Chanukah – the time of revolution
What is the big different between Chanukah and Christmas?
Chanukah is the longest Jewish festival ( like Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret combined). On the surface, this appears excessive. What happened during this time that resulted in our Sages setting such a long festival? It follows, if our Sages established this festival with eight days then there must be something very extraordinary and important about it.
I want to place the focus of this festival on a new perspective. One that is especially relevant today.
To understand the meaning of Chanukah we need to answer some questions:
Why do we need eight days to remember the miracle, or victory, which happened during Chanukah? Why is one day not enough? Moreover, the miracle did not occur for eight days. As there was enough oil for one day. So why do we include this day? (There are numerous explanations for the latter question, however none have yet to explain why one day of Chanukah isn’t enough.)
According to the Halacha, the Macbim could use impure oil for the Menorah. If this is true, why did they need a miracle for pure oil?
Is it coincidental that several other cultures also celebrate festivals at this time (for example, Christmas)?
Central to Chanukah is the miracle of the oil vase. Why, therefore, was there no mention of this in Tefilat Al Hanisim?
What is the purpose of lighting candles?
Why are the candles holy? Why aren’t we allowed to use their light?
Why do we play games, such as gambling (sevivon) during Chanukah?
Together, these questions force us to search for the deeper meaning of Chanukah.
What is the central issue in Chanukah?
There are two sources written about the essence of this festival:
The first source is the Gemmara Sabbath 21A:
מאי חנוכה? דתנו רבנן: בכ”ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון, דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון. שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל, וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום, בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול, ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד, נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים. לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה.
What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. 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.
According to this Gemmara the only issue in Chanukah is the miracle of the oil vase.
The second source is Tefilat Al Hanisim.However, in this Tefila there is no reference to the miracle of the oil:
על הניסים ועל הפורקן ועל הגבורות ועל התשועות ועל הנפלאות ועל המלחמות ….בימי מתיתיהו בן יוחנן …רבת את דינם ,נקמת את נקמתם , מסרת גיבורים ביד חלשים , ורבים ביד מעטים , טמאים ביד טהורים ורשעים ביד צדיקים וזדים ביד עוסקי תורתך , ולך עשית תשועה גדולה … ואחרי כן באו בניך והדליקו נרות בחצרות קודשך.
…And for the miracles and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which you performed for our forefathers in those days, at this time…in the days of Mattisyahu, the son of Yochanan…You took up their grievance, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong. You delivered the strong into the hands of the week, the many into the hands of few, the impure into the hands of pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of diligent students of your Torah. For yourself you made a great and holy name …Thereafter your children came to the Holy of Holies of your house…and kindled light in the courtyards of your Sanctuary…
Unlike the first source, according to this Tefila, the focus of Chanukah is on their victory.
Thus far we have established two separate issues of Chanukah, without yet answering any of the above questions.
To understand the essence of Chanukah, however,we should look at the following two elements:
1. What message lies in having a festival with eight days?
2. What happened on the twenty-fifth of Kislev?
The significance of eight days
From the Bible we find several references to the ritual of eight days, before the time of the Hashmonaim. The common denominator between all this cases is the necessity to publish something very important. For example:
The inauguration of the first Beit Hamikdash in book Melachim (A 7 1-10):
וַיַּעַשֹ שְׁלֹמֹה אֶת-הֶחָג בָּעֵת הַהִיא שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וְכָל-יִשְֹרָאֵל עִמּוֹ קָהָל גָּדוֹל מְאֹד מִלְּבוֹא חֲמָת עַד-נַחַל מִצְרָיִם: וַיַּעֲשֹוּ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי עֲצָרֶת כִּי | חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ עָשֹוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וְהֶחָג שִׁבְעַת יָמִים: וּבְיוֹם עֶשְֹרִים וּשְׁלֹשָׁה לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי שִׁלַּח אֶת-הָעָם לְאָהֳלֵיהֶם שְֹמֵחִים וְטוֹבֵי לֵב עַל-הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָֹה יְהֹוָה לְדָוִיד וְלִשְׁלֹמֹה וּלְיִשְֹרָאֵל עַמּוֹ:
Also at the same time Solomon kept the feast seven days, and all Israelwith him, a very great congregation, from the entrance to Hamath as far as the riverof Egypt.
