Chanukah - Shedding Light on the Identity Crisis
by Rabbi Yehudah Prero
Chanukah begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, this year at sunset
on December 3, 1999, and lasts eight days. Chanukah is known mainly for the
ritual of lighting the Menorah, an eight branched candelabra, in
commemoration of the miracle involving a single flask of oil lasting eight
days instead of one. (See I:57 for further background information). In
addition , Chanukah celebrates the victory of the nation of Israel, led by
the Chashmonaim, a family from the tribe of Levi, over the Yevanim, the
The Talmud (Shabbos 21b) sums up the background of Chanukah: "When the
Yevanim entered the Sanctuary of the Holy Temple, they defiled all of the oil
there and rendered it ritually impure. When the House of the Chashmonaim
strengthened and were then victorious over the Yevanim, they searched and
found only one flask of oil that had the seal of the Kohen Gadol (High
Priest) in tact, enough to last one day. A miracle occurred and they were
able to light with it for eight days. The next year they established and made
these days into a holiday, for saying songs of praise and thanks."
The Maharal (Ner Mitzvah) discusses the history of Chanukah. It appears from
the statement of the Talmud that Chanukah was established in commemoration of
the miracle of the oil. The Menorah in the Temple was supposed to be lit
every day, and thus this consistency was threatened by the lack of pure oil.
A miracle occurred, and the one day supply of oil lasted eight days. The
Maharal queries about this reason. Generally, we have the obligation to
praise and thank G-d when a miracle was performed for us and we were
therefore saved from peril and danger. The Sages did not establish a day for
praise and thanks because we were given an opportunity to perform a Mitzvah
(commandment), even if this opportunity arose via a miracle. However,
according to the statement of the Talmud, it appears that is exactly the case
by Chanukah. What, the Maharal asks, is the Talmud telling us about the
reason underlying the celebration of Chanukah?
Megillas Antiochus, a narration of the story of Chanukah, contains
interesting information about the persecution imposed by Antiochus, the
leader of the Yevanim. "And it was in the days of Antiochus, the king of
Yavan, a great and strong king, with an established kingdom, to whom all
other kings listened, that Antiochus conquered many provinces . . . He said
to his advisors, ' Are you aware that there is the Jewish nation that lives
in Jerusalem? To our gods they bring no offerings, our religion they do not
practice, and the faith of the king they have cast away to practice their
own. They anxiously anticipate the day when my kingdom will be eradicated,
and they ask When will our king lead us, and rule over the sea and the dry
land , and the whole world will be given to our hands. It is an affront to
the kingdom to allow these people to exist on the earth. Now, let us go and
put ourselves upon them, and we will annul the covenants which they have
established with their G-d, that of the Sabbath, the New Moon, and
circumcision.' These words found favor in the eyes of Antiochus' officers and
This " Megilla" later relates how Antiochus went about his scheme. "And when
the word of the king was heard, it happened that they found a man who
circumcised his son. They brought this man and his wife and hanged them right
next to the boy. They also found a woman who circumcised her son on the eight
day, after her husband had died. She went up on to the wall of Jerusalem with
her circumcised son in her hands. She said to the officers 'You think that
you will be able to nullify the covenant that we entered into with Him. This
covenant of our forefathers will never be abolished, and the commandment of
Bris Milah will never depart from our children's children.' Her baby son then
fell to the ground, and she fell after him, and the two of them perished
together. There were many people who acted similarly in those days, and they
did not change from the covenant of their fathers."
The Bris Milah, circumcision, was one of the religious observances that
Antiouchus believed was integral to the existence of the nation of Israel. In
order to eradicate the practice of Judaism, circumcision had to end.
Circumcision, according to the Ramban, was chosen as the sign of the covenant
between G-d and the nation of Israel. Just as the body of the male, after
circumcision, differs from males of other nations, so to the relationship
the nation of Israel has with G-d differs from that of other nations.
Eradication of this sign of uniqueness would permit the nation of Israel to
be like anyone else, Antiochus' goal.
The Maharal explains that Antiochus' goal indeed was to remove the holiness
of the nation of Israel, to destroy the Torah. If Antiochus succeeded in
preventing people from performing Mitzvos, and the Torah and its dictates
were not studied and followed, the nation of Israel would cease to exist. The
Holy Temple was central to the religious life of the nation of Israel. After
the Chashmonaim defeated the troops of Antiochus, they came to rededicate the
Temple. The nation had not allowed their special relationship with G-d to
weaken. They kept their identity, and they continued to adhere to the Torah's
precepts. The Temple would now once again be in the proper hands, for proper
use. To reestablish this connection with G-d, to resanctify the Temple, the
Chashmonaim wanted to light the Menorah. Alas, they only had enough oil to
light the Menorah for one day. However, the oil lasted for eight. Our
celebration of this miracle is not solely a celebration of being given the
opportunity to perform a Mitzvah. It is a celebration of our being able to
practice our religion. It is a celebration of our ability to persevere and
defeat those who desired our spiritual destruction. Because the nation of
Israel maintained its covenant, its unique relationship with G-d, they were
able to emerge victorious. They were allowed, through miraculous means, to
perform a Mitzvah in the Temple, the bastion of spirituality. When the Talmud
says we celebrate the miracle of the oil, it means that we celebrate the fact
that we were able to perform that Mitzvah because we were victorious in
overcoming the spiritual decimation that threatened our nation.
May the Chanukah lights shine bright!
Check out all of the posts on Chanukah. Head over to
http://www.torah.org/learning/yomtov/ to access the YomTov Page.
Then click on the icon for the holiday of your choice.
For questions, comments, and topic requests, please write to Rabbi Yehudah Prero.