The Light that Illuminates the Darkness
It is no coincidence that Chanukah comes precisely at that time of year when nighttime darkness is at its peak. On Chanukah, the longest nights of the year arrive and the winter coldness spreads over the land. What is more, Chanukah begins just prior to the New Moon, when the moon is at its smallest and shines least.
And then, as the sun sets and darkness descends over the land, and the long night casts its cold and menacing shadow, Jews go out with candles and kindle the Chanukah lights. By doing this they give expression to the mighty Jewish faith, which breaks through all darkness. Even in the darkest of times, when large empires ruled the world with great cruelty, we never abandoned our faith in the Torah, and we continued to study it and teach it. And a little of our light disperses much of their darkness.
The days of the Chanukah festival are days of rejoicing in the Oral Torah. Firstly, because they were instituted by the sages; in fact, the commandment to light Chanukah candles was one of the first commandments instituted by the sages. But, beyond this, they contain a general expression of the idea of the Oral Torah. In the days of the First Temple prophecy was common in Israel, and it follows that attention was focused mainly on the Written Torah. However, after the destruction of the First Temple and the disappearance of prophecy, the time had come for the rise of the Oral Torah.
The Oral Torah sheds light on Israel’s prominence. Through it, Israel is able to take part in disclosing the inner light of the Torah. The fixed principles of the Oral Torah and the method of applying these principles is paved by the sages of the Oral Torah. True, the light of the Written Torah is more lucent. It is like the noontime sun. The light of the Oral Torah, on the other hand, is similar to the light of the moon and stars. However, the Oral Torah has the ability to penetrate the hidden chambers of man’s soul and illuminate all of the dark corners of the world.
In the days of the Second Temple the foundation was laid for the order of Oral Torah study, all of its ordinances, safety measures, and customs. By virtue of the unique light of the Oral Torah, which, like the Chanukah candles, illuminates the darkness, we have also succeeded in overcoming all the difficulties of the exile.
These ideas, bound up as they are in Chanukah, are apparently the inner reason that the days of Chanukah enjoy so much popularity and love, so much so that there is almost no Jew, no matter how far-removed from the Torah and its commandments, who does not make a practice of lighting the Chanukah candles. What is more, all Jews make a practice of performing this commandment in the most exemplary manner, as we shall see. Ascending to Eight
Everything in existence is eventually worn away and passes out of existence. This is also true of ideas and memories. With the passing of time they lose their power and their vitality. Yet, here, with the lighting of the Chanukah candles, we discover that Jewish faith does not lose its strength. To the contrary, despite the hardships and the darkness, faith persists, and even blossoms. The refined spirituality that is revealed through the Torah is eternal, and it therefore grows. Yet other, non-eternal ideas pass on. Jews affectionately embrace this idea and, therefore, all Jews are accustomed to fulfilling this commandment in the most exemplary manner, adding a new candle each day so that on the final day eight candles are lit.
The number eight connotes that which is beyond the physical world, for the entire world was created in seven days, and there are seven days in the week. The number eight, on the other hand, points to that which is beyond nature, like Brit Milah (ritual circumcision), which is meant to refine and uplift nature.
The Torah, too, because it elevates the physical world to a divine plane, belongs to the eighth level. Therefore, the Torah was given after a counting period of seven weeks. These seven weeks represent nature, and after them we reach a level above nature – the Shavuot Festival, the festival of the Giving of the Torah. We likewise have a custom to finish the reading of the Torah once a year on Shmini Atzeret, following the seven days of Succot.
And so, the days of Chanukah, which give expression to the elevated status of the Oral Torah, also belong to a supernatural realm. Therefore, we kindle lights for eight days, and we add a new candle each day until we light eight candles."Al HaNisim," "Hallel," and the Chanukah Torah Reading
The sages instituted the Chanukah festival in order to express thanks and praise to God for the salvation He brought to Israel. To this end they composed the "Al Hanisim" prayer, which is recited in the "Modim" blessing of the "Amidah" prayer. It is also recited in the "Nodeh Lekha" blessing of the "Birkat HaMazon" (Grace after Meals). We do not mention Chanukah in the "Me’ein Shalosh" blessing.
If one forgot to say "Al Hanisim" in "Amidah" or "Birkat HaMazon" he need not repeat his prayer. If a person realizes his mistake before finishing the pertinent blessing, he must go back and insert "Al Hanisim," but after saying God’s name in the said blessing, he may no longer correct his mistake (Shulchan Arukh 682:1). Nonetheless, in such a case it is a good idea to insert "Al Hanisim" at the end of the Amidah prayer, after the blessings, where it is permissible to add requests and thanks as one pleases. Likewise, in the "Birkat HaMazon," one should correct his mistake by inserting it later in the "HaRachaman" section.
We are also obligated to recite the complete "Hallel" prayer of thanks on each of the eight days of Chanukah (Arakhin 10a) for Jewish law teaches that if Israel is saved from great hardship (e.g., slavery, annihilation), the "Hallel" prayer must be recited (Pesachim 117a; Megillat Taanit 9:2). The fact that we are commanded to recite the complete "Hallel" with a blessing for eight days teaches us something about the importance of Chanukah, for on Passover we recite the complete "Hallel" on the first day alone.
The sages instituted that on Chanukah we read the Torah portion dealing with the offerings of the princes, which were brought during the inauguration of the Holy Temple. On each day of Chanukah the portion of a single prince is read, and on the eighth day we begin reading with the eighth prince’s offering and finish after the matter of the Temple Menorah, at the beginning of the Behaalotkha Torah portion (Megillah 30b; Shulchan Arukh 784:1). Prohibition Against Fasting, Eulogizing, Visiting the Cemetery
The days of Chanukah are days of joy, praise, and thanks. Therefore, it is forbidden to fast and eulogize during this period. Even on the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of a parent – a day on which many customarily fast – if it falls during Chanukah, we do not fast. A bride and groom likewise do not fast on their wedding day (a custom of Ashkenazi and some Sephardi Jews) if they are married during Chanukah.
It is also forbidden to eulogize during Chanukah, whether during the funeral ceremony or on the seventh or thirtieth day after the death. Only if the deceased is a Torah scholar is it permitted to eulogize him during the funeral ceremony in the presence of the body (Shabbat 21b; Shulchan Arukh and Rema 670:1). The laws of mourning, nonetheless, are observed during Chanukah as usual (Shulchan Arukh 696:4).
During Chanukah, many refrain from visiting the cemetery on the death anniversary of relatives, because such a visit is liable to evoke tears and eulogizing, acts forbidden during Chanukah. Instead, they visit the cemetery before or after Chanukah. Others do not refrain from going to the cemetery on Chanukah, and this is the practice of some Ashkenazi communities. However, all permit visiting the graves of the righteous during Chanukah (Ben Ish Chai, Vayeshev 22; and see Gesher Hachaim 29:6).
Sephardic Jews do not refrain from saying "Tzidduk Hadin" during Chanukah (Shulchan Arukh 420:2) but Ashkenazi Jews do (Rema ibid. and 683:1). However, all refrain from saying "Tachanun" and "Lamnatzeach" during Chanukah. Mourners customarily do not lead the prayer service during Chanukah. Festive Meals During Chanukah
The days of Chanukah were established as days of praise and thanks. However, unlike Purim, which calls for festive eating and drinking, on Chanukah there is no obligation as such to have festive meals. This is because the Purim decree was one of physical annihilation, and therefore the Purim commandment is to rejoice on a physical level by eating and drinking. On Chanukah, by contrast, the victory was a spiritual one, for the Greek decree was directed at Torah observance. A Jew could save himself through Hellenization. Therefore, it is the spiritual aspect that is emphasized on Chanukah – thanking and praising God for helping us to cling tight to the Torah and its commandments (Lavush).
In practice, the custom is to have festive meals on Chanukah, in the course of which Torah is discussed and songs are sung. And all authorities agree that by eating in this manner, these meals become "Seudot Mitvah" (meals that constitute the fulfillment of a religious commandment). In addition, by discussing Torah during these festive meals, they are infused with the unique character of Chanukah, the essence of which is spiritual joy, and this joy is carried over into the meal.
There is a custom to eat dairy products on Chanukah to commemorate the miracle that was wrought through them, for Yehudit, the daughter of Yochanan the High Priest, served milk products to the enemy, and when he fell asleep she killed him, bringing a great salvation to Israel. Even though this took place before Chanukah, the memory of this act of valor gave the Hasmoneans the strength and courage needed to rebel against the Greeks. Therefore, Yehudit’s courageous deed is viewed as part of the miracle of Chanukah. There is also a custom to eat fried foods like Latkes and jelly-filled doughnuts on Chanukah. Women’s Cessation from Work ("Melakha")
Women have a unique custom to desist from working while the Chanukah candles burn. Some women have a custom to refrain from doing work throughout Chanukah, especially on the first and eighth days of the festival. However, the accepted custom is to refrain from work while the candles burn, and even here only for the half hour after being kindled (that period of time when the commandment is actually fulfilled).
Two explanations are given for this custom. The first is that women refrain from work so that they not make the mistake of using the light of the candles. Because women are more liable to make this mistake, they alone refrain from work while the candles burn. The second reason is the sacred nature of Chanukah, for we recite Hallel on every day of the festival. Chanukah resembles Chol Hamoed and Rosh Chodesh, and its sanctity is most apparent while the candles are burning.
The reason that women alone observe this custom is that they have special merit during Chanukah, for the miracle began by virtue of the valor of Yehudit and other women.