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The Laws of Chanukah by Orrin Tilevitz
The Laws of Chanukah by Orrin Tilevitz

Volume 2 , Issue 2

The laws, halakhot, of Chanukah take up some 23 pages in the popular halakhic treatise, Mishna B'rurah. By contrast, the laws of Sukkot take up some 100 pages and the laws of Pesach some 200 pages. This disparity should not surprise. The laws of the sukkah and the lulav are intricate, and those of chametz and matzah are even more so. On both holidays, many activities are required and even more are forbidden. Not so on Chanukah. Only two things are forbidden: fasting and delivering eulogies. Only three things are required: saying hallel, the psalms of praise; reading the portion of the Torah which describes the consecration of the Sanctuary; and kindling the Chanukah lights.

Perhaps what should surprise instead is that there are any requirements at all associated with Chanukah. After all, Chanukah is a celebration; why need we be told how to celebrate? But Chanukah is a religious celebration, not a secular one, and in Judaism the precise mechanics of religious celebration are not left to individual discretion. Moreover, the few requirements pertaining to Chanukah--and the absence of others one would expect to apply to it--demonstrate that the very underpinnings of Chanukah are religious, not secular. The miracle which we commemorate on Chanukah is not a military victory, but a victory of the spirit.

?What is Chanukah? ...?

The Talmud's brief discussion of the miracle of Chanukah (the entire discussion of Chanukah and its laws consists of six pages in Tractate Shabbat; by contrast, each of the other holidays has a separate tractate dedicated to it) states as follows:

What is Chanukah? As the Rabbis taught, on the twenty-fifth of Kislev [begin] the eight days of Chanukah, on which we may not deliver eulogies or fast. The Greeks (Hellenized Syrians) entered the Temple and defiled all of the oil [for lighting the menorah]. When the Hasmoneans defeated them, they checked and found only one flask of oil which bore the seal of the High Priest, but it contained only enough oil for one day. A miracle happened and they lit [the menorah] from it for eight days. The following year they ordained that these days should be holy days (yammim tovim) of praise and thanksgiving.

A strange question, and an equally strange answer. Why would the Talmud pose such an elementary question as ?what is Chanukah?? After all, the Talmud does not ask ?what is Pesach??, ?what is Sukkot?? or even ?what is Purim?? Surely, anyone able to study the Talmud could be expected to understand the basic notion of the holiday of Chanukah! And in answering its own question, the Talmud speaks almost exclusively of the miracle of the oil. Why does it devote all of five words to the story of how a bunch of outnumbered and outgunned scholars waged guerilla warfare to defeat a state-of-the-art military machine?

In truth, the audience at which this Talmudic passage is aimed could certainly be expected to know all about the great victory of the Maccabees; that is precisely the Talmud's point. In asking ?what is Chanukah?? the Talmud is implicitly stating, ?It's not what you think it is.? It is not the military victories of the Hasmoneans, a group of Priests who eventually usurped the throne of the House of David and began a dynasty which didn't last very long. It is not the temporary regaining of political sovereignty over Israel, which in any event didn't happen for several years after Chanukah and resulted in only a brief respite from foreign domination before Israel fell under Roman influence and, eventually, the Roman army. Instead, Chanukah is the miracle of the oil.?

What Miracle?

But what miracle? The precise nature of the miracle of Chanukah and the reason for needing a miracle in the first place has been the subject of lively debate in Rabbinic literature. Perhaps the lone flask of oil was emptied every day to fuel the menorah, and the following day the flask was miraculously full again. Or, perhaps one-eighth of the oil was poured into the menorah each day, and that one-eighth of a flask burned for 24 hours instead of three. Some point out that during the Second Temple it was not customary for the High Priest to seal the oil. The miracle. then, was that he had sealed this one flask. Others point out that the menorah could have been lit with impure oil in the absence of any other; therefore, whatever the miracle, it had no practical significance, but merely showed the people that Divine grace had returned to Jerusalem.

Since Chanukah is rooted in the intangible rather than the tangible, there is no requirement to participate in a seudah, a feast. By contrast, on Purim we celebrate a physical military victory, so we are supposed to celebrate physically. Significantly, on Purim we do not recite hallel. We do recite it each day of Chanukah. One reason is the spiritual nature of the miracle of Chanukah. Another reason is that the victory of Purim was ephemeral: Haman tried to wipe us out and utterly failed, but his successors have come much closer. The Greeks did not try to wipe out the Jews physically; they tried to wipe out Judaism by attempting to stamp out circumcision and the observance of Shabbat. They couldn't. What Chanukah teaches us is that Judaism survives despite political and military subjugation of the Jews. The Torah is indomitable.

The Torah reading on Chanukah also mirrors the theme of the holiday. The Chumash does not lack tales of Israel's military victories against stronger foes. Abraham defeated a large army in order to rescue Lot, and Moses's forces in the desert won several pitched battles against Amalek and others. We do not read these passages on Chanukah. The mishkan, the holy Sanctuary in the desert, was dedicated over a period of twelve days, and on each day, the head of one of the twelve tribes brought a gift. On each day of Chanukah, we read about one gift, and on the eighth day we read about the last five. For Chanukah commemorates chanukat hamizbaeach, the rededication of the defiled altar.

Why Light the Menorah?

In honor of the miracle which contributed to this rededication, we light the Chanukah menorah. But simply lighting the menorah is not enough: part and parcel of the requirement to light it is pirsumei nisah, publicizing the miracle. That is why the menorah must burn for a minimum length of time; why one should, if at all possible, light the menorah in the window, at a level that passers-by can see it, and early enough that there are still passers-by on the street. That is why some organizations light a menorah in shopping malls. In fact, if you arrive home from work so late that nobody is on the street, you should have someone else around while you light the menorah, so that you can ?publicize the miracle? on at least a limited scale. Lighting the Chanukah menorah and thereby publicizing the miracle is so important that a poor person must sell his possessions to secure what he needs to light it. And what are we publicizing? The ultimate message of Chanukah, which appears at the end of the haftarah for the Shabbat of Chanukah: ?Not with military force or strength, but with My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts?.

The reader may now wonder why it takes the Talmud even six pages and Mishna B'rurah 23 pages to discuss three simple requirements. To answer this question, I suggest that the reader consult the Art Scroll publication, Chanukah--Its History, Observance and Significance, or better still, sit down with a friend and tackle Mishna B'rurah. What better way to observe a holiday dedicated to the survival of Torah than to study it?

Orrin Tilevitz is an attorney in Brooklyn.



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