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Chanukah: Just A Minor Festival of Lights?

Monday, June 5, 1967, I began my last full week of high school. What a week it was! By the time I came to school the following Monday for graduation rehearsal, Israel had defeated the entire unified Arab world. It was a stunning military victory in what came to be known as the Six Day War.  What a euphoric time for Jewish people everywhere. I even got a couple of nods, a few “high-fives” and a “way to go,” from my non-Jewish friends. I was graduating from a public high school in suburban Philadelphia.

A burning question at that time was to ask, was this triumph by the nation of Israel miraculous? Was the “hand of God” involved or was the triumph just the result of superior political and military leadership by the Israeli government and IDF compounded by military blunders on the other side? Perhaps it was a little bit of all the above? We will never know for sure. Good arguments can be made to support each opinion. Regardless, Jews around the world rightly gave thanks to Hashem for the outcome.

What, however, was the case with the Maccabean revolt and victory over Antiochus IV and his Hellenized Empire? How did the sages and rabbis at that time know beyond a shadow of a doubt that their victory was divinely assisted? What allowed them to create an annual eight-day commemoration with Rabbinic mitzvot? A close look at the על הנסים”,” “For the miracles,” the special insert into our daily prayers during Chanukah, will shed some light on these questions.

Upon reviewing the words of the  על הנסים insert, it is clear that the thanks to God we are expressing is primarily for the military victory. It states, “… You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…and for Your people Israel You worked a great victory and salvation as this very day.” But then the prayer continues, “Thereafter…they kindled lights and established these eight days of Chanukah to express praise and thanks to Your great name.” Interestingly, the miracle of the oil, the event that receives the most of our attention, is not even specifically mentioned.  Why?

Who were the חשמונאים, the Chashmonaim family, Matisyahu and his sons, that led the revolt and the Jews to victory? The Ramban, Nachmonides, in his commentary on parshat ויחי,  29:10 states, “… They were saints of the Most High without whom the learning of Torah and the observance of the commandments would have been forgotten in Israel.”

In the days of the Chashmonaim, Judaism was on the brink of oblivion. As Rabbi Soloveitchik explains in an essay, “Reflections on Maimonides’ Laws of Chanukah,” “Jewish history was confronted with a new phenomenon: religious persecution. Preventing Jews from observing the law and making them violate the basic principles of Judaism was unknown in our annuals. Before then, we had never met with religious persecution.” (Days of Deliverance, p. 181.)

The Hellenized Assyrians, in their conquest of Israel, were chiefly concerned with indoctrinating the Jews with their culture. In order to accomplish this goal, chief among their many decrees on the Jews were the outlawing of the observance of Shabbat and kashrut, banning ritual circumcision and prohibiting all study of Torah. All this not to mention the plundering of Jewish wealth and the indiscriminate molestation and rape of our Jewish women.

The main goal and objective of the Chashmonaim was not to restore Jewish sovereignty or political power in Israel. Rather, it was to restore Judaism, to bring back Torah learning and the performance of mitzvoth to the people of Israel. Although this war continued for another two decades, immediately upon retaking Jerusalem, they went to check on the Holy  Temple. The Holy Temple was not only the place of the sacrificial service, it was also the seat of the Great Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Israel. The verse from Isaiah, כי מציון תצא תורה ודבר ה’ מירושלים, “ for the Torah shall come forth from Zion, the word of Hashem from Jerusalem,” is a direct reference to this fact. In short, the Holy Temple was the center of the Jewish religion.

So how does the miracle with the oil fit in with the revolt and subsequent victory by the Chashmonaim? What role does the miracle of the oil play in understanding what took place for the Jewish people? The miracle of the one jar of oil lasting for eight days ( only 1/8th burned each day ) was a clear sign and verification to the sages of that time that the military victory directly involved God’s divine intervention. The victory in war did not follow the natural order just as the oil did not follow the natural order.

The following year the Great Sanhedrin established חנוכה. These days were designated for the express purpose of giving praise and thanks to God in gratitude for His assistance in the military victory. These requirements are accomplished by saying Hallel each morning and adding “Al HaNissim” in our prayers and blessings after a meal. (Talmud Shabbat, 21b). The mitzvah to light Chanukah candles was not part of the original rabbinic enactments  of Chanukah. That obligation wasn’t created until after the 2nd Temple was destroyed. 

However, the miracle of oil did play a role in the rabbinic designation of Chanukah. It indicated to the judges of the Great Sanhedrin that the objective of the Maccabees was not motivated by nationalistic concerns. Rather their motivation was to preserve the nation that represents the true ideas of God to the world through its learning of Torah and performance of mitzvoth. The  motivation of the Chashmonaim was purely, לשם שמים , for the sake of Heaven.

We commemorate God’s divine intervention in this war to save the religion of Judaism; but for how long do we celebrate this military victory?  Afterall, for Purim we only celebrate one day, the day after Haman’s forces were defeated. From its original establishment, Chanukah was always 8 days. The sages established the celebration of the military victory for the same amount of days that the miracle of the oil lasted. Thus, they demonstrated in their rabbinic formulation that the  two events were related. The miracle of the oil reflected on the nature of the military victory of the Jewish people. God’s intervention was indisputable.

Today, Judaism faces a similar threat to its existence. It does not take the overt form of religious persecution as it did in the time of the Chashmonaim; but it is ever present and just as dangerous. I am referring to the corrupting and destructive cultural influences impacting Jews and Judaism from our Western civilization. We find many of our coreligionists either altering fundamental beliefs and practices to accommodate life in our Western culture or abandoning Judaism outright.

May we all use this time to rededicate and recommit ourselves to the same battle and mission of the Maccabees, preserving our authentic Jewish religion. In this merit may God continue to protect the nation of Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan