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Chanuka: The Reasons to Celebrate and the Nature of the Laws

Rav David Brofsky



The Miracle of Chanuka and its Commemoration


Throughout Chanuka, we praise God both in the daily Shemona Esrei prayer and in Birkat Ha-mazon for the miracle wrought during the Hasmonean rebellion against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, in 165 BCE.  We recount:


"In the days of the Hasmonean Matityahu, son of Yochanan the high priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous Greco-Syrian kingdom arose against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from the ordinances of Your will, in Your abundant mercy You arose for them in their time of distress, waged their battle, executed judgment, avenged their wrong, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and insolent ones into the hands of those occupied with Your Torah.  Both unto Yourself did you make a great and holy name in Your world, and unto Your people did You achieve a great deliverance and redemption…"


Furthermore, we recount the rededication of the Temple:


"Thereupon Your children entered the sanctuary of Your abode, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courts, and established these eight days of Chanuka in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name."


The Al Ha-nissim insertion clearly focuses upon the military victory, and the subsequent rededication of the Temple.  Interestingly, many quasi-festivals were instituted throughout the SecondTemple period, during which it is prohibited to eulogize and fast.  In fact, many of these days, as they are recorded in Megillat Ta'anit, relate to the various victories of the Hasmonians.  However, although after the destruction of the Second Temple the days mentioned in the Megillat Ta'anit are no longer commemorated ("batla Megillat Ta'anit"), the holiday of Chanuka, due to the mitzva of candle-lighting and its importance in publicizing of the miracle, remained intact (Rosh Ha-shana 18b).  


Apparently, since its conception, Chanuka was perceived and treated as no ordinary military victory.  One might suggest that Chanuka signified the successful culmination of the Hasmonean revolt, and therefore deserved special celebration.  Although the Hasmonean dynasty tragically strayed from the spiritual legacy of Matityahu, and, by the time Herod rose to power, it was eliminated (see Bava Batra 3b), the dynasty’s establishment is nevertheless cause for great celebration.  Indeed, the Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla Ve-Chanuka 3:1-3) writes:


"In the time of the SecondTemple, when the Greeks ruled over Israel, they issued evil decrees against them, banning their religion and forbidding them to study the Law and to fulfill the commandments… And Israel was in sore straits in consequence thereof and suffered great persecution until the God of our fathers took pity on them and saved and delivered them from the Greeks… They set up a king from among the priests and restored Israel's kingdom for a period of more than two hundred years- until the destruction of the SecondTemple"


Some suggest that the Rambam's emphasis upon the two-hundred-year Hasmonean autonomy (despite their corrupt reign and tragic end) was intended to note the uniqueness of this victory, in that it resulted in political autonomy that endured for over two centuries.


The Talmud (Shabbat 21b), however, focuses on a different aspect of the Hasmonean victory:


"What is [the reason of] Chanuka? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Chanuka, eight days during which eulogizing the dead and fasting are forbidden.  For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for only one day's lighting; yet, a miracle occurred and they lit [the lamp] with the oil for eight days.  The following year, these [days] were designated as a festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving…"


This passage focuses upon a miracle related to the rededication of the Temple, and not to the victory itself. Indeed, the length of the festival, which clearly relates to the miracle of the flask of oil, also attests to the centrality of the post-victory events.  This centrality is underscored by a comment of the Peri Chadash, who seeks to resolve the famous question of the Beit Yosef (670) as to why Chanuka is observed for eight days.  Since the flask contained enough oil for one day, the Beit Yosef noted, the miracle lasted only seven days, and not eight.  The Peri Chadash answered that on the first day we commemorate the miraculous military victory, whereas the subsequent seven days celebrate the miracle of the oil.  This answer reflects a perspective that views the events FOLLOWING the victory as the primary cause of celebration.


Why did the Hasmoneans’ successful efforts to rededicate the Temple after the revolt deserve special celebration?


Rabbi Michael Rosensweig has often noted in this context that according to many, the miracle associated with the rededication may have been totally unnecessary.  As observed by a number of Acharonim, the halakhic principle "tum’a hutra be-tzibbur" (Yoma 6b), which allows national Temple rituals to be performed even in a state of ritual defilement, may have deemed the entire miracle superfluous. Seemingly, the defiled oil was also suitable for use in kindling the menorah.  Why, then, was this miracle necessary at all?


In addressing this question, Rav Rosensweig took note of the Gemara’s discussion of the three-tiered mitzva of hadlakat nerot.  It appears from the Gemara’s presentation that the optimal level of observance, "mehadrin min ha-mehadrin," is expected from everyone, and indeed the universally accepted practice is to adhere to this standard.


Rav Rosensweig explains that Antiochus wished not to annihilate the Jewish people (in contrast to other instances of persecution, such as Haman’s decree), but rather to reduce their halakhic observance/spiritual expression to a private matter, performed in a "be-diavad" manner.  The Hasmonean revolt rejected the attempt to institutionalize spiritual mediocrity.  Just as under certain circumstances a Jew's response to persecution must be "yehareg ve-al ya'avor" (meaning, to die in affirmation of one's commitment to Torah), similarly, the Jewish people at this time risked their lives to be able to live and practice a complete, optimal spiritual lifestyle.  


While indeed the miracle of the flask of oil may have been superfluous, relying on leniencies would have undermined the entire message of the revolt.  For the same reason, the observance of Chanuka is unique in its focus upon "hiddur," and its anticipation that although one may fulfill the basic mitzva of "ner ish u-veito," he is expected to fulfill the mitzva in its most ambitious and ideal form.  In fact, the Shulchan Arukh does not even mention the possibility of lighting "ner ish u-veito"!


If so, Rav Rosensweig suggests, the reasons behind the revolt, and more importantly, the Jewish people's response to the miraculous events, were worthy of a permanent celebration.  


(A summary of Rav Rosenweig's approach can be found at


The Nature of the Mitzvot of Chanuka


The Rambam begins each section of his Mishneh Torah by listing the mitzvot addressed within that section, both Biblical and Rabbinic.  In his introduction to the laws of Purim and Chanuka, he writes, "Contained within are two positive Rabbinic mitzvot (mitzvot asei mi-derabanan)."


One might ask, don’t the observances of Purim and Chanuka contain more than just two mitzvot? On Purim alone, one is obligated to read the Megilla (twice), send matanot la-evyonim (gifts for the poor) and mishloach manot (gifts to fellow Jews), and eat a festive meal.  In addition, on Chanuka one lights candles and recites Hallel for eight days! How, then, does the Rambam arrive at a total of two mitzvot?


Apparently, the Rambam believed that Purim and Chanuka each entail but a single mitzva.  One might suggest that in each of these holidays, we are obligated in the mitzva of "shevach ve-hoda’a" (praise and thanksgiving to God).  Indeed, the Al ha-nisim prayer concludes, "…and established these eight days of Chanuka in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name."


This mitzva of "shevach ve-hoda’a" is achieved through various activities, such as the publicizing of the miracle ("pirsumei nisa") through reading the Megilla, lighting the nerot Chanuka, sending matanot la-evyonim and mishloach manot, participating in a festive thanksgiving meal, and certainly through the recitation of Hallel.


Interestingly, the Rambam places the laws of Hallel in the first of the two chapters dealing with the laws of Chanuka (Hilkhot Megilla ve-Chanuka 3).  Rather than include Hallel among the laws of prayer or Yom Tov, the Rambam instead chose Hilkhot Chanuka as the most suitable context for these halakhot.  Indeed, since the laws of Chanuka are the laws of "shevach ve-hoda’a," the codification of these laws is the most appropriate context in which to address the details of Hallel.  


Hallel on Chanuka


The Talmud (Arakhin 10a) includes the eight days of Chanuka among the eighteen days (21 days in the Diaspora) on which one recites the full Hallel.  Amidst this discussion, the Gemara seeks to determine the criteria for the Hallel obligation:


"As Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: There are eighteen days on which an individual must recite the entire Hallel - the eight days of Sukkot, the eight days of Chanuka, the first day of Pesach and the day of Shavuot...  On Shabbat, which is distinct in its sacrifices, let us recite [Hallel]? It is not called a 'moed' ['festival'].  On Rosh Chodesh, which is called a 'moed,' let us recite [Hallel]? It is not sanctified with regard to the performance of melakha [activity forbidden on Shabbat and Yom Tov]…"


The Gemara seems to indicate that in order for a day to require the recitation of Hallel, it must be distinguished by a unique korban, be called a “moed,” and feature a prohibition of melakha.  Chanuka, of course, does not meet these criteria. The Gemara raises this question and responds, “because of the miracle.” The obligation to recognize the miracle of Chanuka itself generates the requirement to recite Hallel.  Indeed, as we declare during the “Ha-nerot Halalu” prayer after candle lighting, the days of Chanuka were established “in order to thank and praise (God) for the miracles…”


The Gemara thus draws a clear distinction between two types of Hallel: Hallel which is recited on the festivals, and Hallel which is recited in response to a miracle.  This distinction similarly emerges from the Gemara’s discussion in Pesachim (117a):