And in the eighth day they made a solemn assembly; for they kept the dedication of the altar seven days, and the feast seven days.
And on the twenty third day of the seventh month he sent the people away to their tents, glad and merry in heart for the goodness that the Lord had shown to David, and to Solomon, and to Israel his people.
From this we learn that Solomon celebrated the inauguration of the first Beit Hamikdash for eight days (like The inauguration of the Tabernacle) and, the reason for the eighth day is to organise an assembly. The assembly occurred to publish a message.
We can find proof for this idea (eight days to publish a message) in the description of Sukkot in Sefer Vayikra 23 33-39:
בַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָֹר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי הַזֶּה חַג הַסֻּכּוֹת שִׁבְעַת יָמִים לַיהוָֹה: לה בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ כָּל-מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשֹוּ: לו שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תַּקְרִיבוּ אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָֹה בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָֹה עֲצֶרֶת הִוא כָּל-מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשֹוּ:
The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the Feast of Booths for seven days to the Lord.On the first day shall be a holy gathering; you shall do no labor in it.Seven days you shall offer an offering made by fire to the Lord; on the eighth day shall be a holy gathering to you; and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the Lord; it is a solemn assembly; and you shall do no labor in it.
This indicates that the purpose of the additional day, following the seven days of Sukkot, is the gathering. Gathering was done to publish something. We see here, again, that there is a particular meaning for a festival with eight days.
Our Sages suggest this is also reflected in Pesach. The festival of Shavuot, is considered an addition, or conclusion, to the festival of Pesach. When these two are combined they become one festival of eight days (with break of forty-nine days for prepare ourselves to the last day).
The real reason that the Hashmonaim set eight days for Chanukah
We say in Tefilat Al Hanisim: “and they established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your great name.” While this is an explanation for establishing the festival, it still fails to answer why we celebrate for eight days.
In the first chapter of the second Sefer Macabim (lines 9-18) provides an amazing answer:
“ועתה עשו את ימי חג הסוכות בחודש כסלו…להיותנו נכונים לעשות את טיהור המקדש בחמישה ועשרים בכסלו ראינו להודיעכם,בעבור תעשו גם אתם את חג הסוכות והאש כאשר הביא נחמיה.
And now, celebrate Sukkot in Kislev…to be ready to purify the Beit Hamikdash, in twenty-fifth of Kislev…there for you keep the festival of Sukkot and the fire, like Nechemia did.
There is a similar description in the tenth chapter of the second Sefer Macabim(lines 1-9):
“ביום עשרים וחמישה לחודש כסלו ,חגגו בשמחה שמונה ימים כחג הסוכות ,כזכרם כי לפני זמן מה בילו את חג הסוכות בהרים ובמערות כדרך החיות . לכן במקלות מקושטים ובענפים המצויים בעונה ההיא ובתמרים הודו לקב”ה”
In the day of twenty-fifth of Kislev, they celebrated eight days like Sukkot , because they remembered that a short time ago they were on the mountains and in caves in the time of Sukkot, like animals.
From these sources we learn that the real reason for establishing eight days was to replace Sukkot,which weren’t able to celebrate during those years.
What’s the connection between Sukkot and Chanukah?
Now it is clear:The ritual of the eight days was famous 1) during the time of the Hashmonaim from Sukkot; 2) from the inauguration of the Beit Hamikdash; and 3) the Tabernacle. In each case, the essence of this ritual was to create a new reality.
Every year in Sukkot we crown the kingdom of heaven, as opposed to the kingdom of flesh and blood. Therefore, it is done at the time of the gathering.
Additionally, the inauguration of the Beit Hamikdash and the Tabernacle established a new alternative for our beliefs. When the Hashmonaim wanted to publish that: “we are creating a new realty,” they chose the best ritual, which was already famous for this message – the eight days.
The essence of their message, which is connected to the kingdom of heaven instead of flesh and blood, is symbolised by the miracle of the oil vase. G-ds miracle was the oil used to create light. To distribute light is to distribute a message. Moreover, the oil that was found was the last pure oil, and pure oil is a symbol for this type of message. The message is that we want to establish a pure world, led by God, instead of an impure world created by the Greek kingdom. The fight was about the correct way for lead the world.
