This talk was originally delivered by
Rav Ezra Bick. I am sharing it here for the upcoming holiday of Hanukah, with additional notes and translations in brackets where appropriate.
Hanukah is, from the halakhic [Jewish legal] point of view, a most unusual holiday. Why do I say so? Well, the Sages (Talmud Shabbat 21b) state that this holiday was instituted in commemoration of a miracle that took place some 2200 years ago. The entire holiday is a rabbinic ordinance, not mentioned in the Torah, since it commemorates an event that took place many years after the Torah was given, in fact after the Bible was completed. This in itself is not so unusual, since there are thousands of rabbinic enactments, although they are usually additions to existing Biblical laws and not entirely new institutions. What is strange here is the totally different nature of this holiday from any found in the Torah.
Let us examine what the Talmud states:
What is Hanukah? The Sages taught: On the twenty-fifth day of (the month of) Kislev there are eight days of Hanukah… for when the Greeks entered the Temple they defiled all the oil in the Temple. When the kingdom of the Hasmonean dynasty (the Maccabees) arose and defeated them, they searched but could only find one flask of oil that was set aside with the seal of the high priest. However, it contained only enough to burn for one day. A miracle took place and they lit from it for eight days. The following year they established them [the days] as festival days with praise (of God) and thanks. (Shabbat 21b)
Why do I think this is a strange reason for a Jewish holiday? Notice that the Talmud does not say that they instituted a festival because of the actual military victory over the Hellenic army. The festival commemorates a miracle that took place AT THE TIME of the victory. Now this is a very important difference between Judaism and Christianity. Jews do not, generally speaking, celebrate miracles. For instance, while the exodus from Egypt was accompanied by ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and numerous other signs and wonders, the holiday of Pesach [Passover] does not celebrate the working of miracles but the freedom from slavery itself. If no miracle had taken place, the holiday would have exactly the same significance. The same is true for Shavuot [the Feast of Weeks] – the Torah was given in an impressively miraculous fashion, but we are celebrating the fact that the Torah was given, not the manner in which it was delivered. In the case of Hanukah, the very opposite appears to be true, for, on inspection, this particular miracle seems to have no special significance of its own at all. Consider the following:
1. After eight days, new oil is obtained, so that it is apparent that the miracle has not enabled the lighting of the menora of the Temple itself, but has only enabled that event to be moved up by a week.
2. The halakha [in this instance, law] is that if there is no pure oil, impure oil may be used, so they could have lit the menora in any event.
3. In any event, the effect of that miracle has, on first glance, no particular significance for us today, when the lamp [“menorah” means lamp, and the menorah for Hanukah is technically called “hanukiah” and does not resemble the menorah] of the Temple has been long extinguished.
It seems, on examination, that here we are celebrating the very fact of a miracle, rather than the human thematic significance that this miracle happened to effect or accompany. And that would seem to be a very strange thing, especially since there is no lack of miracles in the Bible that could have merited a holiday for the same reason.
There is basically one mitzvah [commandment] on Hanukah – to light candles. This is directly connected to the miracle story related by the Talmud – the candles commemorate the lights of the miracle in the Temple 2200 years ago.
Naturally, as on any special day, there is also mention of Hanuka in the daily prayers. A special section, beginning with the words “al ha-nissim,” is added to the section of the prayer where we thank God for His gifts. On Hanukah, we add that we are thanking Him “al ha-nissim” – for the “miracles, deliverance, great deeds, wondrous acts, and battles, which You did for our ancestors on these days in those ancient times.” We then proceed to recite just what God did – and here we do not mention the miracle of the lights at all! Rather, we explain how the Hellenistic government of Syria attempted to eliminate the observance of Jewish law and obliterate the Torah, but, by God’s grace, the puny Jewish army overthrew the yoke of tyranny, defeated the mighty Greek armies, and purified and rededicated the Temple.
The reason for the lack of mention of the miracle of the lights is clear. We are here giving thanks for God’s gifts. Gratitude is due only if something has been given, something gained, for which we are grateful. A miracle, as impressive as it may be, is not itself a cause for gratitude. Wonder, astonishment, awe – these are perhaps appropriate responses, but not gratitude. Gratitude, the prayer explains, is due to two important results of the Jewish successful struggle against the Hellenists – the safeguarding of Judaism from the most dangerous cultural enemy in history (backed by military might), and the purification of the Temple after it had been turned into an idolatrous place of worship.
So now, after seeing what the spiritual significance of the historical Hanukah really is, the question returns – what is the reason that the festival was based on the apparently relatively minor incident of the miracle of lights?
