relevant. With four proofs, he castigates his generation for being lenient in this matter. Ner Mitzvah concludes with a warning that the Messiah is not bound to come at any particular time, and a prayer that he come soon.