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A Religious or National Holiday?

Is Hannuka a religious holiday, on which the Nation of Israel commemorates its religious victory over Greek paganism? Or is it a national holiday, celebrating our military defeat of Greek expansionism in the Land of Israel?


Rabbi Yossef Carmel

Kislev 17 5782
Is Hannuka a religious holiday, on which the Nation of Israel commemorates its religious victory over Greek paganism? Or is it a national holiday, celebrating our military defeat of Greek expansionism in the Land of Israel?

This question has echoed in the public Jewish debate over Hannuka for many generations – and ever since the national awakening of the Jewish People and the founding of the modern-day political Zionist movement, the issue has become a basic staple of Hannuka discussions.

The question may be put this way: How do we look at the beautiful Hannuka candles? If national might is the main point, then the pure flame of the lights emanating from each house signify the military victory that brought about our independence for some 200 years. Alternatively, if the fact that we were able to continue observing the Sabbath and studying Torah is primary, then we see in the candles the purification of the Holy Temple, as well as the victory of the "pure" over the "impure" and the renewal of the sacrificial service.

Our sources appear to emphasize both.

The Talmud states as follows (Tractate Shabbat, 21b):

"What is Hannuka? The Rabbis taught [in Megillat Taanit] that beginning on the 25th day of Kislev are eight [festive] days of Hannuka … for when the Greeks burst into the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils there; when the Hasmonean Dynasty later overcame and defeated them, they checked and found just one flask of [pure] oil, sealed with the seal of the High Priest – which held enough to light the Menorah in the Temple for only one day. [They lit it] and a miracle occurred, enabling them to light for eight days. The next year, they made these days into a festival of praise and thanksgiving."

This passage makes no mention at all of the military victory or the national independence that occurred!

On the other hand, in the Al HaNissim prayer that we recite in the Sh'moneh Esrei on Hannuka, we find a strong emphasis on the military success of "the few against the many, the weak against the strong." The miracle of the flask of oil is not mentioned there at all! We do mention the renewal of the Temple service, but only as a result of the military victory.

This discussion then raises another question: What is the role and place of the Beit HaMikdash, for whose rebuilding we pine, in the individual lives of Jews, and in our national life in general?

It could be, on first glance, that the Holy Temple is simply a synagogue on a large scale. That is, our synagogues are a mikdash me'at, a "little Sanctuary," and the Holy Temple is a "large Sanctuary." As such, just as the synagogue is a religious site where we serve G-d via prayer, the Temple is where we serve G-d via the sacrificial offerings. Sounds somewhat technical…

And even if we raise the ante and say that it is where the Divine Presence dwells, it can still be claimed that the offering of sacrifices is a necessary condition for the Divine Presence (see the Meshekh Chokhmah's introduction to Vayikra) – meaning, once again, that the Holy Temple is a place for sacrifices, which is simply a "religious" matter.

But let's see what the Rambam says about Hannuka:

"In the times of the Second Temple, the Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish People, attempting to nullify their religion and forbidding them from observing the Torah and its commandments. They stretched out their hands against their property and their daughters; they entered the Sanctuary, wrought havoc within, and defiled the holies. The Jews suffered greatly under the Greeks, for they oppressed them greatly - until the G-d of our fathers had mercy upon them and saved them from Greek rule. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overcame them, slew them, and saved the Jews. They then appointed a king from the priests - and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple."

We must ascertain the source the Rambam found for this explanation – for after all, neither in our prayers nor in the Talmud do we find Hannuka presented this way.

The answer is that the Beit HaMikdash is, in fact, more than just a "religious" site. It is a national symbol that represents all of Israel, united around faith in G-d, and thereby also in belief in His Torah and the commandments. A situation in which the Beit HaMikdash is under foreign rule is very far from the ideal.

This is why the commandment to build the Holy Temple is not incumbent upon individual Jews, but upon the Jewish Nation as a whole. This is one of the commandments that we are commanded only as a free Nation in our Land – and an independent state dwelling securely in Eretz Yisrael.

As we read in the Torah:

"You shall cross the Jordan and settle in the land your G-d is giving you – and He will give you rest from all your enemies surrounding you, and you will dwell securely.

And the place that your God will choose in which to establish His Name, there you shall bring … [all] your sacrifices…" (D'varim 12,10-11)

So also did King David understand, as is written:

It came to pass that David sat in his house, and G-d gave him rest from all his enemies around him. King David said to Natan the Prophet, "See how I dwell in a cedar house, and G-d's ark is sitting in a tent…" (Shmuel II 7,1-2)

We thus see that the Beit HaMikdash is a very national matter, not merely ritualistic. Israel's prayers throughout the generations for the renewal of the Temple service in Jerusalem are at the same time, also prayers for the rebuilding of the Nation in its Land. These two aspects – religious and national – cannot be separated. This is why our joy and thanks on Hannuka are for the return of Jewish rule, which in turn enabled the miracle of the flask of oil.

Let us pray that we will soon merit the combination of national strength, working together in tandem with worthy spiritual leadership, on behalf of the rebuilding of a truly complete spiritual national home.
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