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Focus On: The Rambam - Chanukah Through the Eyes of Maimonides
Focus On: The Rambam - Chanukah Through the Eyes of Maimonides
Volume 4 , Issue 2

Author's Note: The material presented in this article is taken from various shiurim that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik has given on Chanukah. The author would like to thank the people who permitted him to use their tapes and notes of those shiurim. The material appearing in this article had been discussed with Rabbi Soloveitchik and approved for an earlier article which was published in Yeshiva University's Bein Kotlei Ha'Yeshiva. If the reader experiences any difficulties in understanding the thoughts presented here, the fault lies in the presentation, not in the Rov's original explanations.


While there are several halakhic works which systematically codify Jewish law, two of the most prominent are the Mishneh Torah and the Shulkhan Aruch. Maimonide's (1135 - 1204) Mishneh Torah is the first complete anthology of Jewish law; the Shulkhan Aruch (literally translated, the Ordered Table of Jewish Law) is a later compilation by the great Sephardic Rabbi, Yosef Karo (1488 - 1575). The Shulkhan Aruch currently includes addenda to the text compiled by the Ashkenazic Rabbi, Moshe Isserles (1530 - 1572). These notes primarily indicate differences between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions.?

In the Shulkhan Aruch, the discussion of the Yomim Tovim (holidays) follows the Jewish Biblical calendar year beginning with Pesach, then Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, and finally Succot. Similarly, when discussing the Rabbinic holidays, the Shulkhan Aruch again follows the calender order, leading with Chanukah and following with Purim.

Indeed, Rav Yosef Karo simply follows the style set out by his predecessor, Maimonides. Often we may observe that Rav Yosef Karo borrows not only the structural order of the Mishneh Torah but also much of its phraseology.

Holidays are in Calender Order

However, upon further investigation, while Maimonides arranges the discussion of the Biblical holidays in their calendrical order, he discusses the Rabbinic holidays in reverse calendrical order; that is, he discusses the laws of Purim and then those of Chanukah. This reversal is not followed by Rav Yosef Karo in the Shulkhan Aruch.

What led to Maimonides' calendrical deviation in the Mishneh Torah, a work that is known for its systematic classification of Halakha?

To understand the difference between how the the Rabbinic laws of Chanukah and Purim are arranged in the Mishneh Torah and the Shulkhan Aruch we must consider a fundamental difference in the approaches each of these codifications take to discussing halakha.

Rav Yosef Karo's objective in compiling the Shulkhan Aruch was to systematically present an ?Ordered Table? clearly defining the halakhic obligations which pervade a Jew's life.

On the other hand, Maimonides' raison d'etre in compiling the Mishneh Torah was to present to every Jew an informative, well-structured body of literature which embraced Torah Sheb'al Peh (Oral Tradition) in its entirety. His purpose was to give the Jew the ability to conceptualize and acquaint him or herself with all the concepts and issues of Torah Sheb'al Peh through the study of the Mishneh Torah, eliminating the need for any other text, even the Talmud itself.

Rambam Concerned with All Laws

Given the differing concerns of Maimonides and Rav Yosef Karo, we may understand why the Shulkhan Aruch lists only the laws applicable to the Jew in his own time, i.e., those laws affecting the Diaspora Jew. Nowhere in the Shulkhan Aruch are we given a halakhic analysis of things like the Temple worship and sacrifices or any other topic that is not relevant to the Diaspora Jew. However, Maimonides was concerned with all components of Oral Law. He therefore includes an exhaustive development of all of its parts, even laws that will apply to the Jewish people only during the time of the Temple and the time of Messiah.

For this reason, Maimonides deviated from the calendrical order in his discussion of the Rabbinic holidays. He preferred the historical order, codifying the laws of Purim and then the laws of Chanukah. For there is an important conceptual lesson that the history of these events teach us.

