Forced to pick a single event that provided the impetus for declaring the
holiday of Chanukah, most of us would point to the miracle of the
lights. Indeed, the miracle of the oil that would not give out is an
inescapable theme of Chanukah.
A different event, however, emerges in our literature in close
competition. Surprisingly, it is this runner-up in the contest for
significance that pulls ahead in the race for providing the name of the
holiday. The miracle of the oil did not give Chanukah its name. The
word “Chanukah” puts the other theme, that of dedication – or more
accurately rededication – front and center. Why should this be?
Following the advice of Maseches Soferim 2we are accustomed to adding Mizmor Shir Chanukas Ha-
bayis Le-Dovid 3to the Chanukah
davening. We don’t readily understand to which “house” Dovid refers.
Some see it as the first Bais Ha-mikdosh. The sundry ailments and
near-fatal incidents that Dovid refers to would then mean the exile and
travail that preceded its construction. This is problematic. The
first Bais Ha-mikdosh did not arrive on the heels of a period of
great difficulty. Others see Dovid himself as the house; he speaks in
appreciation of the restoration of his health and physical integrity.
This is also difficult. Tanach does not mention Dovid struggling
with a period of ill-health from which he recovered.
More likely is it that Dovid composed this prayer for every Jew who
emerges from a period of pain and affliction, ready to rebuild the
edifice of his spiritual core on the ruins of his former existence. The
spiritual uncertainty of his old self is met with a psalm of rededication.
Chazal did not immediately establish Chanukah as a permanent holiday.
They waited a year, to see if the ohr that graced the original
event would return. When it did, they realized that the event had lasting
significance. They named the holiday after the rededication, however, not
after the ohr. They understood that the function of the ohr
was to provide light after an episode of complete despair. Hashem had
shown them that even in such bleak times, a small flask of purity remains,
with which to light the future. Chanukah became the time in which a Jew
could confidently expect to rebuild his shattered inner house of
spirituality. Mizmor Shir expresses the certainty that there are
no grounds for absolute despair; at every moment of apparent abandonment
by HKBH, one should not hesitate to call upon Hashem for help.
We can attach the composition of Mizmor Shir to a specific incident
in Dovid’s life. He wrote it in reaction to the episode with Batsheva,
which itself is shrouded in difficulty. On the one hand, Chazal affirm
that one who says that Dovid sinned is mistaken; 4 on the other, they see Dovid as having become leprous as a
result of his crime, and members of Sanhedrin shunning him for half a
There is no contradiction. Dovid committed no vile wrong in an absolute
sense. Relative to who he was, and what spiritual level he occupied,
however, his actions reflected a shortcoming. He gives clear expression to
this in the next psalm after Mizmor Shir: “I have sinned to You
alone.” 6In other words, Dovid’s
actions were not sinful in an absolute sense; they should not be perceived
as sinful to others They were not perfectly congruent with what he knew
to be Hashem’s Will, however, and in that sense they were an affront to
There is a parallel in a story about the Kadosh Me-Lublin, who once
faced a difficult challenge. In fighting his inner battle, he overlooked
an actual halachic objection. Not having that available, only one argument
saved him from making the wrong choice. He resolved not to act without
first determining that his conduct would bring pleasure, kivayachol,
to Hashem. Dovid meant the same. His sin was only to Hashem, in the
sense that his actions did not bring pleasure to Him.
Chazal 7question the entire premise
of Mizmor Shir, which in its simple meaning speaks of the
dedication of a house, which they take to mean the Bais Ha-Mikdosh.
How could Dovid speak of its dedication, when it was not built in his
lifetime? While Dovid conceived of the project, it fell to his son to
bring the plan to fruition. This, they say, is largely irrelevant. Dovid
planned the construction of the Bais Ha-Mikdosh, and would have
seen it through to completion, were it not for circumstances beyond his
control. He is credited with its construction for the intent alone. We
can find an allusion in this to our primary theme. Mizmor Shir
has universal application beyond the life of Dovid, and its message is
aimed at every Jew whose inner spiritual house totters on the brink of
oblivion. It is a song of triumph for the Jew who has done the necessary
repairs and improvements. It can be sung even by one who has longed for
the changes, planned and designed them, even if he is not successful in
translating them into reality.
Dovid is the symbol of Messianic redemption. It is specifically he among
the Seven Shepherds 8whose line was
chosen to produce Moshiach. We give voice to this each month at
kiddush levanah when we proclaim that Dovid, king of Israel, is alive
and enduring. From his earliest days, he experienced serial tragedies and
challenges. In his childhood he was derided and rejected by his brothers.
Shaul believed that he was plotting against his life, and pursued him with
his forces. Becoming king, after slowly and painfully consolidating his
hold on the throne, did not end his hardship. He endured the rebellion of
sons, and the disloyalty of trusted friends. Yet none of these incidents
broke him. To the contrary, each served as a rung upon which he ascended
higher until he became the living and enduring king of Israel. Each
challenge and concealment of Hashem’s presence from him was
transformative. (So it is with his people. Chazal say, “Whoever is not
treated to hester panim is not from Bnei Yisrael. ”9 ) Dovid treated each transformation as
a chanukas ha-bayis, as a rededication of his spiritual structure.
He greeted each with the song of Mizmor Shir, seeing himself as a
new, revitalized being, ready to continue propelling himself higher.
Bais Avraham points out a few other curiosities. The first letters
of the first three words of Mizmor Shir Chanukas Ha-bayis coincide
with the first letters of milah, shabbos, and chodesh
– the three practices specifically prohibited by the Syrian-Greeks.
The first letters of the first four words spell out “simchah.”
This is no coincidence.
The three practices share a single quality. They reinforce the bond and
connection between a Jew and his Creator. Milah symbolizes the
quest for individual kedushah, of curtailing and controlling our
biological urges. Shabbos brings an individual and his Maker together,
sharing closeness each week. Chodesh, the incorporation of the
waxing and waning of the moon in our calendar, symbolic of the
irrepressible continuity of our People, is an expression of our dogged
The three work in concert with each other. Each element reinforces the
others, and is reinforced by them. Kedushah has direct bearing on
emunah. Without keen and penetrating insight into the nature of
Divinity, emunah is limited. But lack of kedushah blocks our
knowledge of the Divine. We cannot know Him without having something in
common with Him. The more we are removed from kedushah, the more
we are removed from Him.
The reverse relationship is also true. Our progress towards kedushah
is largely determined by the depth of our emunah. The quality
and intensity of our emunah enables us to take the difficult steps
towards curbing our lower wants and desires.
Kedushah and emunah both change and enhance the quality of
our Shabbos experience. At the same time, when Shabbos is used properly,
we draw from the ohr of Shabbos and make quantum jumps in our emunah
Chanukah brings all these elements together, strengthening them and
thereby increasing our devekus to Hashem. Nothing brings us more
joy than an unmistakable feeling of closeness to Him. This, perhaps, is
why the Rambam 10calls the days of
Chanukah “days of simchah.”
1. Based on Nesivos Shalom, Chanukah, pgs. 32-37
2. Soferim 18:2
3. Tehilim 30
4. Shabbos 56A
5. Yoma 22B
6. Tehilim 51:6
7. Shochar Tov 30
8. The three avos, plus Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, and Dovid, corresponding to
the seven lower sefiros
9. Chagigah 5A
10. Chanukah 3:3