"Who recited this Hallel? The prophets among them instituted that Israel should recite it for every season [on every special occasion], and for every crisis that might come upon them - when they are redeemed from it, they recite it over their redemption…”


Interestingly, both the Maggid Mishneh (Hilkhot Chanuka 3:6) and the Chatam Sofer (Y.D. 233 and O.C. 191 and 208) suggest that the obligation to recite Hallel on Chanuka may actually apply at a higher level than the obligation to recite Hallel on the festivals.  Based on the aforementioned passage in Pesachim, the Maggid Mishneh suggests that the obligation to recite Hallel in response to divine salvation originates "mi-divrei kabbala" – the words of the prophets. The Chatam Sofer goes so far as to suggest that while Hallel on the festivals may be a Rabbinic obligation, the Hallel of Chanuka may apply mi-de-orayta – on the level of Biblical obligation! Indeed, R. Daniel Ha-Bavli, a contemporary of Rav Avraham ben ha-Rambam (and a critic of his father), writes (Ma'ase Nissim 1) that Hallel of Chanuka is certainly of Biblical origin, as one is Biblically obligated to recite praise upon being miraculously delivered from harm.  Most authorities, however, disagree, and insist that Hallel on Chanuka, and possibly on all occasions (Rambam), is of Rabbinic origin.


Based upon this understanding of the Hallel of Chanuka, and our interpretation of the Rambam as discussed above, one might conclude that women are obligated to recite Hallel on Chanuka.  Just as women are included in the mitzva of lighting Chanuka candles because "af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes" (“they were also in the miracle” – Shabbat 23a), as is the case regarding Megilla reading (Megilla 4a), matanot la-evyonim and mishloach manot (Rema 695:4) on Purim, women should likewise be obligated to recite Hallel each of the eight days of Chanuka.  Indeed, Tosafot (Sukka 38a) offer a similar argument regarding Hallel of the night of Pesach.


The Acharonim debate this issue.  Rav Shimon Sofer (1850-1944), son of the Ketav Sofer and grandson of the Chatam Sofer, writes in his responsa Hiteorrerut Teshuva, based upon the Tosafot cited above, that women are obligated to recite Hallel all eight days of Chanuka.  Others infer from the Rambam (3:14) that women are exempt.  (For a more thorough discussion of this topic, see Rav Ovadia Yosef’s responsa in Yabi'a Omer O.C. 6:45 and Yechaveh Da'at 1:78.) 


Al Ha-nissim


During the eight days of Chanuka we add the Al Ha-nissim prayer in both Shemona Esrei (after Modim) and Birkat Ha-mazon (during the second blessing).  One who recites the blessing and realizes that he forgot to insert Al ha-nissim does not return to the point where it should be recited; he simply continues Shemona Esrei or Birkat Ha-mazon. 


As for the "birkat me'ein shalosh," known as Al Ha-michya, the Rishonim (see Tosafot, Berakhot 45a s.v. al) debate the question of whether one adds "me'ein ha-me’ora" (a text about  the uniqueness of the day) at all.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 3:13) rules that one should mention special occasions in me’ein shalosh, although the Hagahot Maimoniyot (30) notes that this applies only to Shabbat and Yom Tov; we do not make mention of Purim or Chanuka in Al Ha-michya.


Why do Purim and Chanuka differ from Shabbat and Yom Tov in this regard?  Why shouldn’t we mention the special occasion in Al Ha-michya, just as we do on Shabbat and Yom Tov? 


R. Yitzchak Ze'ev Soloveitchik (the Griz) explains (see end of Griz al Ha-Torah) by reassessing the nature of the Retzei section, which we insert on Shabbat, and of Ya'aleh Ve-yavo, which we insert on Yom Tov and Rosh Chodesh.  The Griz contends that we should view these paragraphs as independent berakhot, rather than insertions within existing berakhot.  He proves this theory from the halakha (Berakhot 49a and Shulchan Aruch O.C. 188:6-7) requiring one who omits Retzei or Ya’aleh Ve-yavo to recite a separate blessing which expresses the same idea, such as "she-natan shabbatot li-menucha le-ammo Yisrael…"


According to the Griz, the fact that the omission of Retzei and Ya'aleh Ve-yavo warrants a separate blessing, and requires that one repeat Shemona Esrei, indicates that they are not mere insertions, but rather independent prayers. These prayers must be recited either during the berakha of “Boneh Yerushalayim,” or, when one forgets, as a separate blessing afterwards.  


The omission of Al Ha-nissim, however, which does not require the repetition of Shemona Esrei or Birkat Ha-mazon, does NOT constitute a separate prayer, but rather a mere "hazakara," a text inserted into our prayers.


The "me'ein shalosh," which serves as an abridged version of the Birkat Ha-mazon, is comprised of passages that are integral to the Birkat Ha-mazon.  Therefore, passages not essential enough to warrant repetition if they are omitted, or the insertion of a separate blessing, are not mentioned in Al Ha-michya.


The question remains, however, as to why Al ha-nissim differs from Retzei and Ya’aleh Ve-yavo in this regard.  Why did Chazal establish Retzei and Ya’aleh Ve-yavo as independent berakhot, whereas Al Ha-nissim is but an insertion within a berakha?


Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in the posthumously published Iggerot Ha-Grid (Hilkhot Berakhot 3:13), explains that the difference lies in the formal "kedushat ha-yom" (sanctity of the day) with which Shabbat and Yom Tov are endowed.  This special status mandates inserting a separate and independent prayer mentioning these days in the Shemona Esrei and Birkat Ha-mazon.  On Purim and Chanuka, however, which do not have kedushat ha-yom, one merely mentions the miracles of these days during prayers, but the mention of these days doesn’t constitute a separate prayer. 


Laws and Customs of the Days of Chanuka  


As mentioned earlier, the Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 18b) relates that Chanuka was included in the Megillat Ta'anit, the list of festive days upon which it is prohibited to fast and eulogize.  Unlike the other days of Megillat Ta’anit, whose observance was cancelled with the fall of the SecondCommonwealth, the celebrations of Chanuka and Purim remain.  As such, eulogies are not delivered on Chanuka, nor may one fast on any of the eight days of this holiday (Shabbat 21b).  The Bach and the Peri Chadash rule that one also may not fast on the day prior to Chanuka.


Unlike Purim, the rabbis did NOT institute a mandatory festive meal (se'uda) on Chanuka, as they did on Purim.  The Levush explained that the threat and deliverance of Purim relate to the physical existence of the Jewish people, and therefore the celebration is expressed through food.  On Chanuka, however, the threat and deliverance related to spiritual survival, and therefore the celebratory response is spiritual, through the performance of hadlakat nerot.


The Taz (670:3) disagrees, arguing that causing one to sin may be an even greater offense than murder.  He therefore explains that since the miracle of Chanuka is less apparent, the primary mitzva of the day is to publicize the miracle.  However, since the miraculous deliverance of Purim was apparent to all, the celebration can focus upon physical enjoyment, in the form of a celebratory meal.  


The Rema (670:1) writes that there is a “slight mitzva” (ketzat mitzva) to eat festive meals on Chanuka, and that meals during which one sings and praises God are certainly considered se'udot mitzva.  Indeed, the Rambam (3:3) describes Chanuka as "days of simcha ve-hallel” (rejoicing and praise).


The Rema also cites those (Ran, Shabbat 21b) who encourage eating dairy foods during these meals, in commemoration of the dairy food Yehudit  fed the Greek general which caused him to fall asleep, thus allowing her to assassinate him.


The Rambam's father, R. Maimon, in his Arabic commentary to the prayers, records the custom to eat dough fried in oil on Chanuka in remembrance of the miracle of the oil, and he insists that one should not treat such minhagim lightly.  


The Tur (670) cites the custom of women to refrain from melakha while the nerot Chanuka are burning.  While some criticized this custom (see Chakham Tzvi 87), other Acharonim approvingly record the custom for women to refrain from melakha until midnight, or for the entire first and eight days.  The Sefer Chassidim (121) even suggests that men should also refrain from work.


The Acharonim offer different reasons for this custom.  Some suggest that it serves as a reminder not to derive benefit from the Chanuka lights.  According to this reason, the Mishna Berura (4) suggests that women should refrain from melakha only during the first half-hour, after which, strictly speaking, Halakha allows deriving benefit from the lights.  Alternatively, the Levush (670) suggests that the custom serves to underscore the fact that the days of Chanuka were established as festive days, similar to Rosh Chodesh and Chol Ha-moed.  Women, who are responsible for bringing about this miracle (see above), therefore refrain from melakha while the lights are burning.  It would appear that according to this theory, women should refrain from melakha as long as the lights burn, and not merely within the first half-hour.


The accepted custom is for women to refrain from labors prohibited on Chol Ha-moed (such as laundry and sewing) for the first half-hour after the candles are lit.  Other chores, such as cooking (and frying), are permitted.


The main mitzva of Chanuka - hadlakat nerot - will be discussed in future shiurim.

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