The Missing Festive Meal of Chanukah, By Rabbi Elisha Friedman

Maimonides describes the Biblical character Job thus: “But when he knew God with a certain knowledge, he admitted that true happiness, which is the knowledge of the deity, is guaranteed to all who know Him and that a human being cannot be troubled in it by any of all the misfortunes in question. While he had known God only through the traditional stories and not by the way of speculation, Job had imagined that the things thought to be happiness, such as health, wealth, and children, are the ultimate goal. For this reason he fell into such perplexity and said such things as he did.” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:23)

In my interactions with Rabbi Dr. Chaim Schertz I was always struck by how he was the living embodiment of this passage and the Maimonidean ideal of one who treasures knowledge of God above all else. I have read many lovely sentences describing this idea, but with Rabbi Schertz I saw it lived. He valued the study of Torah above all else and that learning in turn sustained him and comforted him through many difficulties. It is my hope that the learning in these articles brings his neshama merit and satisfaction; and meets his high standards.

One of the big conundrums regarding Chanukah is the lack of any obligation to have what is a basic staple of every other Jewish holy day: a festive meal. According to the Shulchan Aruch’s rulings, Shabbos, festivals and even Purim, necessitate a festive meal to accompany them; only Chanukah does not (O.C. 670:2). Why should Chanukah be different from all other holidays?

One might further expand the scope of this question. All other special days on the Jewish calendar are hybrid days, some of the commanded rituals are spiritual (shofar, succah, megillah), others are physical (eating, enjoyment, resting). On Chanukah all of the rituals, all the obligatory practices (Menorah, Al Hanisim and Hallel), are spiritual. Why is only Chanukah a totally spiritual day?

Mordechai Jaffe, author of the Levush, offered a famous answer (O.C. 670:2). Unlike Purim, when the Jewish people were threatened physically, the threat during the times of Chanukah was entirely spiritual. The Syrian-Greeks did not want to kill the Jews, but rather to corrupt their beliefs and way of life. The war and other physical attacks were a means to an end, to subjugate the Jews’ spiritually. Accordingly, there is no need to celebrate Chanukah physically, when the threat was spiritual.

Levush’s insight can be expanded to offer a broader understanding of Chanukah as a purely spiritual holiday. Unlike other holidays which celebrate physical salvation, Chanukah is a day of spiritual salvation, and this might explain the broader omission of any physical obligations during Chanukah. This may also help explain another distinction between Chanukah and other holidays; on Chanukah work is permitted, unlike Biblical holidays where it is prohibited, and Purim where work is discouraged. On Chanukah one may work as usual. According to the Levush, this may be a further reflection of the fact that celebrating Chanukah does not affect our physical schedule in any way.

David Halevi, author of the Taz, questions the Levush’s approach (670:3), citing Rashi’s statement (Devarim 23:9) that spiritual threats are worse than physical ones, he suggests that we should not minimize the celebration on Chanukah because it was a spiritual threat, but rather elevate it to include physical celebration, precisely because it was a spiritual threat. The Taz seems to understand the Levush’s argument to be that spiritual salvations are less impressive than physical ones, and accordingly the celebration is less impressive. He therefore questions the premise that spiritual salvations are less impressive and argues that they are in fact more important.

The Taz answers that Chanukah’s miracle of salvation (- the Maccabees military victory) was less obviously Providential than Purim’s salvation miracle (- Esther’s becoming queen), only the miracle of the oil, which did not bring about physical salvation, was a well-publicized miracle. Holidays commemorate miracles. So on Purim when we celebrate a well-publicized miracle of salvation we have a festive meal, on Chanukah when the salvation miracle is less known and secondary to the better publicized oil miracle, we do not need a meal, but rather to thank God.

The obvious retort for the Levush (one that becomes clear reading his comments) is that he is not debating what is a greater or lesser miracle, but rather how we are commanded to commemorate these miracles. The operative principle here is that the celebration must mimic the style of the threat. A spiritual salvation may be cause for greater celebration but the way you celebrate must be confined to spiritual matters.

The Taz, on the other hand, disputes the Levush’s correlative notion of Rabbinic festivals, and instead raises the issue of which miracle is greater. In order to understand the deeper point of this debate I suggest that they are debating a fundamental question regarding the difference between Biblical and Rabbinic festivals.

 

There are two possible ways to understand the creation of a Rabbinic holiday. One is that the Rabbis create new holidays, which differ from Biblical holidays in their very essence. A Biblical holiday has a certain formula, but a Rabbinic one has a totally different formula; and the Rabbis have complete freedom to enact as they see fit. According to this approach, the model of Rabbinic holidays is not the Biblical ones, but the specific miracle which they are commemorating. The Rabbis look to the historic event for inspiration regarding how to establish the holiday and what rituals to command.

The other option is that a Jewish holiday has a “template,” which is that of the Biblical holidays. The Rabbis take this template and apply it to later historical events which occured in their times. A Rabbinic holiday is less stringent than a Biblical one, only because it is Rabbinically mandated and therefore has certain leniencies, but its fundamental character is modeled on Biblical festivals. The Rabbis role is to determine which miraculous events in Jewish history require a “holiday.” But once they have established that a particular miracle deserves a holiday, they then import (within reason) the Biblical model of a holiday and apply it to that event. The Rabbis according to this approach have little variety in the general style of their holiday and less wiggle room in the details and rituals they enact.

For the Levush, a Rabbinic holiday is separate and distinct from Biblical holidays and therefore we can speak of a “spiritual holiday,” different from the Biblical holidays, which have a physical component to them. The Levush therefore considers what type of miracle we are dealing with in evaluating how the holiday is structured.

The Taz, on the other hand, views Rabbinic holidays as fundamentally rooted in the Biblical notion of a holiday, which is then applied by the Rabbis to later miracles which they deem fit. Thus the Taz argues that the Rabbis merely evaluate whether a specific miracle deserves the “full holiday treatment” but to invent a new type of holiday is not possible. For the Taz the important point is whether it’s an important miracle or not, not what kind of miracle it is. This explains his question against the Levush, as well as his own answer. According to the Taz, the Chanukah miracle does not deserve a festive meal because it differs from the Biblical model of miracles (which are public and provide salvation), thus Chanukah does not receive the “full holiday treatment.”

Rabbi Elisha Friedman was ordained at Yeshiva University and serves as the rabbi of Congregation Kesher Israel in Harrisburg, PA.

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