The focus of Tefilat Al Hanisimis on the essence of this festival – the spiritual victory that subdued the physical power. The miracle is an expression of this. Indeed, there is no mention of the miracle of the oil in Tefilat Al Hanisim so that we focus on the correct issue.
(The Gemmara in Masechet Shabbat confronts the Halachic question – why do we need to say Hallel? – because, for this we need a clear miracle. Hence, the discussion of this Gemmara is solely about the miracle itself.)
What is special about the date: twenty-five Kislev?
Again the Bible indicates that the twenty-fifth of Kislev was very significant, long before the Hashmonaim and the story ofChanukah.
The Midrash Raba (Bamidbar 13c) says that the Tabernacle was finished on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, even though its inauguration was in Nisan.
כשעמד המשכן היו ישראל אומרים יבא דודי לגנו לפי שמלאכת המשכן נגמרה בכ”ה בכסלו ועמד המשכן מקופל עד ר”ח ניסן והיו ישראל אומרים הרי עשינו המשכן מתי תבוא השכינה ותשרה בתוך מעשה ידינו כשהגיע ר”ח ניסן וצוה הקב”ה להקים את המשכן שלח להם ע”י משה מה אתם יראים כבר באתי לגני אחותי כלה
when the Tabernacle was put up Israelsaid: ’Let my beloved come into his garden.’ For the work of the Tabernacle was finished on the twenty-fifth of Kislev and the Tabernacle remained folded until Rosh Hodesh Nisan, and Israelkept on saying: ‘Behold, we have made the Tabernacle! When will the Shechinah come and dwell in that which our hands have made? ‘ When Rosh Hodesh Nisan arrived and the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them to erect the Tabernacle He sent word to them through Moses, saying: ‘Why do you fear? I have already ‘Come into my garden, my sister, my bride!’
The Midrash of Yalkot Shimoni (Melachim 184) adds that the compensation for month Kislev (Kislev missed the inauguration of the Tabernacle) was the inauguration of Beit Hamikdash in the time of the Hashmonaim.
ומעתה הפסיד כסלו,שנגמרה בו המלאכה. אמר הקב”ה : עלי לשלם , מה שילם לו הקב”ה ? חנוכת חשמונאי.
And now, because Kislev (Which the work of the Tabernacle was finished on Kislev) missed the inauguration of the Tabernacle, the H compensated him by Chanukah of Hashmonaim.
Once more, however, the Bible refers to this date. In Sefer Haggai (2, 9-23) we find that the second Beit Hamikdash was also established on the twenty-fifth of Kislev:
גָּדוֹל יִהְיֶה כְּבוֹד הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה הָאַחֲרוֹן מִן-הָרִאשׁוֹן אָמַר יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת וּבַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֶתֵּן שָׁלוֹם נְאֻם יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת:בְּעֶשְֹרִים וְאַרְבָּעָה לַתְּשִׁיעִי בִּשְׁנַת שְׁתַּיִם לְדָרְיָוֶשׁ הָיָה דְּבַר-יְהֹוָה בְּיַד-חַגַּי הַנָּבִיא לֵאמֹר: …וְעַתָּה שִֹימוּ-נָא לְבַבְכֶם מִן-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה וָמָעְלָה מִטֶּרֶם שֹוּם-אֶבֶן אֶל-אֶבֶן בְּהֵיכַל יְהֹוָה … שִֹימוּ-נָא לְבַבְכֶם מִן-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה וָמָעְלָה מִיּוֹם עֶשְֹרִים וְאַרְבָּעָה לַתְּשִׁיעִי לְמִן-הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר-יֻסַּד הֵיכַל-יְהֹוָה שִֹימוּ לְבַבְכֶם…
The glory of this latter house shall be greater than that of the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give peace, says the Lord of hosts.
In the twenty fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, came the word of the Lord by Haggai the prophet, saying
And now, I pray you, consider from this day onward. Before a stone was laid upon a stone in the temple of the Lord;
Consider now from this day onward, from the twenty fourth day of the ninth month, from the day when the foundation of the temple of the Lord was laid, consider it.
The prophetsaid, “on the twenty-four of Kislev, that from this day onward, we will start to put stone upon stone. That is to say – from the twenty-fifth of Kislev.”
