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The Status of Rabbinic Celebrations

What is the most important idea of physics? Which law of physics is major and which is minor? Which laws of physics must always be followed? Which ones can we ignore if we just don’t like them or if we just don’t feel like following them today?

After we study science in middle school and certainly by high school, we come to understand that the notion of the most important law or major and minor laws of science is absurd. Physics is a complete system, as are chemistry and biology. They explain how every part of the physical world operates. Every law of science is necessary for a full and true understanding of nature. If you leave any law out, you don’t have the correct understanding of how the universe works. The scholars of physics rightfully don’t organize their ideas into such categories. In short, no law of science is insignificant or trivial.

Now go to Google. Search for the most meaningful Jewish holiday or the most celebrated Jewish holiday. Search also for major and minor festivals on the Jewish calendar. Whatever answer you find in your search, know that it is wrong. Such an idea of the most meaningful, the most celebrated, or major and minor is also an absurdity to anyone knowledgeable of the system of Judaism. Judaism, like science, is a unified system both in its philosophy and legal structure. Its legal or halachic system is whole and complete. No part of it is trivial or insignificant. If it appears to be so, the fault lies in our lack of understanding.

Unfortunately, many if not most of our practicing co-religionists carry this false notion in their minds. How many times do we hear people explain something in Judaism by saying, “That is only a minor holiday or minor fast,” or “That is only a rabbinic law. It isn’t so important; the Torah doesn’t say to do that.”

  Chanukah is an example, par excellence, of this notion. Lighting the Chanukah menorah is probably one of the most widely practiced Jewish performances. Yet, Chanukah is thought of as only a minor festival. True, no mention of Chanukah is found anywhere in the Torah or for that matter in any book of the Bible. Its eight-day celebration was formally instituted by our sages who lived in the time of the Maccabean revolt. The laws of lighting Chanukah candles weren’t enacted until after the destruction of the second בית המקדש, long after the  Maccabees restored the Temple from Antiochus’s defilement.

Its rabbinic origin notwithstanding, when enacting a rabbinic performance, the rabbis must follow a strict formula prescribed by the Torah. Every rabbinic institution must be כעין דאורייתא, in-line with a Torah principle. For example, there is the mitzvah “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Included in this mitzvah are the following activities: visiting the sick, consoling a mourner, seeing and meeting a prospective mate before marriage. The rabbis, according to Torah law, have the authority to tell us how to fulfill a mitzvah in the Torah.  

There is one opinion, Rav Saadia Gaon, who holds that Chanukah, as well as Purim, are mitzvoth from the Torah. In his treatise, אזהרות, he shows how each of the 613 mitzvot can be categorized under one of the 10 Commandments. According to him, Chanukah and Purim fall under the command of זכור, “remember the Shabbat.” This would indicate that lighting the Chanukah candles (and reading the Megilah on Purim) are a fulfillment of the Torah requirement to recognize Hashem, as the Creator, as is the theme of Shabbat. By lighting the Chanukah candles (and reading the Megilah)  we advertise that the same Creator of the universe interceded in a miraculous way to save Judaism.

However, most of the Torah scholars are of the opinion that Chanukah and Purim are purely rabbinic. Yet they must agree that they were created “in line with the Torah.” How so?

Purim and Chanukah revolve around a similar theme, the attempted destruction of Judaism. In Purim, Haman sought to destroy Judaism by wiping out all of its adherents. With Chanukah the destruction of Judaism was to occur through government edict, prohibiting many of Judaism’s religious practices. For starters under the penalty of death, Antiochus banned the recognition of Rosh Chodesh, keeping our dietary laws, performing circumcision, observing Shabbat and Yom Tov, and the study of Torah.  In short, the survival of the Jewish religion, the continued implementation of God’s plan for humanity to live by was at stake. The prophet states, אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חוקת שמים וארץ לא שמתי, “If not for My covenant day and night, the heavens and earth have no purpose.” The institutions of both Purim and Chanukah involve the recognition of a fundamental metaphysical idea first presented in the Torah. The existence of the universe only has fulfillment when the commandments and philosophy of the Torah are put into practice.

 These national catastrophes to the Jewish people, the first during the Persian Empire and the second occurring in Israel under the domination of the prevailing Hellenistic power, were only thwarted by Jews who were prepared to stand up, fight and, if necessary, die in battle. But theirs was not a fight for their physical survival. Theirs was a fight for the very survival of our Torah way of life. Their actions reflected their commitment to Judaism, to live in line with the will of God.

How do we know this was their motivation? In both situations, the physical fight was led by Torah scholars, Purim by Mordecai, and Chanukah by Matisyahu and his sons. The Ramban says about the Chashmonai family, the leaders of the revolt against Antiochus and his Hellenist regime, “They were saints of the Most High without whom the learning of Torah and the observance of mitzvoth would have been forgotten in Israel.” In both situations, the sages of those eras recognized that victory and success was only possible through Hashem’s intervention and salvation.  The total reversal of the situations for Haman and Mordecai revealed in the Megilah and the one small jar of undefiled oil lasting 8 days in the event of restoring the Temple by the Maccabees were deemed miraculous verifications by our sages at that time to allow them to establish the rabbinic special days of Purim and Chanukah.

These two rabbinic institutions, Purim and Chanukah, as is true with all of our authentic religious practices, are inextricably tied principles found in our Torah. Participating in the accompanying religious performances, reading the Megilat Esther on Purim, and lighting candles on the eight nights of Chanukah attests to our recognition and commitment to these same values and philosophic principles. There is nothing minor about them. Should the dire situations that faced our forebears occur today, we would join our fellow Jews in a fight to safeguard the survival of our Torah way of life.

As we light the Chanukiah, let us continue to be mindful and pray for God’s protecting care over Jews worldwide and our nation of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan