Happy Hannukah, Channuka, or any way that you would like to spell it! As children we often think this is an important holiday for gift giving, then as adults decide that it’s not so important. The reality is that this holiday is extremely important on multiple levels, and so I thought it would be worthwhile to share some history, theology, and insights from our Sages into the holiday to hopefully make it deeper and more filled with light for all of our lives.
There is a LOT of information in this Torah talk, so please feel free to skip around and find the history or insights that are most interesting to you…and either look at a different part each night of the holiday, or keep it as a reminder for next year!
Let’s start with some simple practices that we all seem to forget each year. The candles are to be placed into the Hannukiah (the actual name for the Hannukah Menorah) from the right to the left, and lit from left to right as we are to light the newest candle first each night. As an example, on the first night we place a candle on the farthest right, and we light the shamash (helper candle) and then the candle. On the second night, we place two candles in the farthest right of the Hannukiah, and then light the one on the left and then the one on the right.
The Hannukiah must be placed in a window so that it is seen by the world. This is a political statement going back to the Hasmonean revolt (Maccabees) in the second century B.C.E. that we are proud to be Jews, and that we are obligated to share the light of Torah and Judaism with the world. The only exception to this obligation is if we are at war and being attacked, and only if the placement of the Hannukiah in the window would increase the physical danger to our household. Thank God we are not currently at war here in the US, so place your Hannukiah proudly in your window and let your light shine!
The Festival of Hannukah is both a biblical commandment and a rabbinic commandment, which is why we say two prayers every night (the first night we also say the Shechiyanu prayer). The first prayer: “…who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hannukah lights” is a reference to the biblical commandment that we find in the Chapter 50 of the Book of Genesis. (We only use the prayer formula of “who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to…” for biblically based commandments.) Our patriarch Jacob had died on the first evening of Sukkot, and then the Egyptians mourned him for 70 days. After that, his son Joseph led the people to go bury his father. They traveled for a day, and then Joseph ordained (commanded for all time) a Festival of Mourning for Jacob for an additional seven days. 70 days after the first evening of Sukkot (Jacob’s death date) is the 25th of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar…now known as the first night of Hannukah. So….Joseph ordained an eight day Festival to honor Jacob beginning on what we now call the first night of Hannukah! That’s the biblical part and the first prayer.
The second prayer, “…who did wonderful things for our ancestors in days of old at this season” is in reference to the Maccabee revolt against the Seleucid Greeks in 167 BCE. This is the rabbinic part of the holiday (and the prayer reflects that by not including the “sanctified by your commandments” formula in this second prayer), so let’s take a brief look at some information about what these miraculous things were.
The historical background is that in the Second Century B.C.E. the kingdom of Judea (modern Israel) was controlled by the Seleucid Greeks. The practice of Judaism become banned, and a revolt was led by Mattathias and his five sons commencing in 167 B.C.E. Known as the “Maccabees” (meaning “hammer”), this family led the people in a war for their spiritual freedom. When they were victorious and re-took Jerusalem, they needed to clean and rededicate the Holy Temple (the word Hannukah means “dedication”). In this rededication they needed pure oil for the Temple’s Eternal Light, and there was enough oil found to last only one day. It would take eight days for more oil to be procured, and what is known as the “second miracle” is that the one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days: until there was new pure oil. As a result, we light candles for eight days in commemoration of this miracle.
But this is not what the holiday is really about at its essence, for there was a “first miracle” that is significantly more important both in ancient times, and in which our Sages instructed us that we need to teach every year. Our Sages recognized that the miracle of the oil would be remembered easily as we light the candles; and that the biblical commandment of remembering Jacob would also easily be remembered with the candle lighting. But the first miracle is one that we need to remember to constantly tell each year..
That first miracle of the holiday is that this group of spiritual warriors actually defeated the powerful Seleucids. These Syrian-Greeks, the most powerful army on Earth at the time, were defeated by a group of guerilla warriors who were fighting not for their physical lives, but for their spiritual survival. This military victory is the initial miracle that we commemorate.
Most wars are fought due to a threat to the physical lives of the combatants. One side wants to kill the other side in order to acquire land, power, wealth, resources, etc. The other side defends themselves so as not to be physically killed. But the Talmud teaches us that the Hasmonean conflict was different: it was truly a war for the spirit. The Greeks had no desire for the Jews to die. The exact opposite: they wanted the Jews to live and to give up their spiritual practices. They did not desire to subjugate the Jews for slaves or kill them to acquire wealth. The Seleucids wanted to destroy the souls of the people by prohibiting their worship and making the Jews assimilate. These Greeks understood that if they could get the Jews to stop their worship practices, then they would be able to ultimately conquer and control them more fully. They knew that as long as the Jews worshipped something above the government, the government could never be ultimately powerful.
The Talmud contrasts the war of Purim against Haman, who wanted to physically kill the Jews to the war of Hannukah, where our bodies were safe but our Jewish identity and souls were at risk. It makes it clear that the Hasmoneans took up arms not to defend their bodies, but to protect their spirits. They risked their lives and wellbeing in order to have the ability to worship God as they believed. They refused to become the atheists that the Greeks desired, and were willing to risk everything to ensure that they could practice the worship rituals needed for the survival of their souls. The Maccabees were committed to not allowing anyone else to control their spiritual lives…and we are to remember to never let our Jewish souls be destroyed by assimilation
So the holiday has three main purposes. A: A yahrzeit memorial for our Patriarch Jacob. B: A miraculous military victory in a war that was fought not for physical survival, but for spiritual survival. C: The miracle of pure oil lasting for as long as it was needed…and a reminder that miracles will always be provided to the Children of Israel when we really need them.
From a Kabbalistic point of view, the holiday deals with light, for as we are taught in the Book of Proverbs, “The soul of the human being is the candle flame of God”. So here are a few points about light that I hope deepen your Hannukah celebration:
In Judaism, Physical light is an extension of the spiritual Light of God that permeates the Universe.
Light illuminates Darkness. Light illuminates a pathway so that we can follow and consciously be in God’s Presence.
Spiritual life force is expressed as God’s light permeating throughout the world, contained in vessels. “These vessels are the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet” (R. Shneur Zalman, Tanya Shaar HaYichud VeHaEmunah 79b)
Fundamentally, light does not belong to this world. Rather it is an emanation of a different essence, from the other side of reality. Light serves as the symbol of good and the beautiful, of all that is positive. (R. Adin Steinsaltz)
The Talmud points out that the menorah stood at a remove from the table in the Holy Temple. An earthly king retiring for the night would place the light on a table by his bed. Finally, the Talmud contends again from scriptural evidence, that in Solomon's Temple the windows of the building were wide on the inside and narrow on the outside suggesting that the holy light of the sanctuary flowed out to grace the world. In short, the true purpose of the menorah, according to the Talmud, was to offer testimony to all humanity that God's presence resided among the people of Israel (B.T. Menahot 86b). And once having affixed this meaning to the menorah, it was but a small step to an eternal light in the synagogue to signify the same comforting message to Jews wherever they might be dispersed. (Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor Emeritas of Jewish Theological Seminary)
The Hannukiah lights up 10 pathways
o 10 Commandments
o 10 Sephirot
o 10 Utterances of God in Creation
o The Hebrew letter Yod (first letter of God’s Name, and “yod” literally
The Hannukiah is publicly put out in the window. It, like the ancient blood on the doorpost, is a public sign of our commitment and faith to God. It is an open revolt against tyranny, and an action of faith that God’s light will always reign supreme.
And a few other insights from one of my favorite commentators….
From Nifloit HaTorah (R. Yosef Haim Schwab)
There is a fundamental debate over whether the primary reason for Hannukah was because of the victory in the war, or the miracle of the oil. “Why do we celebrate Hannukah”, not “What is Hannukah?”, After all the debate, we are told in the gemarra that the primary reason is the oil, not the war. If so, why do all the special prayers of the days talk about the war only and not mention the oil at all? According to Meain Beit HaShevah, the reason is that it is unnecessary to talk about the oil because there is a menorah in the window and we are commanded to light with a blessing. We are constantly remined about the oil. The battle, however, does not have any visuals to remind us. So, we talk about the war in our prayers. Furthermore, if there was enough oil for seven days, whey do we keep it for eight? Answer: Even the first day was a miracle because the split the oil into eights, so no one day had enough to burn the full day. But why did they divide the oil for the seven branch menorah into eight parts? What was the significance of the number 8? Answer: A few months prior to this, they had been forced to miss celebrating the Succot of Torah, which lasts for eight days. So as to make up for this, Hashem wanted Hannukah to last for eight days. Hence, the miracle.
After the war of Hannukah, it took the Hasmoneans another 25 years to free the land of Israel, from 165-140 B.C.E. The Hasmoneans were Cohanim (priests) and the greatest tzaddikim in the world. They made one fatal error. In addition to retaking their priesthood, they usurped the kingship too, which they had no right to do. It belonged to the children of Judah, not the children of Levi. The end result was that, after 100 years, they ended up being some of the greatest Rashaim in the world, and caused the destruction of the Second Temple. They became traitors to Hashem, and intermarried with non-Jews. And, because of this, Rebbe (Yehuda HaNasi, author of the Mishnah), who came from Yehudam didn’t include a tractate for Hannukah, even though there is one for Purim. This was his way of showing his disapproval to them for usurping the kingship, which belongs exclusively to Yehuda, not to Levi.
The word Hannukah is an acrostic that stands for God, Candles, And Law, Because of the House, Praise (Cheit, Nun, Vav, Chaf, Cheit… “Chai, Nerot, V’Halacha, C’Beit, Hallel)
Why do we spin a dreidel from the top while we shake a grogger from the bottom? This symbolizes that our salvation on Hannukah came from above. Hashem was motivated to help us even though we didn’t deserve it (there was no public tshuvah). However, on Purim, our salvation from below as a response to the fasting, praying, and tshuvah. We therefore hold the grogger from below
Hannukah was an onslaught against our religion, whereas Purim was an onslaught against our bodies. Hitler, and Haman before him – racists – didn’t care what type of Jew you were. They wanted to wipe out the entire Jewish People. The Greeks, on the other hand – atheists – wanted to wipe our the Torah and all signs of our religion. Therefore, we light lights on Hannukah to symbolize the battle for Torah (lights), whereas we eat a festive meal on Purim to remember the fight in Hashem’s Name to preserve our physical well-being. Similarly, Nazis, as opposed to Communism, means racism as opposed to atheism (RB note: although one leads to the other). Hitler/Haman, as opposed to Ashaheurus/Lenin and Stalin.
So have a great holiday, don’t let the lights go out, and I hope to see you at our Hannukah celebration tonight, Friday December 3rd at 6:00pm as we light the community Hannukiah at The Stonehaus at the Westlake Village Inn.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
29th of Kislev, 5782
December 3rd 2021