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When Did the Rabbis Create Ner Chanukah?

When was the rabbinic mitzvah of lighting oil or candles for Chanukah established? This may sound like a very simple and obvious question but the answer may be a surprise. Furthermore, what is accomplished by lighting candles each night of Chanukah? Again, simple or obvious!? Let’s investigate.

One of the Torah commands is “not to add to or subtract from” the number of mitzvot in the Torah. No individual or group of people can institute a new mitzvah. Thus everything that the rabbis create must be “in line with an existing mitzvah in the Torah.” The rabbis can only create another form of accomplishing or protecting a pre-existing Torah command. With the enactment of Chanukah candles, which mitzvah are the rabbis extending?

In the Laws of Chanukah, the Rambam states, “Even if a person doesn’t have what to eat except from charity, he must ask or sell his possessions to purchase oil or candles and light.” This law seems very onerous. It places a tremendous burden on a very poor person to fulfill a rabbinic mitzvah. This same requirement and decree occurs again with regard to purchasing four cups of wine for the Seder. The first Mishnah in chapter 10 of Talmud Pesachim sets out Pesach preparations. Although the four cups of wine are only rabbinic, the Mishnah specifically mentions this same obligation on the poor.

What is the common denominator between the lighting of candles for Chanukah and four cups of wine at the Seder? Both mitzvot serve to accomplish “advertising the miracle.” Normally a person only needs to spend up to 20% of his wealth to fulfill a mitzvah. Why in these two cases of “advertising the miracle” must a person spend, if necessary, all of his wealth to accomplish? The answer is that these two rabbinic mitzvot involve the fulfillment of the Torah’s command, “to sanctify the name of God.” The command to “sanctify the name of God” may require even more than all our wealth. It may require in very specific situations that one give up his or her life to accomplish. No Jew therefore can be exempt from this fulfillment.

Sanctification of God’s name applies in many situations but particularly when one is acting to save Judaism. Rich and poor alike must fulfill the obligation to “sanctify the name of God.” The uprising and subsequent war that was led by the Maccabees was definitely for the purpose of saving Judaism. The proof of this assertion is found at the very beginning of the “al ha’nisim” insert to our tefilah.  “In the days …when the wicked Greek nation rose up against your people to make them forget Your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of Your will.”

As a result of this victory, we became obligated to publicly demonstrate that we do not falter or bend under pressure to forsake the Torah. Then, God will intervene on our behalf. The miracle of the oil was the verification to the rabbis that the military victory was only to save the Jewish religion. Hence the military victory itself was a miracle brought about by God.  Purim, in contradistinction to Chanukah, while it also involves “advertising the miracle,” it does not fall under the mitzvah of “sanctifying God’s name.” Purim was simply about saving lives, not Judaism.

The Talmud Shabbat, 21b tells us “the year after the miracle of the oil, the rabbis established those days (beginning with the 25th of Kislev) as Yamim Tovim with praise (saying Hallel) and thanks (by inserting “al ha’nisim” in tefilah according to Rashi).” Upon close reading of the Talmud here, we notice something is missing. No mention is made of the mitzvah to light Chanukah candles! This omission is likewise found in the “al ha’nisim” insert we add into our tefilot during Chanukah.

So when, then, did the rabbis create and institute the mitzvah of נר חנוכה, lighting candles for Chanukah? Rav Soloveitchick, of blessed memory, addresses this issue in Vol. 13 of the OU publication, מסורה. From the previously quoted Talmud excerpt, it is clear that Chanukah candles were not part of the original rabbinic formulation. The scholar, Avnei Nezer, informs us that the mitzvah to light candles for Chanukah was not established until after the destruction of the 2nd Temple. This fact is also mentioned by the Ramban in his commentary to parshat Beha’alotcha.

The reason for not having Chanukah candles as part of the original rabbinic formulation and its omission of being mentioned in the “al ha’nisim” insert can now be deduced. When the one jar of pure oil was found, the high priest lit the menorah in the Temple. It took eight days to produce enough new oil to light the 7 branch menorah of the Temple. That one jar miraculously lasted 8 days. The Temple was restored and lasted close to another two hundred years before its destruction in 70 of the common era. All during that time, the menorah in the Temple was lit each day.

After the destruction of the 2nd Temple, many rabbinic mitzvot were enacted to remind us of the Temple. Today, for example, eating bitter herbs at the Seder is a rabbinic mitzvah. It was enacted to remind us of the Torah’s mitzvah to eat bitter herbs with matzah and the Pesach sacrifice. But this Torah command applies only in the time of the Temple. The mitzvah from the Torah of taking the lulav, in our day, is only on the first day of Sukkot. Our taking it during the last 6 days of Sukkot is a rabbinic mitzvah. It was instituted by the rabbis to remind us of the mitzvah of lulav in the very Temple itself, where it was a mitzvah from the Torah all 7 days of the holiday.

Let’s apply this concept to Chanukah. As long as the Temple existed, there would be no reason to create a mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles to remind us of the miracle of the Temple’s menorah. The daily mitzvah of lighting the Temple’s menorah was itself the greatest reminder of the miracle of Chanukah.

Now we understand why lighting candles for Chanukah is not mentioned by the Talmud or in the “al ha’nisim prayer.” It would make no sense to enact a law that requires an action to serve as a reminder for the Temple while the Temple exists. In corroboration of this fact, Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that no rabbinic authority alive during the time of the Second Temple is ever mentioned in the Talmud discussing the laws of Chanukah candles. It is clear that lighting Chanukah candles then did not become a rabbinic mitzvah until after the 2nd Temple was destroyed. 

Thus we can conclude that the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles functions in two realms.   One is as a form of “advertising the miracle” in order “to sanctify God’s name.” The other is to serve as a vehicle “to remember the Temple.” When we light each night both of these fulfillments should be in the forefront of our minds.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan