Hanukkah: Turning the Blazing Fire into an Illuminating Flame, by Rabbi Riccardo Shmuel Di Segni

 

It is well known that, despite the importance of Hanukkah, there are only few pages in all the Bavli devoted to this holiday, mainly in Massekhet Shabbat (21-24). The most common explanation is that at its origin Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Hasmonean family, priests who illegally became kings and persecuted the Pharisees.

However, other explanations are possible, and one of them is actually hidden in another page of Talmud where the name of Hanukkah is not even mentioned. In Massekhet Avoda Zara (8a) the names of some pagan holidays are quoted, among them Saturnalia and Kalenda. The Talmud explains that the former occurs eight days before the winter solstice, the latter eight days after. The Talmud then tells the story of the first man, Adam, who saw that the length of the day light was progressively shortening, and was afraid that the sun light will disappear as a punishment for his sin, until he discovered that at a certain point the length of the day was again widening; he therefore established those days as holidays for thanking God, but the generations after him turned this celebration into a pagan cult. The Talmud quotes Saturnalia, but already in those times a similar celebration connected with the sun was widespread, the Dies natalis soli invicti, the birthday of the undefeated sun, next to become one of the sources of the future Christmas. In that Talmudic page, the never said link to Hanukkah, feast of the light(s), is that this is exactly the same period of the year with the same length (eight days). And there could be there also other allusions, as to the known controversy between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel on the way of kindling the lights in decreasing order (8 to 1) or increasing.

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Hannukah: Why a Local Military Victory, and a Small Jar of Oil Continue to Inspire Millions Around the World to This Day, By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

Hannukah: Why a Local Military Victory, and a Small Jar of Oil Continue to Inspire Millions Around the World to This Day

Why celebrate Chanukah? It is easy to understand why we celebrate Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and even Purim; all of these holidays mark an even that has a direct impact on who we are. And yet, Chanukah marks two separate miracles, neither of which have any impact on us. The Maccabee revolt in 163 BCE lasted hardly until the year 63 BCE when the Romans occupied Judea, and cannot be considered something that we still benefit from. The oil lasting eight days? Indeed a miraculous event, but in what way does it impact us today? So why celebrate more than 2150 years later when the events it marks have little to no impact on us?

Commentaries wonder furthered: why it is that Jews around the world light the appropriate amount of candles every day of Chanukah despite the fact that Jewish law mandates only the lighting of one candle per day, per household? The stipulation to light more than one candle a day is only for the Mehadrin, those who choose to go the extra mile who light one candle for every member of the household. And so, the common Jewish custom[1] is that we light candles corresponding to the number of days of Chanukah, AND corresponding to the number of family member, something that is far from required but is rather a way of over-observing the laws of Chanukah, why?

To understand this we need to look at the historical background of Chanukah. The Jewish people have returned from their exile in Babylon and have lost the blessing of prophecy not long before. The Jewish people find themselves in a situation similar to those described by the Prophet Amos (8:10) not long before:” Behold, days are coming, says the Lord God, and I will send famine into the land, not a famine for bread nor a thirst for water, but to hear the word of the Lord.” The Jewish people felt spiritually abandoned by the disappearance of prophecy and clear leadership.

It is in that time that Hellenistic culture, with all of it’s power, sweeps through their country. For the first time the Jews meet an occupier, that admires their culture. The Greeks admired the Jews as a “nation of philosophers”. The Greeks do not aspire to destroy the Jewish Temple, just to modernize it. They do not reject the rights of Jews as citizens, quite to contrary, they seek to “empower” the Jews, educate them, and help them understand the beauty of Hellenistic culture. The Greeks are supersessionists, not seeking to uproot all that is Jewish.

And indeed, many Jews follow this trend. They became Hellenized, they began worshiping Greek gods, they adopted Greek culture. You did not need to reject your nationality or history to become Hellenized, you just needed to adapt.  It was the first time someone invaded, not the Jewish heartland, but the Jewish heart. It was the first time another culture has made it’s inroads with the language Jews understood better than any language: books and ideas.

Violating the Temple was just another example of what the Greek invasion looked like. It was not about destroying the Temple, it was about “modernizing”[2] it to worship Zeus. It was not about taking away the Menorah and its oil, it was about taking away its meaning and purity.

And so, the first Maccabee revolt and its success, did not only symbolize a military victory, but it signified an ability to maintain the Jewish spirit, in the face of cultural supersessions. It was the first time the Jewish people had experienced and invasion of the spirit, and were triumphant.

This also answers the question discussed by so many commentaries, why it is that Maccabees insisted on searching of a pure jar of oil, despite the law that permits using an impure one in the absence of pure oil? This is because the Maccabees were not looking for a compromise of the spirit; they were seeking its victory.

This is also why it is common custom for Jews around the world to follow the Mehadrin min HaMehadrin custom of lighting one candle per person per night and not just follow the strict letter of the law. On a holiday symbolizing the victory of the spirit and our ability to maintain our uniqueness in the face of the most intimate threats, we rejoice in going the extra mile, in our ability to serve Hashem in the most dedicated way, despite having ways out and the ability to compromise.

This may also be the reason that of all Jewish holidays, Chanukah is also the only one in which there is no instituted food related celebration. Yes, of course there are the latkes, sufganiyot, and more, but there is no obligation to celebrate with a celebratory meal. In a holiday that signifies the victory of the spirit we find nourishment in the most metaphysical element we can see: pure light. Happy Chanukah!

 

https://mspace.lib.umanitoba.ca/bitstream/handle/1993/31671/Arksey_Keaton.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y

http://lib.cet.ac.il/pages/item.asp?item=14316

http://www.pnimi.org.il/holidays/chanukah/198-rectifying-greek-philosophy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Shulchan Aruch OC 671:2

[2] Special thanks to rabbi Uri Sharki for his eye opening explanation of this matter.

Candles for the Whole Family, by Rabbi Mark Dratch

 

Details of the obligation to light Hanukkah candles are outlined in the Talmud, Masekhet Shabbat.  On 21b we are taught:

Our Rabbis taught: The mitzvah of Hanukkah requires one light for a person and his entire household; the mehadrin, the zealous, a light for each member of the household; and the mehadrin min ha-mehadrin, the extremely zealous:  Bet Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced; Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased.

Now, why is it that the enhancement of the mitzvah is a function of the number of family members?   Wouldn’t a greater number of candles and a greater amount of light be more mehudar?  A small family will always have a dimmer commemoration.  And what does the number of family members have to do with this mitzvah altogether?

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We Must Light the Fire, by Rabbi Yona Reiss

‏The festival of Chanuka is a time of illumination and inspiration.  When we reflect upon the Mesirus Nefesh of the Chasmonaim, it reminds us of our responsibility to keep the fire of Torah burning brightly despite all of the challenges presented by the world around us.

The Gemara (Shabbos 21b) teaches us that “Kavsah Ein Zakuk Lah” – if the Chanuka lights are extinguished, they need not be rekindled.  Nonetheless, the Halakha is that if the candles were lit in a windy place where they could not possibly have retained their illumination for the requisite time period of the obligation, then one has not fulfilled their obligation (see Mishna Berura 673:25).

The Ramban notes in his commentary to the Torah (Bamidbar 8:2), based on the Megillas Setarim of Rabeinu Nissim and other Midrashic sources, that the candles of Chanuka constitute a continuation of the illumination of the Menorah in the Beis Hamikdash.  “El Mul Pnei HaMenorah Yairu”– the lights shall shine brightly into perpetuity, when directed towards our eternal Menorah.

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Hannukah’s Insight into Abuse, by Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt

Various Midrashim offer descriptions of the spark that ignited the Hasmonean rebellion.  Some speak of the violation to the sanctity of the Temple. There is one Midrashic account that that has particular resonance this year. The Midrash is quoted in compendiums of minor Midrashim such as Otzar haMidrashim by R. Judah David Eisenstein (N. Y., 1915) and the Yotzer (additional prayer recited before Shema) for the first Shabbat of Chanukah written by Yosef ben Shlomo (1033):

The [Kingdom of Yavan (Seleucid)] further decreed that when one is to be married, the overlord should enjoy the marital bed first and then the bride would be returned to her husband. This carried on for three years and eight months until the daughter of Rabbi Yochanan Kohen Gadol was to be married. When they were about to take her to the overlord, she uncovered her hair and ripped her clothing in a revealing fashion in front of all. Immediately, Yehudah and his brothers were filled with rage and said to her take her out and burn her, “so that such a scandal not be revealed to our governors for fear of our lives for she was unclothed before all.” She then said to them, “How am I to be disgraced before kith and kin and not so before the eyes of the uncircumcised and impure that you would have trespass against me and violate me?” When Judah and his brothers heard her words they concluded together that they would assassinate the overlord.  They dressed her in royal clothing, made a Chuppah for her and took her from the house of the Hasmoneans to the house of the overlord accompanied by lyre and flutes and musicians and they danced until they reached the house of the overlord  . . . Yehudah and his brothers entered the house and severed the head of the overlord . . .the Heavenly Voice spoke saying, ״a young girl succeeded in waging war on the mighty Antiochus.”

The Midrash tells a story all too familiar to us in 2017.  The story is of how power directly leads to abuse of the worst nature.  Furthermore, the Midrash emphasizes the failure of bystanders, particularly the future warriors, to properly provide safety against such abuse. The Midrash clearly draws from the story of Judah and Tamar with the words, “take her out to be burnt.” The Midrash thus invokes both the biblical Judah’s inaction and leaves the reader to fill in the words, she is more righteous than I. The story trumpets the bravery of the abused woman beyond that of the military heroes, it even credits her with the victory. Furthermore, the Midrash shows how the culture of Yavan (Seleucid) had infected the home itself. The heroic fulcrum of the story is accomplished when the young woman turns perceived indiscretion into collective outrage against the oppressor. Her willingness to standup against abuse, to call it out in so dramatic a fashion is in fact an act championing the sanctity of the home. One could see the march of the Chuppah to the door of the oppressor as literally the use of the home as the phalanx of attack. The great purifying groundswell of the Hasmonean movement can be understood as a uprising to protect the sanctity of the home and of the women at the same time. Lastly, there is a straight line between this event and the lighting of the candles. The Talmud instructs that the mitzvah of Channukah is Ner Ish u’Veto—a candle for a person and his home. Men and women alike are commanded specifically in their home, for both were party to the miracle and both are charged to protect the sanctity of the home and project that very kedusha from their home into the public space.

 

Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt graduated from Columbia University with a Bachelors degree in Chemistry and English Literature and a Masters in Science in Bio-Organic Chemistry. Having finished secular studies, Rabbi Rosenblatt spent two years in Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel which ultimately led him to receiving semicha from Yeshiva University in New York.  Rabbi Rosenblatt was the assistant rabbi in Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, New Jersey and has been the Senior Rabbi of Scharei Tzedeck for the past 14 years. Rabbi Rosenblatt and his wife Dr. Cirelle Rosenblatt keep busy with their 5 children.

The Role of Hallel in the Celebration of Chanukah, by Rabbi Yosef Blau

The Braita quoted in Shabbat 21b describes Chanukah as days of Hallel VHoda’ah, interpreted by Rashi as the recital of Hallel and Al Hanisim. The Rambam apparently had a different version of the text describing Chanukah as days of Simcha and Hallel. In both versions however, saying Hallel is an intrinsic part of the observance of Chanukah.

This explains why the Rambam delayed his full discussion of the days when Hallel is recited until the laws of Chanukah, even though he mentioned the obligation of saying Hallel earlier in his code. Since the Rambam understands the obligation to say Hallel to be of rabbinic origin, its recital can’t help to define the biblical holidays, although we say Hallel on each of them. It is clear why lighting the menorah is intrinsic to the definition of Chanukah, but less clear why Hallel should be.

The Rambam introduces his discussion of Chanukah with a historical review of the events that led to the holiday. He describes the anti-religious decrees of the (Syrian) Greeks against the Jews, including their defiling the Temple. The first law concludes with the victory of the Hashmonaim through the mercy of the Almighty, their proclaiming a king from amongst the priests, and the return of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel for two hundred years.

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Chanukah and the Power of Dedication, by Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz

At the beginning of chapter 8 of the Book of Bamidbar, Moshe informs his brother Aharon that God had commanded Aharon to light and clean the menorah. This section of the Torah follows the description of the gifts that were offered by the leaders of all the tribes at the dedication and sanctification of the altar. Utilizing the Midrash, Rashi asks the following question:

“Why is the section of the Torah which deals with the Menorah juxtaposed with the section that declares the gifts of the tribal leaders (Nesi’im)? Because when Aharon witnessed the dedication of the Nesi’im, he became dejected because he was not included with them, not he and not his tribe. God thus said to him, I swear to you that your offering will be greater than theirs because you will light and clean the menorah.”

The Ramban explains why the lighting of the menorah is the greater gift. It is based upon another Midrash in which God commands Moshe to tell Aharon, “there is another dedication where there is the lighting of candles and it will be given to Israel through your descendants. This is an occasion of miracles salvation and dedication . . .this is the dedication of the sons of the Hasmoneans. Thus there is this juxtaposition between this section of lighting of the menorah and the dedication of the altar. The celebration or observance that we call Chanukah thus has great standing in our tradition. It continues for thousands of years after the destruction of the Temple and is observed and is continued by the Jewish people well into their exile and ultimately their return to the land of Israel. It was ordained by God and directly transmitted to Moshe.

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