I would like to suggest that the miracle of the lights is meant to be the FILTER through which we should understand the events of the Hanukah story. Hanukah celebrates a particular historical event. Other holidays are based on historical events, but they are events which transcend history because their significance forms the basis for Jewish existence in all generations. The celebration of a festival is a recreation for ourselves of the event – or more importantly, the experience – of that particular festival. On Passover, we once again go out from slavery to freedom; on Shavuot, we once again stand before God at Sinai to receive the Torah; on Sukkot, [the Feast of Tabernacles] we once again place ourselves under the Divine providence and presence. We are not celebrating Jewish history on these holidays, we are celebrating the inner spiritual meaning of Jewish existence, which is meta-historical. During the period of the second Temple, the Jews did in fact celebrate historically significant dates, much the way that modern societies celebrate Independence day or V-E day (for those Americans who remember what V-E Day is). There is an ancient book, called Megillat Ta’anit, which lists all the days on which it is forbidden to mourn, and nearly all of them are connected to victories or other national successes from that ancient period. In fact, the Talmudic text quoted above describing Hanukah is taken from that book. Not surprisingly, all these “minor holidays” were abandoned after the destruction of the second Temple – the national history of the second commonwealth became “mere” history and was not a cause for celebration any more – EXCEPT FOR Hanukah! Megillat Ta’anit is a dead book – except for Hanukah. It is in this light that we should understand the meaning of the Talmud’s question – “what is Hanukah?” Why of all the dates commemorating the history of the second commonwealth is only this one a real religious holiday, becoming a permanent part of Jewish existence? In other words, what is the transcending meta-historical significance of the 25th day of the month of Kislev?
The answer is – the miracle of the lights explains to us what is the experience that was “revealed,” that became a permanent part of Jewish existence, “on these days in ancient times.” That experience is RENEWAL. In two areas, Jewish life and spiritual value had run itself down into near extinction. National life, centered around the observance of the Torah, had been outlawed by an imperial power in the name of a universal culture that was in the process of transforming the world, tspirit that was Greece. The old ways were virtually dead. Secondly, the Temple of God, the seat of God’s presence in the world, had been converted into a pantheon with Zeus at its head, had been desecrated and defiled, its sanctity driven away. Any objective examination of Jewish strength, both external and internal, could have reached only one conclusion – there were not enough resources nor enough spirit to continue, to change the inexorable course of the history of civilizations. Arnold Toynbee, in a celebrated comment, termed Judaism a fossil civilization, dead within, an empty shell. In a short period of time it would collapse, defiled internally, crushed from without. Once something has died, there is no way to revivify it. Once a light has been extinguished, the flame cannot be rekindled.
But that is not what happened. Objectively, the Temple had been defiled, which is the same as saying it had been destroyed. A small vial of oil had been found, but it was insufficient to carry on the past into the future. The basic rule of Greek philosophy – and modern science – that the effect cannot preceed the cause, limits the burning of the lamps to an insignificant one day, not enough to dedicate a Temple to God. But behold – the menora burns for eight days, miraculously, until the Jews are able to find the resources to maintain it naturally. Where did the little vial of oil come from? Where did it get the thermal power to burn so long? The answer is that ultimately we are not bound by the present circumstances, we can transcend them, renewing and creating nearly ex nihilo. The effect transcends the sum of its causes. So it was in the battle between Greek culture and Jewish culture, so it was in the battle of death and defilement against purity and holiness. No matter how dead it seems, there remains a spark of life which can rekindle a mighty flame. This is not history, but it is meta-history in the deepest sense. Any moment in time can be the start of a new Temple, a new flame, no matter what process seems to have preceded it.
This is the meaning of MIRACLE – there always exists the possibility of a new beginning, because, despite the seeming contradiction, the seeds of a new beginning are implanted into the past, like a small vial of oil sealed with the seal of the high priest. In fact, Greek culture is not merely an opponent of Judaism – it is the antithesis of this very principle of miracle, of freedom. Philosophically, the Greeks introduced the notion of natural law, of cause and effect as inexorable coercion. Greek tragedy is defined by Aristotle as the futility of the struggle against fate, blind fate. All effects, taught Aristotle, must be present potentially as part of the causes, for A can never derive from not-A.
The symbol (and not merely a chance commemoration) of the principle of miracle is the flame. Even today, I hope, there are few people who cannot marvel at the life of a flame, ever renewing itself as it dances above the fuel. True, we all know that this is merely a chemical transformation of carbon into CO2. But you have to be very jaded – very OLD – to really feel that that explanation exhausts the phenomenon and steals away its wonder.
The festivals of the Torah taught and inculcated the conditions for human spiritual achievement – freedom, law, kingship, repentance, and Divine presence. Chanuka, an addition of the Sages to the Jewish year, teaches that those principles can be found, rekindled, no matter what has apparently been corrupted, both on the national level, and on the personal level.
On the national level, the principle of Hanukah means that, to use the words of the “al ha-nissim” prayer, “the strong in the hands of the weak, the many in the hands of the few, impure in the hands of the pure, the wicked in the hands of the righteous, the iniquitous in the hands of students of Torah” is not impossible. On the personal level, it means that no matter how “dead” one seems spiritually, the spark can still be found, and one spark can light a fire as large as is needed. There is one more level of meaning of the Hanukah miracle, one implicit in the lighting of the lights themselves. But first we have to review a bit of practical halakha.
