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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Articles about Hanukkah

The Sanctity of Hanukah

What reason is there, in our day, to rejoice over the return of Jewish self-rule in the Second Temple era? After all, we see that, at any rate, the Temple was eventually destroyed, and the Jewish people were exiled from their land.
Dedicated to the memory of
Amram son of Sultana
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1. Hanukah Candles…at Mount Sinai?
2. "Sheeltot" and "Chatam Sofer"
3. The True Importance of Hanukah

Hanukah Candles…at Mount Sinai?
The author of Halakhot Gedolot counts the obligation to light Hanukah candles as one of the 613 Torah commandments. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, in his Sefer HaMitzvot expresses astonishment regarding this: How is it possible that Moses, on Mount Sinai, could possibly have received a commandment to light candles at Hanukah, an ordinance that was not instituted until the second Temple era. The Rambam hence dismisses the opinion of Halakhot Gedolot completely. Yet, even the Rambam agrees that the obligation to light candles on Hanukah is of very great importance. The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachaman) takes note of this, pointing out that according to the Rambam (Hilkhot Mamrim, Ch. 1) whoever violates or nullifies one of the ordinances of the sages is in fact guilty of transgressing two Torah commandments: one positive and one negative. The positive commandment is that we are obligated to abide by the words of the sages, as the verse states, "Do according to that which they teach you. Alternately, we are bound by a negative commandment not to violate their words: "Do not turn from whatever they teach you." We find, then, that even according to the Rambam, by lighting Hanukah candles we are fulfilling two Torah commandments.

But the Ramban himself attacked the Rambam and raised many questions regarding his position. The central difficulty that the Ramban points to is the well-known fact that Halakha recognizes a great difference between Torah commandments and rabbinic commandments. Yet, if, as the Rambam claims, regarding every rabbinic ordinance we are in effect obligated from the Torah, what remains of the difference between the two? According to the Ramban, the commandment "Do not turn from whatever they teach you" relates to rabbinic interpretations of Torah commandments. For example, the four Tefillin compartments, forbidden labor on the Sabbath, etc. Rabbinic ordinances and decrees, though, according to the Ramban do not fall into the category of "Do not turn…".

Yet, we find that even according to the Ramban the commandment to light Hanukah candles enjoys a special status among rabbinic ordinances, and that it is in fact based upon the Written Torah which we received from Moses, and not only upon a later rabbinic ordinance. In his Torah commentary, the Ramban brings the Midrash which describes Aaron’s faintness when he saw that he was not among the princes who were privileged to inaugurate the altar, and how God comforted him by giving him the task of lighting the menorah candles. "The purpose of this homiletical tale," says the Ramban, "is to hint at the Hanukah (dedication) of candles during the second Temple era through…the Hasmoneans and their sons….When they brought twelve sacrifices, and the tribe of Levi did not bring any sacrifice, God said to Moses: ‘Speak with Aaron and tell him that there is a different dedication which involves lighting candles, and through your sons I will make use of this dedication to perform miracles and salvation for the people of Israel. And this dedication is named after them: the dedication of the House of the Hasmoneans.

And the Ramban continues, quoting the Midrash: "The Almighty said to Moses, ‘Go tell Aaron not to worry, for he is destined for even grater honor. So long as the Temple stood, the sacrifices were offered up, but the lights will forever give light over against the face of the candelabrum, and all of the blessings which I gave you to bless my children will never be nullified." To this the Ramban adds, "And, behold, it is well known that when the Temple does not stand, the sacrifices are discontinued, as is the kindling of the menorah candles. But, the sages of the Midrash were actually hinting at the Hasmonean Hanukah candles the lighting of which is practiced even after the destruction, in our exile, and the Priestly Blessing which immediately precedes the dedication offering of the princes, which is also practiced forever."

It appears, then, from the words of the Ramban, that there is an obligatory and sacred aspect in the Hanukah candles which stems from the lighting of the candles in the Holy Temple. This is evident from the fact that the Ramban likened the kindling of these lights to the Priestly Blessing, implying that that the two of them are a continuation of what had once been in the Temple. And it is well known that according to the majority of the Halakhic authorities, the commandment of the Priestly Blessing is from the Torah. This being the case, we find that when it comes to lighting Hanukah candles, even the Ramban, who disagrees with the Rambam’s understanding of, "Do not turn from whatever they teach you," makes a connection between the lighting of candles today and the lighting of candles in the Temple.

"Sheeltot" and "Chatam Sofer"
We can add to the opinions of these great Torah scholars, the words of the "Sheeltot," the first known post-talmudic book of Jewish law, written 1,200 years ago by Rav Achai Gaon. He writes, that there is a Torah-based obligation, for one who sees a place wherein miracles were performed for our ancestors, to pronounce the blessing "…who performed miracles for our forefathers in this place." The source of this law is in the behavior of Yithro who blessed God for performing the miracle of taking the Children of Israel out of their Egyptian bondage. After mentioning a number of places wherein one must pronounce this blessing, for example, the place where the Reed Sea was split open before our forefathers as they left Egypt, the place where the Jordan was split before our forefathers as they entered the land of Israel, and more, Rav Achai mentions the fact that one must, while lighting Hanukah candles, bless God for the miracles he performed for. This is true whether he himself lights or merely sees the lit candles. From his words we can conclude that this blessing has as its source the words of the Torah in the Yithro portion, and, if so we find that Rav Achai, too, holds that thanking God for the miracle of Hanukah is also grounded in the words of the Torah.

We may add to the opinions of the above-cited earlier codifiers the opinion of the Chatam Sofer, a leading Torah scholar who lived approximately two hundred years ago. The Chatam Sofer writes (in his elucidations to the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat, and in his responsa) that the very celebration of a day upon which a miracle was performed for the entire people of Israel – like Hanukah or Purim – is a Torah obligation. Only establishing the details of how exactly to make the day special, whether through pronouncing the Hallel prayer of thanks or through partaking in a festive meal, is the task of the rabbis. And one who refrains from marking in any way the importance of the day as a vehicle for recognizing God’s presence in saving the Jewish people, is guilty of transgressing the Torah. If so, in lighting the Hanukah candles to publicize the miracle in accordance with the ordinance of the sages, even if we do not mark the day by any other actions, we are fulfilling, according to all opinions, the Torah commandment to thank God for the miracles he performed for us, and in this manner we perform both a Torah commandment and rabbinic ordinance in one.

Another example of a combination of Torah commandment and rabbinic ordinance in one action can be found in the Kiddush said on Sabbath night: The Torah obligates us to pronounce words dealing with God’s resting on the Sabbath after the completion of creating the world; the sages enacted that they be said over wine before the Sabbath meal. When performing Kiddush on Sabbath, then, we are fulfilling both a Torah commandment and a rabbinic ordinance in one.

The True Importance of Hanukah
Thus far we have dealt with the Halakhic side of candle lighting a) as a continuation of the lighting of the menorah in the Temple, b) from the aspect of seeing the candles being equivalent to seeing the place where a miracle was performed by our forefathers, c) and from the aspect of praise for the miracle through which we were saved and became obligated to thank God. One who looks closely will see how these three aspects were arranged in the blessings which we pronounce on the first day of Hanukah. The first blessing, "…to kindle the Hanukah lights," can be seen as reflecting a continuation of the kindling of the lights of the menorah by Aaron and his sons, in accordance with the Ramban’s position. The second blessing, "…Who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days at this time," can be seen as reflecting the blessing for seeing a place or arriving at a time in which miracles were performed for our ancestors, in accordance with the Sheeltot of Rav Achai Gaon. The third blessing, "…Who has granted us life and sustenance and permitted us to reach this festive occasion," can be seen as an expression of thanks for saving us, in accordance with the opinion of the Chatam Sofer.

If we delve even deeper we can discern just how important this salvation was for the Jewish people. By virtue of this salvation we merited the return of Jewish sovereignty for more than two hundred years. On the face of things, the question begs to be asked: What reason is there, in our day, for such joy over the return of self-rule in the Second Temple era? After all, we see that, at any rate, the Temple was eventually destroyed, and the Jewish people were exiled from their land.
If, though, we consider the nature of our religious life today, whether in daily prayer, or any other aspects which distinguish the communal appearance in synagogues or study halls, our way of studying the Oral Tradition, etc., we arrive at the understanding that this entire lifestyle exist thanks to the ordinances that the sages instituted and the guidance which they provided us regarding proper community structure and organization in the Second Temple era.

When sovereignty returned to Israel in the Second Temple era, and the Sanhedrin convened freely, without any foreign pressure, we merited having many ordinances instituted, both in the arena of serving God and the arena of family and society structure. For example, ordinances were made regarding matters such as the husband's obligation to provide his wife with a proper marriage contract, pearents' obligation to feed and clothe their children, laws for proper business dealings, the "prozbul" enactment allowing for loans to be collected after the Sabbatical Year, and many other ordinances designed to prevent difficulties for people or to prevent strife and conflict. A proper method of learning Torah for the sages of Israel and their students was set according to the guidelines of the Mishna, also compiled during this period, as the nation of Israel was settled in its land. We find, then, that our complete existence today rests upon the work done by the sages in those days - days in which independence was returned to Israel, and our nation merited revealing the holy lights which accompany our sovereignty.

In light of this understanding, there is room for appreciating anew the value of our era, in which we have returned to Zion and the Kingdom of Israel is slowly being reestablished upon the holy soil of Eretz Yisrael. This national structure is not to be viewed as dry or empty of spiritual content, Heaven forbid. One must understand that the very building of Israel necessarily implies the appearance of a radiant and lofty spiritual content which belongs to a complete appearance of the holy nation of God.
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