Rav Itzik Amar
Montreal Kollel, 2003
It appears that from among all the festivals on our calendar, Chanukah is the one whose name is the most difficult to understand. Pesach, for example, received its name, as we all know, from the fact that God “passed over” (“pasach”) the homes of Benei Yisrael when he brought the plague upon Egypt. Sukkot is named after the “sukkot,” or “huts,” in which Benei Yisrael dwelled after departing from Egypt. Shavuot means “weeks,” and we celebrate it after the conclusion of the period of sefirat ha’omer, when we count seven weeks from Pesach. The name “Purim” commemorates the “pur,” or “lottery,” conducted by Haman. The meaning of the name “Chanukah,” however, remains unclear. True, this holiday has another name, “Chag Ha’urim” (“Festival of Lights”), which obviously represents the candle lighting, the primary observance of this holiday. But why do we call this festival “Chanukah”?

The Gemara appears to raise this question, in Masechet Shabbat 23:

“What is Chanukah? The Rabbis taught: The twenty-fifth of Kislev begins the eight days of Chanukah, on which it is forbidden to conduct eulogies or fasts. For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all the oils in the Sanctuary, and when the kingdom of the Hasmoneans rose to power and defeated them, they searched and found only a single jug of oil containing the seal of the kohen gadol. It contained only enough to burn for one day. A miracle occurred with it and they lit from it for eight day. The following year, they established them [these eight days] and made them festivals with praise and thanksgiving.”

The Gemara seems to ask, “What is Chanukah?” – meaning, why is this festival given this name? Its answer, however, is far from clear. Chanukah, according to the Gemara, stems from the miracle of their having found only a single jug of oil with the seal of the kohen gadol. It turns out, then, that the Gemara’s question, “What is Chanukah?” does not mean, “What is the meaning behind the name of this festival?” but rather, “For what reason was the festival established?” But if this festival was established because of the miracle of the oil, why do we not call this festival, “Chag Nes Pach Ha’shemen” (“Festival of the Miracle of the Oil Jug”)? Why do we choose specifically the name “Chanukah”?

The Ramban, in his commentary to the beginning of Parashat Beha’alotcha, addresses the famous question posed by Rashi as to why the Torah juxtaposes the section dealing with the menorah with the account of the offerings of the tribal leaders for the Mishkan’s dedication. The Ramban answers that we have here “an allusion in the parasha to the dedication [= “chanukah”] with candles that occurred in the SecondTempleby Aharon and his descendants – meaning, the Hasmonean kohen gadol and his sons.”

Meaning, the primary aspect and essence of the festival of Chanukah is the menorah, which was lit once again during the times of the Chashmonaim, after it had been lit initially in Parashat Beha’alotcha, as part of the Mishkan’s dedication. It turns out, then, that according to the Ramban, the name “Chanukah” evolves from the candle lighting that was first performed in the Mishkan after the altar’s dedication by the tribal leaders, and the dedication of candles thattook place during the time of the Hasmoneans after the purification of the Mikdash. Indeed, the word “chanukah,” or “dedication,” means a new beginning.

We find a similar idea in Rashi’s commentary to the pasuk in Parashat Lech-Lecha, “He drafted his young men [‘chanichav’], those born in his household, three hundred and eighteen of them, and pursued [the four kings] until Dan.” Rashi explains, “chanichav – it is written ‘chanicho’ [in the singular form]. This then refers to Eliezer, whom he educated [‘chincho’] in mitzvot. It is a term that means the initial introduction of some person or some object to the art in which he/it will be involved in the future. For example: ‘Educate [‘chanoch’] a child’ (Mishlei 22); ‘the dedication [‘chanukat’] of the altar’ (Bamidbar 7); the dedication[‘chanukat’] of the Temple’ (Tehillim 30).”

The name “Chanukah” thus originates from the word “chinuch,” education, and it means the renewed beginning of the candle lighting.

We find a different approach to the term “chinuch” and, in our context, to the name “Chanukah,” in Chassidic thought. The work “Arugot Ha’bosem” says: “‘Chanukah’ comes from the term ‘chinuch,’ which means renewal in the service of Hashem. It also contains an allusion to the education of children and students.” Meaning, it is not enough simply to begin something; it must be done out of a sense of renewal. The Chanukah candles may not appear to us the same each year. The festival of Chanukah, as its name suggests, calls upon us to renew ourselves, to see things differently than how wesaw them last year. The festival of Chanukah educates and teaches us not to look only back, but also, and primarily, forward, to a year of renewal and new beginnings.