While the holiday of Purim was instituted several hundred years before Chanukah, its legislation had a direct relationship to the festival of Chanukah. It was Purim that legitimized Chanukah. Without Purim, Chanukah would never have been legislated.

The Talmud (Megillah 7) speaks about Esther's plan to legislate Purim as a holiday:

R. Samuel b. Judah said: ?Esther sent to the Wise Men saying, 'Commemorate me for future generations.' They replied, 'You will incite the ill will of the nations against us.' She sent back a reply: 'I am already recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia.'?

At first, we see, the Rabbis refused. They felt that celebrating the Jews' victory over their oppressors while Jews were still living in the Diaspora would be dangerous. Only after Esther showed them a flaw in their logic did the Rabbis agree to declare Purim a holiday. However, as the Talmud reveals to us later in the Tractate, the hesitation to declare Purim a holiday was due not only to the fear of inciting anti-Jewish sentiment, but also to the clear halakhic problem of Bal-Tosif (the prohibition against adding to or subtracting from the laws of the Torah - see, Deuteronomy 13:1)

Our Rabbis taught: `Forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses prophesied to Israel, and they neither took away from nor added aught to what is written in the Torah save only the reading of the Megillah.' How did they derive it [from the Torah]? R. Hiyya b. Abin said in the name of R. Joshua b. Korha: `If for being delivered from slavery to freedom we chant a hymn of praise, should we not do so all the more for being delivered from death to life? If that is the reason, should we say Hallel also? [We do not do so] because Hallel is not said for a miracle which occurred outside of the land of Israel. How then do we come to say it for the Exodus from Egypt which was a miracle which occurred outside the land of Israel? As it has been taught: 'Until they entered the land of Israel, all lands were counted as proper for chanting a hymn of praise [for miracles done in them]. R. Nahman said: The reading of the Megillah is equivalent to Hallel.

Megillah 14a

The Rabbis instituted the Rabbinic holiday of Purim, to commemorate and give thanks to God for saving the Jewish people, only after they realized that it did not infringe upon the concept of Bal-Tosif. Purim is not a new holiday for it is thematically similar to Pesach; it is an extension of Pesach.

Holidays Celebrating Saving the Jewish People Permitted

The Rabbis, in legislating Purim, however, set a tone, potentially permitting any holiday that celebrates the saving of the Jewish people. Esther lays the groundwork not only for the establishment of her holiday, Purim, but also for the establishment of Chanukah. There is no discussion regarding the legislation of Chanukah, for that battle was waged and won before legislating Purim.

It is for this reason, in order to put the laws of Chanukah and Purim into the right conceptual framework, that the laws of Purim precede those of Chanukah in the Mishneh Torah.

Maimonides stresses the close relationship between Chanukah and Purim by explicitly stating that only individuals required to hear the Megillah, to celebrate and give thanks to God on Purim, are required to give thanks to God on Chanukah.


... These days are known as Chanukah. Funeral eulogies and fasting are forbidden on them, just as they are on Purim, and the lighting of lamps on them is a commandment based on the authority of the Scribes, analogous to the commandment to read the Megillah. Everyone? obligated to read the Megillah is equally obligated to light a Chanukah lamp ... (Laws of Chanukah, Chapter 3, end of 3-4, emphasis added).

This connection stands because Chanukah gets its legitimacy from Purim. Therefore, a prerequisite for celebrating Chanukah is the obligation to celebrate Purim.

It is for this reason, the conceptual similarity of Purim to Chanukah, that Maimonides does not put the Laws of Purim and Chanukah into separate and distinct sections, as is done by Rav Yosef Karo. Instead, he puts them together in one section, entitling it: ?The Laws of Megillah and Chanukah.?


Usually, in the Mishneh Torah, the discussion of any holiday is restricted to telling us how to observe it properly. However, regarding Chanukah, the Mishneh Torah tells us not only the laws of Chanukah but also the story of Chanukah. What is the reason for this elaboration?

