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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Articles about Hanukkah

The Significance of the Miracle of Chanukah

God performed a miracle allowing the Hasmoneans to light the Menorah even though they did not have to. This showed Israel that at the source of the argument between the sages of Israel and the philosophers of Greece, the sages of Israel were right.
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"They found but one flask of oil bearing the seal of the High Priest" (Shabbat 21b)

Why Was Chanukah Established as a Festival?
There are two central events related to the festival of Chanukah:
1) The miracle of the military victory
2) The miracle of the oil

The military victory is described at length in the "Al HaNisim" prayer:

"In the days of the Hasmonean Mattathias, son of Johanan the high priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous Greco-Syrian kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from the ordinances of Your will, then You in your abundant mercy rose up for them in the time of their trouble, pled their cause, executed judgment, avenged their wrong, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and insolent ones into the hands of those occupied with Your Torah. Both unto Yourself did you make a great and holy name in Thy world, and unto Your people did You achieve a great deliverance and redemption. Whereupon your children entered the sanctuary of Your house, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Chanukah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name."

And the miracle of the oil is described in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b):

"For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving."

Though there were two miracles, the Chanukah festival centers primarily upon the miracle of the oil. We light the Chanukah candles for eight days in remembrance of this miracle, and the reason Chanukah lasts eight days is that the miracle of the oil lasted eight days. Therefore, we must take a closer look at this miracle and try to better understand its nature and significance.

Unnecessary Miracle
From the point of view of Jewish law, the miracle of the oil was unnecessary, because there is a rule that a person who is unable to perform a commandment due to prohibiting circumstances is exempt. Therefore, though there is a commandment to light the Menorah in the Holy Temple every day, if there is no fitting oil, the priests are exempt from this obligation. So even if there was no miracle and the Menorah was not lit, the Hasmoneans would have violated no prohibition. Therefore, the question arises, why did God perform this miracle at all, and this very question is asked by the Sefat Emet (Sefat Emet on Chanukah, 5648).

Beyond the Letter of the Law
A commandment can be performed on a number of levels. It can be performed according to the letter of the law (Ikar Hadin), somewhat beyond the letter of the law (Mehadrin), and far beyond the letter of the law (Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin). In general, most people fulfill the commandments according to the letter of the law, fewer go somewhat beyond the letter of the law, and a number of pious individuals go far beyond the letter of the law.

When it comes to the Chanukah candles, we find an interesting phenomenon. According to the letter of the law, a person must light a single candle for his entire household each evening for eight days. Beyond the letter of the law, one candle is lit for each member of the family every evening for eight days. For example, in a family of five, five candles are lit each night for eight days. Far beyond the letter of the law, a candle is added each day.

The Rambam brings this division in Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Chanukah 4:1):

How many candles are lit on Hanukkah? The Mitzvah is that each house should have one candle lit, whether there are a lot of people or only one person living there. The one who goes beyond the letter of the law lights candles according to the number of people in the house, one candle for each, men and women. The one who goes far beyond the letter of the law and does the ideal Mitzvah lights a candle for each person on the first night and keeps adding one candle each night.

In practice, we find that the majority of Jews go far beyond the letter of the law when lighting Chanukah candles. All light one candle on the first day and eight candles on the eighth day. The fact that this laudable practice has been accepted by the entire nation of Israel is very interesting and calls for explanation.

Oil and the High Priest
Close inspection reveals that the miracle of Chanukah revolves around oil. In addition, the flask that was found bore the seal of the High Priest. These two details appear to be very significant.

Oil and Wisdom
Oil is said to represent wisdom. Here are a couple of sources that substantiate this claim:

1) The Talmud explains that if a person wishes to become wise, he should go to live in the south. This is because the Menorah, which was lit with oil, was located in the southern part of the Temple's Sanctuary. "Rabbi Yitzchak says, 'One who wishes to be wise should go south . . . and this is indicated by the fact that . . . the Menorah is in the south [of the Sanctuary]' " (Baba Batra 25b).

2. The Book of Samuel relates that Yoav called a wise woman from Tekoa in order to convince King David to forgive his son, Avshalom: "And Yoav sent to Tekoa, and fetched from there a wise woman" (Second Samuel 14:2). The Talmud asks why he sought a wise woman from Tekoa of all places, and answers that in Tekoa people use a lot of olive oil and are therefore wise: " 'And Yoav sent to Tekoa, and fetched from there a wise woman.' Why Tekoa of all places? Rabbi Yochanan says, 'Because the people there use a lot of oil, they possess much wisdom.' " (Menachot 85b).

The Priesthood and Wisdom
The priests also represent wisdom. The job of the priests (in addition to working in the Holy Temple) is to teach the Jewish People Torah, as Moses says to the tribe of Levi, "And to Levi he said . . . 'They shall teach Jacob Your ordinances, and Israel Your law' " (Deuteronomy 33:10). Elsewhere in the Torah we are told that any time a person has difficulty understanding something, he must go to the priests and ask them what to do: "If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment . . . Then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God shall choose. And you shall come to the priests the Levites, and the judge that shall be in those days; and you shall enquire, and they shall declare unto you the sentence of judgment, and you shall do according to the tenor of the sentence" (Deuteronomy 17:8-10).

The priests are teachers of wisdom, and the High Priest, the head of the priests, represents the source of all wisdom. It is no coincidence that, as the Torah teaches us, the High Priest is anointed with oil. He, like oil, represents wisdom, "And he who is the high priest among his brothers, upon whose head the anointing oil was poured, and who is consecrated to put on the garments . . ." (Leviticus 21:10).

The Source of War
Every war that breaks out in the world stems from a conflict of ideas. In other words, ideological conflicts lead to an actual war. The sages explain that the outward struggle between the Greeks and the Hasmoneans stemmed from a conflict of ideology: " ‘And darkness’ symbolizes Greece, which darkened the eyes of Israel with its decrees, ordering Israel, ‘Write on the horn of an ox that ye have no portion in the God of Israel’ " (Bereshit Rabba 2:4).

Source of Wisdom Untouched
Rabbi Tzaddok HaCohen of Lublin explains that the fact that the miracle of Chanukah revolved around the seal of the High Priest testifies that the miracle's purpose was to show that the Greeks were unable to touch the source of Israel's wisdom. He writes, "The High Priesthood represents the source of Israel's wisdom. Regarding the priests it is written, ‘And you shall come to the priests the Levites,’ and ‘they shall declare unto you the sentence of judgment,’ for they are Israel's foremost teachers of wisdom. And the High Priest is the head of them all, and his unbroken seal testified that the source of Israel's wisdom remained untouched" (Resisei Layla 56).

Israel and Greece - The source of the conflict
In his work The Kuzari, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi describes the source of the conflict between the Greek perspective, i.e., the philosophical perspective, and that of Israel. He explains that according to the philosophical perspective God is transcendent. He has no knowledge man’s doings, just as he has no expectations or demands of him: "God, according to the philosophers, transcends particulars . . . He does not take notice of you, and he certainly does not know your intentions or actions, what more so he does not hear your prayers or see your movements" (Kuzari 1:1). The Torah of Israel, on the other hand, is filled with explicit divine precepts that God has commanded us. These commandments prove that God is indeed concerned about our behavior.

Commandment Means Connection
The source of the argument between the sages of Israel and the philosophers is whether or not God desires certain human actions. Each of God's commandments evidences a bond between Himself and his creatures, for if there were no bond, He would not have commanded us at all. This may be likened to a father of two children, one he is fond of and another he is not. Of the undesired son he makes no demands, nor does he even speak to him. Of the favored son, he makes many demands in order to create a bond with him. The favored son fulfills his father's commands joyfully because they testify to the deep bond between the two of them.

"Mitzvah" - "Tzavta"
The Chassidic masters teach that the word "mitzvah" (commandment) derives from the word "tzavta" (together). "The word 'mitzvah' means bonding . . . For through each of the Torah's commandments we become bonded and connected . . . to the Holy One" (Likutei Halachot, Hilchot Netilat Yedayim 4; see also Me'or VaShemesh, Parashat Chukat).

Divine Concern
As we explained above, the miracle of Chanukah was absolutely unnecessary; because when a person is unable to perform a commandment, he is exempt from doing so. What this means is that the miracle of Chanukah came about in order to allow His people to go beyond the letter of the law in fulfilling a divine commandment. Strictly speaking, they were exempt from lighting the menorah, due to prohibiting circumstances. Rather, the Hasmoneans wanted to go beyond the letter of the law for this commandment and light the Menorah at all costs, and for this God performed the miracle of the oil.
The Sefat Emet explains that the reason God performed a miracle that allowed the Jewish people to go beyond the letter of the law was to teach us that He loves us and is very concerned about our actions: "The miracle of Chanukah is very dear . . . . For all other miracles are to save the Jewish people, but a miracle to simply allow us to perform a commandment despite the fact that ‘anoos rachmana patrei’ (the Almighty exempts a person who is under duress) teaches us of God's fondness for Israel, that the Almighty desires our actions and he performed this miracle so that we be able to fulfill the commandment" (Sefat Emet on Chanukah).
We may add that the fact that God performed a miracle for the sake of lighting the Menorah showed Israel that at the source of the argument between the sages of Israel and the philosophers of Greece, the sages of Israel were right. There is indeed, such a thing as divinely desired actions, and the proof of this is that God performed a miracle beyond the letter of the law. This explains why the entire Jewish people accepted upon themselves to go beyond the letter of the law in lighting the Chanukah candles each year, for the central theme of Chanukah is to testify regarding our fondness and closeness to the Almighty, and His closeness to us. We do this by publicizing the miracle that revealed God's intimate bond with the Jewish people.
Translated portions of the Talmud in the above article were taken from the Soncino Classics CD-Rom.
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