The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Understanding the Practice and Meaning of
Yeshivat Har Etzion
by Rav Ezra Bick
Chanuka is, from the halakhic point of view, a most unusual
Why do I say so? Well, the Sages (Talmud Shabbat 21b) state
that this holiday was instituted in commemoration of a miracle that took place
some 2200 years ago. The entire holiday is a rabbinic ordinance, not mentioned
in the Torah, since it commemorates an event that took place many years after
the Torah was given, in fact after the Bible was completed. This in itself is
not so unusual, since there are thousands of rabbinic enactments, although they
are usually additions to existing Biblical laws and not entirely new
institutions. What is strange here is the totally different nature of this
holiday from any found in the Torah.
Let us examine what the Talmud states:
What is Chanuka? The Sages taught: On the twenty-fifth day of
(the month of) Kislev there are eight days of Chanuka... for when the Greeks
entered the Temple they defiled all the oil in the Temple. When the kingdom of
the Chasmonai dynasty (the Maccabees) arose and defeated them, they searched but
could only find one flask of oil that was set aside with the seal of the high
priest. However, it contained only enough to burn for one day. A miracle took
place and they lit from it for eight days. The following year they established
them as festival days with praise (of God) and thanks. (Shabbat
Why do I think this is a strange reason for a Jewish holiday?
Notice that the Talmud does not say that they instituted a festival because of
the actual military victory over the Hellenic army. The festival commemorates a
miracle that took place AT THE TIME of the victory. Now this is a very important
difference between Judaism and Christianity. Jews do not, generally speaking,
celebrate miracles. For instance, while the exodus from Egypt was accompanied by
ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and numerous other signs and wonders,
the holiday of Pesach does not celebrate the working of miracles but the freedom
from slavery itself. If no miracle had taken place, the holiday would have
exactly the same significance. The same is true for Shavuot - the Torah was
given in an impressively miraculous fashion, but we are celebrating the fact
that the Torah was given, not the manner in which it was delivered. In the case
of Chanuka, the very opposite appears to be true, for, on inspection, this
particular miracle seems to have no special significance of its own at all.
Consider the following:
1. After eight days, new oil is obtained, so that it is
apparent that the miracle has not enabled the lighting the menora of the Temple
itself, but has only enabled that event to be moved up by a week.
2. The halakha is that if there is no pure oil, impure oil may
be used, so they could have lit the menora in any event.
3. In any event, the effect of that miracle has, on first
glance, no particular significance for us today, when the lamp of the Temple has
been long extinguished.
It seems, on examination, that here we are celebrating the very
fact of a miracle, rather than the human thematic significance that this miracle
happened to effect or accompany. And that would seem to be a very strange thing,
especially since there is no lack of miracles in the Bible that could have
merited a holiday for the same reason.
There is basically one mitzva on Chanuka - to light candles.
This is directly connected to the miracle story related by the Talmud - the
candles commemorate the lights of the miracle in the Temple 2200 years ago.
Naturally, as on any special day, there is also mention of
Chanuka in the daily prayers. A special section, beginning with the words "al
ha-nissim," is added to the section of the prayer where we thank God for His
gifts. On Chanuka, we add that we are thanking Him "al ha-nissim" - for the
"miracles, deliverance, great deeds, wondrous acts, and battles, which You did
for our ancestors on these days in those ancient times." We then proceed to
recite just what God did - and here we do not mention the miracle of the lights
at all! Rather, we explain how the Hellenistic government of Syria attempted to
eliminate the observance of Jewish law and obliterate the Torah, but, by God's
grace, the puny Jewish army overthrew the yoke of tyranny, defeated the mighty
Greek armies, and purified and rededicated the Temple.
The reason for the lack of mention of the miracle of the lights
is clear. We are here giving thanks for God's gifts. Gratitude is due only if
something has been given, something gained, for which we are grateful. A
miracle, as impressive as it may be, is not itself a cause for gratitude.
Wonder, astonishment, awe - these are perhaps appropriate responses, but not
gratitude. Gratitude, the prayer explains, is due to two important results of
the Jewish successful struggle against the Hellenists - the safeguarding of
Judaism from the most dangerous cultural enemy in history (backed by military
might), and the purification of the Temple after it had been turned into an
idolatrous place of worship.