Every other holiday story, those of Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, and Purim, is a part of our written tradition (Torah Sheb'Ktav). The Oral Tradition regarding these holidays is only one dimensional, consisting of the detailed analysis of each holiday's halakhic principles. What grains may I use in my matzah? What type of shofar am I permitted to use on Rosh Hashana? What defines M'shalach Manot (sending gifts to the poor on Purim)?

With Chanukah, the Oral Tradition has a double purpose. It conveys to us the story of Chanukah and, additionally, provides us with the halakhic guidelines necessary to observe this eight day festival.

Maimonides starts his story with the words, "In the time of the Second Temple" (Laws of Chanukah 3:1) The days of prophecy had passed. The Torah had already been canonized; therefore, we were not able to incorporate any new books into our Written Law. We were, therefore, forced to transmit the story of Chanukah orally from one generation to another. The story of Chanukah is also part of the Oral Tradition. Thus, it becomes Maimonides' responsibility to transcribe it in the Mishneh Torah, an anthology of the Oral Law and its traditions. The objective of the Shulkhan Aruch was never meant to be an anthology of Oral Law. Rav Karo, therefore, relegates his discussion to a systematic analysis of our additional responsibilities during the holiday of Chanukah.


Within the discussion of Chanukah, Maimonides includes all the laws concerning the prayer, Hallel. Hallel is recited on festive days throughout the year including the Biblical holidays of: Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot; Rabbinic holidays such as Chanukah and Rosh Hodesh; and on days where we mark miracles celebrated in our time: Yom Ha'Atzmaut and Yom Yerusalayim.1

At first glance it would seem that these laws should not be included among the laws of Chanukah, but rather should be discussed with the Laws of Prayer. Following the order of the liturgy, the laws of Hallel should be found after the laws of the Silent Amidah. To strengthen the question, Chanukah is only a Rabbinic Holiday; if Maimonides wished to insert the laws of Hallel in the context of a holiday on which Hallel is recited, why not choose as a point of reference a holiday which has a Biblical derivative: Pesach, Shavuot, or Sukkot?

Essence of Hallel in Praise of God

Every holiday has a central theme. For example: the central motif of Pesach is the eating of the Paschal sacrifice with matza; it is through this motif that Pesach is represented in the holiday prayers; the central motif of Rosh Hashana is Shofar, a means through which the need to perform the act of repentance is accentuated. The essence of Hallel is praise of God: Chanukah's central motif is the praise of God. This makes the Hallel of Chanukah different from that of any other holiday.

On Chanukah, there are two obligations of Hallel. One obligation is satisfied through the recitation of Hallel during the morning service (as is done on all festive days); a second is fulfilled through the lighting of the candles. It is not coincidental, therefore, that the passage, Hanarot Halalu, which we recite when kindling the Chanukah lights, explains the purpose of the lighting through the following words: "In order to offer thanks and praise to Your Great Name for Your miracles ..." Praise of God is also the theme behind the blessing: "... Who has wrought miracles for our forefathers, in those days at this season," thanking God for saving the Jewish people. Indeed, it is suggested in Tractate Sofrim (20:6) that the paragraph of Hanarot Halalu be recited before lighting the candles. This sequence would allow us to explain the reasons for the lighting prior to the actual act.

In this context, Hallel on Chanukah takes on a new dimension. On all festive days we observe Hallel as a verbal expression of our thanks to God. On Chanukah, however, Hallel is not only limited to verbal expression, but also takes on an active form through the kindling of the menorah. Therefore, Maimonides saw fit in the Mishneh Torah to wait until the discussion of Chanukah, the holiday where the central motif is praise of God, to discuss the laws of Hallel. For it is during the holiday of Chanukah that Hallel is seen in its quintessential form.


1. This statement is not a reflection of the practice of Rabbi Soloveitchik. The author is unaware of Rabbi Soloveitchik's practice on these two days. This statement only reflects the author's philosphy.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander is the Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue. He is a graduate of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.



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