These examples indicate that this date is designated to creating major establishments.
It follows then, that the Hashmonaim chose the twenty-fifth of Kislev because it is imbued with a deep significance. The miracle happened on this day because the Hashmonaim chose it. The first Sefer Macabim (4, 51-57) clearly indicates this:
“ויהי ביום החמישי ועשרים לחודש התשיעי הוא כסלו בשנת שמונה וארבעים ומאה וישכימו בבוקר , ויעלו עולות על המזבח החדש כמשפט ויחנכו את המזבח בעצם היום אשר טמאו אותו הגוים.
On the twenty-fifth of Kislev in 148th year, they got up early, and sacrificed sacrifices on the new altar, and they inaugurated the altar, in the same day that the Greece’s render it impure.
According to this source the Macabim specifically chose this date because on it the Greeks rendered the altar impure. They wanted to turn the situation over. Thus, to do it on same day was very important for them.
Why it was so important to purify the altar on the same day?
What is so special about this date that the Greeks chose to desecrate the altar on it?
The answer lies in the Gemmara of Avoda-Zara (8b):
The Mishna lists and addresses the festivals of Avoda-Zara: Kalenda, Saturnalia,etc.
The Gemmara explains what these festivals are:
אמר רב חנן בר רבא: קלנדא – ח’ ימים אחר תקופה, סטרנורא – ח’ ימים לפני תקופה, וסימנך: (תהלים קלט) אחור וקדם צרתני וגו’.
ת”ר: לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך, אמר: אוי לי, שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו, וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים, עמד וישב ח’ ימים בתענית [ובתפלה], כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך, אמר: מנהגו של עולם הוא, הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים, לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים, הוא קבעם לשם שמים, והם קבעום לשם עבודת כוכבים.
Said R. Hanan b. Raba: KALENDA is kept on the eight days following the solstice. SATURNALIA on the eight days preceding the solstice. As a mnemonic take the verse, Thou hast beset me behind and before.
Our Rabbis taught: When primitive Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But, as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world’s course,’ and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry.
This Gemmara explains that the date of the solstice (in every year) was very important, long time before the Hashmonaim. It is during the longest night that reality turns over. Until this date the nights become longer and longer as the year progresses, until the longest night -the solstice, . From this date on night starts to get shorter and shorter (today it is happen every year on December 21. In Australia It is opposite). This time is symbolic for any revolution – creating a light in the darkness. This is the reason that the Avoda-Zara made festivals around this day. The Gemmara is teaching us that even Adam understood that during this time everything could change.
Now we can understand why these date so important.The Greeks wanted to establish a new culture in the world. Therefore, they chose the best time for this – the equinox. Twenty-five Kislev is very close to this date. (It is possible that in the year of the miracle of the oil vase, that it occurred on the same day) . The Macabim wanted to publicise that we have alternative from Avoda-Zara. Therefore, they chose the same day; it is more than symbol.
The light from a candle is a symbol for a message. This is why we light candles and then put them aside. The message is that we have an alternative to the life , instead of the world-view of Avoda Zara and another cultures . We want to distribute the light and expel the darkness. The best time in the year for this, is the time when reality turns over and the day drives away the night, this is the time of the solstice, and this is the twenty-fifth of Kislev.
Every month we experience eight nights without moonlight (the same number of days of Chanukah). Four of these occur in the beginning of the month, when the moon rises while it is still light and sets before it gets dark. At the end of the month, the moonlight is hidden by the sun for four days.
Christianity has established Christmas during the same time, for the same reasons; they want to light the darkness with the fire from their Avoda-Zara. We want to do it with a pure and holy fire, this is the reason we light the candles so publicly. We are not allowed to use in the light of those candles ,because we want to separate between our belief and the others belifes.
The miracle of the oil vase is evidence to the essence of this revolution. We are speaking about establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth. It’s not going to happen by fate. It will be by God (the miracle is a symbol of this), and it will happen when we take responsibility for people, like the Hashmonaim did. Fate is just for games (this is the reason for playing like Sevivon).
The ritual of the eight days and the date of twenty-five in Kislev was known a long time before the Hashmonaim and they took these things and created a new festival by useing these elements. The best symbol for all of this is a pure oil, to light a holy fire and to publish our alternative to the darkness world.