So now, after seeing what the spiritual significance of the
historical Chanuka really is, the question returns - what is the reason that the
festival was based on the apparently relatively minor incident of the miracle of
I would like to suggest that the miracle of the lights is meant
to be the FILTER through which we should understand the events of the Chanuka
story. Chanuka celebrates a particular historical event. Other holidays are
based on historical events, but they are events which transcend history because
their significance forms the basis for Jewish existence in all generations. The
celebration of a festival is a recreation for ourselves of the event - or more
importantly, the experience - of that particular festival. On Passover, we once
again go out from slavery to freedom (as we shall see in this year's Pesach
shiur); on Shavuot, we once again stand before God at Sinai to receive the
Torah; on Sukkot, we once again place ourselves under the Divine providence and
presence. We are not celebrating Jewish history on these holidays, we are
celebrating the inner spiritual meaning of Jewish existence, which is
meta-historical. During the period of the second Temple, the Jews did in fact
celebrate historically significant dates, much the way that modern societies
celebrate Independence day or V-E day (for those Americans who remember what V-E
Day is). There is an ancient book, called Megillat Ta'anit, which lists all the
days on which it is forbidden to mourn, and nearly all of them are connected to
victories or other national successes from that ancient period. In fact, the
Talmudic text quoted above describing Chanuka is taken from that book. Not
surprisingly, all these "minor holidays" were abandoned after the destruction of
the second Temple - the national history of the second commonwealth became
"mere" history and was not a cause for celebration any more -- EXCEPT FOR
CHANUKA! Megillat Ta'anit is a dead book - except for Chanuka. It is in this
light that we should understand the meaning of the Talmud's question - "what is
Chanuka?" Why of all the dates commemorating the history of the second
commonwealth is only this one a real religious holiday, becoming a permanent
part of Jewish existence? In other words, what is the transcending
meta-historical significance of the 25th day of the month of Kislev?
The answer is - the miracle of the lights explains to us what
is the experience that was "revealed," that became a permanent part of Jewish
existence, "on these days in ancient times." That experience is RENEWAL. In two
areas, Jewish life and spiritual value had run itself down into near extinction.
National life, centered around the observance of the Torah, had been outlawed by
an imperial power in the name of a universal culture that was in the process of
transforming the world, the spirit that was Greece. The old ways were virtually
dead. Secondly, the Temple of God, the seat of God's presence in the world, had
been converted into a pantheon with Zeus at its head, had been desecrated and
defiled, its sanctity driven away. Any objective examination of Jewish strength,
both external and internal, could have reached only one conclusion - there were
not enough resources nor enough spirit to continue, to change the inexorable
course of the history of civilizations. Arnold Toynbee, in a celebrated comment,
termed Judaism a fossil civilization, dead within, an empty shell. In a short
period of time it would collapse, defiled internally, crushed from without. Once
something has died, there is no way to revivify it. Once a light has been
extinguished, the flame cannot be rekindled.
But that is not what happened. Objectively, the Temple had been
defiled, which is the same as saying it had been destroyed. A small vial of oil
had been found, but it was insufficient to carry on the past into the future.
The basic rule of Greek philosophy - and modern science - that the effect cannot
exceed the cause, limits the burning of the lamps to an insignificant one day,
not enough to dedicate a Temple to God. But behold - the menora burns for eight
days, miraculously, until the Jews are able to find the resources to maintain it
naturally. Where did the little vial of oil come from? Where did it get the
thermal power to burn so long? The answer is that ultimately we are not bound by
the present circumstances, we can transcend them, renewing and creating nearly
ex nihilo. The effect transcends the sum of its causes. So it was in the battle
between Greek culture and Jewish culture, so it was in the battle of death and
defilement against purity and holiness. No matter how dead it seems, there
remains a spark of life which can rekindle a mighty flame. This is not history,
but it is meta-history in the deepest sense. Any moment in time can be the start
of a new Temple, a new flame, no matter what process seems to have preceded it.
This is the meaning of MIRACLE - there always exists the
possibility of a new beginning, because, despite the seeming contradiction, the
seeds of a new beginning are implanted into the past, like a small vial of oil
sealed with the seal of the high priest. In fact, Greek culture is not merely an
opponent of Judaism - it is the antithesis of this very principle of miracle, of
freedom. Philosophically, the Greeks introduced the notion of natural law, of
cause and effect as inexorable coercion. Greek tragedy is defined by Aristotle
as the futility of the struggle against fate, blind fate. All effects, taught
Aristotle, must be present potentially as part of the causes, for A can never
derive from not-A.
The symbol (and not merely a chance commemoration) of the
principle of miracle is the flame. Even today, I hope, there are few people who
cannot marvel at the life of a flame, ever renewing itself as it dances above
the fuel. True, we all know that this is merely a chemical transformation of
carbon into H2O and CO2. But you have to be very jaded - very OLD - to really
feel that that explanation exhausts the phenomenon and steals away its wonder.
The festivals of the Torah taught and inculcated the conditions
for human spiritual achievement - freedom, law, kingship, repentance, and Divine
presence. Chanuka, an addition of the Sages to the Jewish year, teaches that
those principles can be found, rekindled, no matter what has apparently been
corrupted, both on the national level, and on the personal level.
On the national level, the principle of Chanuka means that, to
use the words of the "al ha-nissim" prayer, "the strong in the hands of the
weak, the many in the hands of the few, impure in the hands of the pure, the
wicked in the hands of the righteous, the iniquitous in the hands of students of
Torah" is not impossible. On the personal level, it means that no matter how
"dead" one seems spiritually, the spark can still be found, and one spark can
light a fire as large as is needed. There is one more level of meaning of the
Chanuka miracle, one implicit in the lighting of the lights themselves. But
first we have to review a bit of practical halakha.
The mitzva of Chanuka is to light a candle (or oil lamp) each
night. The minimum is one - but the preferable manner is to light one more each
night, from one to eight, showing how the miracle grew with each passing day.
Despite what Judaica manufacturers might have lead you to believe, there is
actually no law pertaining to the menora itself. Any form of fire will do.
Presumably, in ancient times, the Chanuka lights were lit in regular oil lamps,
the same used to light the homes every night of the year. If you do not have a
menora, you can place the candle inside half a potato, or even just stick it
directly on the window sill (provided, of course, that you have fire insurance).
It is forbidden to have any benefit from the Chanuka lights
while they burn. For that reason, it is customary to light an extra candle, or
to leave on the electric lights. The Chanuka lights are to be seen, as a sign to
others, but are not to be utilized for our own private purposes. In the short
traditional prayer appended to the lighting ceremony, this is stated as follows:
"These candles are holy and we do not have permission to use them; only to look
at them." The difficult word here is "holy." The fact that an object is being
used for a mitzva does not make it holy - the etrog on Sukkot, the shofar on
Rosh HaShana, and the matza on Pesach are not holy. But the difficulty is more
than linguistic. If the prohibition on use is merely in order to safeguard the
proper purpose of the mitzva, then once the mitzva is over, when the candles
have burned the requisite amount of time (1/2 hour after dark), it should be
permissible to have benefit from the light or from the oil left over in the
lamp. If, however, the oil and the lights are "holy," sacred objects, then that
holiness will put them off-bounds even afterwards. In fact, the standard halakha
is to prohibit any benefit from the oil remaining in a lamp. Where does this
"holiness" come from?
I believe that the Chanuka lights have the status of the light
lit in the Temple itself, the light of the holy Temple menora, which stood
before the altar. The mitzva of lighting lights on Chanuka is then the
following. On Chanuka we turn every Jewish home into a place where the light of
the Temple - WHICH HAS NOT ACTUALLY EXISTED FOR THE LAST 1930 YEARS - burns and
shines. It is not the menora of the Temple which is being placed in our homes -
that would be sacrilegious. It is the immaterial light of the Temple which is
now burning in every home, the home taking the place of the Temple. Among other
things, Chanuka lights are different than almost every other mitzva in that it
is not incumbent on every individual singly; rather, there must be at least one
light in every HOME. (The custom is to light many lights each night, for each
member of the household; hence each person tries to light. But the halakhic
minimum is "one candle for a person in his home"). The home here is taking the
place of the Temple, the light filling our private homes is the light of the
holy Temple. Hence, the oil was given the status of "holy," set aside for a
sacred purpose, as would be the oil in the Temple menora.
How is this possible? How can we light today a light from the
Temple 1928 years after it was extinguished. The answer is simple - it is
Chanuka! The Maccabees lit the Temple menora several years after it had been
extinguished by the Greeks. Since then, the light of the Temple has been a
miraculous one, which does not need a scientific measure of oil to sustain it.
The spark remains, since the original lighting itself was from a tiny spark, out
of proportion to the eight-day needs. The very number eight is indicative of
that principle. A week is seven days, a cycle of time. Passover and Sukkot are
seven days. Chanuka is eight days, because its effect goes beyond an entire
cycle, there is some left over for the future.
The word "Chanuka," means "dedication," and it clearly refers
to the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees long ago. But is it not
strange that we celebrate the dedication of the Temple, not on the day when it
was originally dedicated by King Solomon for the first time, nor on the day when
the second Temple was dedicated by returning exiles from Babylonia seventy years
after the first was destroyed, but when the second was RE-dedicated three
hundred years later. The answer, I think, is that the first and second temples
are history, gone, and we do not celebrate history. But the dedication of the
Maccabees is not gone - if they could make eight days of fire out of a little
vial of oil, then that fire is STILL BURNING, because all it takes is a tiny
spark to rekindle it. And we show, by lighting that very fire in our homes every
year, that the spark is still around, not necessarily on the Temple Mount, but
in our homes, in the lives of the Jew. Objectively, scientifically, by the
measure of Greek science and Western rationality, that is absurd; by the measure
of Chanuka it is a miracle, which is perfectly normal. The final level of
significance of Chanuka is then neither the national nor the personal, but a
combination of the two - the ability to rekindle the Temple, may it be built
speedily in our lifetime, is in our hands; the little vial of oil sealed by the
high priest has been entrusted to us. Chanuka has shown us that the Temple has
not been, cannot be completely destroyed, just as the oil could not be
completely defiled. The spark remains, and one spark can burn for eight days, or
as long as it takes to really get all the resources needed to achieve a normal
non-miraculous sustainable light.
"These lights are holy, not to be used, but only to be seen,"
to be gazed upon in wonder, for they carry within them the secret of renewal,
the spark of "these days in ancient times," the principle that one can always
transcend the limitations of the present, the spirit of the pure light of the
Temple of Jerusalem which has never been completely extinguished. Just as our
homes are transformed by these lights, so are we.