The mitzva of Hanukah is to light a candle (or oil lamp) each night. The minimum is one – but the preferable manner is to light one more each night, from one to eight, showing how the miracle grew with each passing day. Despite what Judaica manufacturers might have led you to believe, there is actually no law pertaining to the menora itself. Any form of fire will do. Presumably, in ancient times, the Hanukah lights were lit in regular oil lamps, the same used to light the homes every night of the year. If you do not have a menora, you can place the candle inside half a potato, or even just stick it directly on the windowsill (provided, of course, that you have fire insurance).
It is forbidden to have any benefit from the Hanukah lights while they burn. For that reason, it is customary to light an extra candle, or to leave on the electric lights. The Hanukah lights are to be seen, as a sign to others, but are not to be utilized for our own private purposes. In the short traditional prayer appended to the lighting ceremony, this is stated as follows: “These candles are holy and we do not have permission to use them; only to look at them.” The difficult word here is “holy.” The fact that an object is being used for a mitzva does not make it holy – the etrog [citron fruit] on Sukkot, the shofar [ram’s horn] on Rosh Ha-shana, and the matzah [unleavened bread] on Pesach are not holy. But the difficulty is more than linguistic. If the prohibition on use is merely in order to safeguard the proper purpose of the mitzva, then once the mitzva is over, when the candles have burned the requisite amount of time (1/2 hour after dark), it should be permissible to have benefit from the light or from the oil left over in the lamp. If, however, the oil and the lights are “holy,” sacred objects, then that holiness will put them off-bounds even afterwards. In fact, the standard halakha is to prohibit any benefit from the oil remaining in a lamp. Where does this “holiness” come from?
I believe that the Hanukah lights have the status of the light lit in the Temple itself, the light of the holy Temple menora, which stood before the altar. The mitzva of lighting lights on Hanukah is then the following. On Hanukah we turn every Jewish home into a place where the light of the Temple – WHICH HAS NOT ACTUALLY EXISTED FOR THE LAST 1930 YEARS – burns and shines. It is not the menora of the Temple which is being placed in our homes – that would be sacrilegious. It is the immaterial light of the Temple which is now burning in every home, the home taking the place of the Temple. Among other things, Hanukah lights are different than almost every other mitzva in that it is not incumbent on every individual singly; rather, there must be at least one light in every HOME. (The custom is to light many lights each night, for each member of the household; hence each person tries to light. But the halakhic minimum is “one candle for a person in his home”). The home here is taking the place of the Temple, the light filling our private homes is the light of the holy Temple. Hence, the oil was given the status of “holy,” set aside for a sacred purpose, as would be the oil in the Temple menora.
How is this possible? How can we light today a light from the Temple 1928 years after it was extinguished. The answer is simple – it is Hanukah! The Maccabees lit the Temple menora several years after it had been extinguished by the Greeks. Since then, the light of the Temple has been a miraculous one, which does not need a scientific measure of oil to sustain it. The spark remains, since the original lighting itself was from a tiny spark, out of proportion to the eight-day needs. The very number eight is indicative of that principle. A week is seven days, a cycle of time. Passover and Sukkot are seven days [eight days in the diaspora, but the author is in Israel so for the purpose of this talk, seven]. Chanuka is eight days, because its effect goes beyond an entire cycle, there isome left over for the future.
The word “Hanukah” means “dedication,” and it clearly refers to the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees long ago. But is it not strange that we celebrate the dedication of the Temple, not on the day when it was originally dedicated by King Solomon for the first time, nor on the day when the second Temple was dedicated by returning exiles from Babylonia seventy years after the first was destroyed, but when the second was RE-dedicated three hundred years later. The answer, I think, is that the first and second temples are history, gone, and we do not celebrate history. But the dedication of the Maccabees is not gone – if they could make eight days of fire out of a little vial of oil, then that fire is STILL BURNING, because all it takes is a tiny spark to rekindle it. And we show, by lighting that very fire in our homes every year, that the spark is still around, not necessarily on the Temple Mount, but in our homes, in the lives of the Jew. Objectively, scientifically, by the measure of Greek science and Western rationality, that is absurd; by the measure of Hanukah it is a miracle, which is perfectly normal. The final level of significance of Hanukah is then neither the national nor the personal, but a combination of the two – the ability to rekindle the Temple, may it be built speedily in our lifetime, is in our hands; the little vial of oil sealed by the high priest has been entrusted to us. Hanukah has shown us that the Temple has not been, cannot be completely destroyed, just as the oil could not be completely defiled. The spark remains, and one spark can burn for eight days, or as long as it takes to really get all the resources needed to achieve a normal non-miraculous sustainable light.
“These lights are holy, not to be used, but only to be seen,” to be gazed upon in wonder, for they carry within them the secret of renewal, the spark of “these days in ancient times,” the principle that one can always transcend the limitations of the present, the spirit of the pure light of the Temple of Jerusalem which has never been completely extinguished. Just as our homes are transformed by these lights, so are we.