Rabbi Chaim Possick
Former Rosh Kollel in St. Louis
The Al HaNissim prayer, which we recite on Chanukah during the Amidah and in Birkat HaMazon, explains why the festival was established:
“And afterwards, Your sons came to the Holy of Holies of Your House, and they cleared Your Sanctuary, and they purified Your Temple, and they kindled lights in the courtyards of Your Holiness, and they established these eight days of Chanukah to gives thanks and to praise Your great Name.”
Al HaNissim lists four things that the Hasmoneans did before establishing these days as a time of hallel (praise) and hodaah (thanksgiving): they entered the Heichal (the Sanctuary); they cleared it out; they purified it; and they kindled the lights of the Menorah. Yet, the prayer does not specify exactly when they performed all four of these things. Did they perform all four steps on the 25th of Kislev itself? Or, did they prepare the Heichal in the days leading up to the 25th, and once everything was ready, they lit the Menorah on the 25th (i.e. they resumed the Avodah)? In other words, does Chanukah commemorate the day the Hasmoneans were able to enter the Beit HaMikdash and prepare it for the Avodah? Or, is Chanukah a celebration of the actual resumption of the Avodah?
Note that the festival is referred to as “these eight days of Chanukah (literally, inauguration).” What does this mean?
The Yerushalmi (Sotah 8:4) discusses those who are sent back and not required to fight in a milchemet reshut (a “nonobligatory” war):
“One might think that one who builds a home outside of Eretz Yisrael is sent back. Therefore, it says, ‘v’lo chancho’ (‘he did not inaugurate it’) – referring to that which there is a mitzvah to inaugurate. Only one who has a mitzvah to inaugurate is sent back.”
This Yerushalmi teaches us that there is a mitzvah to “inaugurate” (i.e. to dedicate) a new house in Eretz Yisrael. Two explanations are generally given for this mitzvah, which is known as chanukat habayit:
The house is made spiritually ready for its new inhabitants through the recitation of psukim and divrei Torah.
When one acquires a house and moves into it, one fulfills the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, one makes a seudah (a festive meal) to celebrate the mitzvah’s completion.
These two explanations for the mitzvah of chanukat habayit correspond to the two reasons for Chanukah which we posited above. The first reason – that Chanukah commemorates the day the Hasmoneans were able to enter the Beit HaMikdash and prepare it for the Avodah – corresponds to the explanation that a chanukat habayit serves to ready the house for residence. According to this explanation, Chanukah means preparing the house for its intended use. In contrast, the second reason – that Chanukah is a celebration of the actual resumption of the Avodah – corresponds to the explanation that a chanukat habayit represents the point when one begins dwelling in one’s new home and the fulfillment of the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael. According to this explanation, Chanukah means the point when one begins to use the house as it was intended to be used.
Al HaNissim’s composer does not tell us exactly what occurred on the 25th of Kislev. Was the Beit HaMikdash also made ready on that day, or was the resumption of the Avodah the only thing that happened on the 25th? Al HaNissim does not provide a clear answer to this question, and perhaps, we can learn an important lesson from this deliberate ambiguity.
Not only must we celebrate the final result – the resumption of the Avodah in the Beit HaMikdash – but we must also commemorate the steps which led to its achievement. These steps deserve to be celebrated as well. After the Hasmoneans achieved their military victory, they did not hasten to announce their triumph by lighting the Menorah. Rather, they first made the effort to remove every shred of avodah zarah and impurity from the Beit HaMikdash, and thus, they showed their motivation for fighting. They did not head to battle merely to drive the Greeks out of Eretz Yisrael. Instead, they fought to eliminate the Greek worldview and lifestyle.