Chanukah is perhaps the most widely celebrated and well known of all Jewish festivals. As it draws nearer, its approach can be felt almost everywhere we go. Yet, most people may not know where this festival received its name.
The Ran, a classic 14th century Talmudic commentator, explains that the word Chanukah is actually a combination of the Hebrew word “chanu” which means “they rested,” and the two letters “chav” and “heh,” corresponding to the numbers 20 and 5 respectively. Read as one word, Chanukah means, “They rested on the 25th.” This refers to the final defeat of the Greeks by the Hasmoneans on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, the day that Chanukah begins.
The Maharsha, a 16th century commentator on the halachic and aggadic sections of the Babylonian Talmud, wonders how we commemorate the resting of the Jews on Chanukah. If Chanukah is truly a festival of rest, then we should be prohibited from the same types of activities that we are forbidden to partake in on other days of rest, namely Shabbat and other festivals. How is our resting on Chanukah different from the resting of Shabbat and other festivals like Pesach and Sukkot?
In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Rashi quotes the Midrash, which states that Yaakov asked G-d to free him of all his hardships and troubles and allow him to settle in tranquility. This request is quite puzzling. What does it mean that Yaakov wished to live in tranquility? Does it mean that Yaakov wished to retire and live out his “golden years” in enjoyment? What exactly was Yaakov asking for?
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l suggests that what Yaakov was seeking was spiritual tranquility. Yaakov wished for a spiritual utopia here on earth which may explain G-d’s “comment” at the end of the Midrash cited by the above mentioned Rashi, “It is not sufficient for the righteous what is waiting them in the next world; they [also] wish to live in tranquility in this world.” In other words, the tzaddikim are not satisfied with what G-d has waiting for them in the World to Come and desire spiritual fulfillment here and now as well.
The Greek war against the Jews was not intended for our physical annihilation. Rather, it was targeted at our spirituality – more specifically, at our Torah itself. The Greeks wanted nothing more than to have us do away with the Torah and assimilate into their culture. On the 25th day of Kislev, the battle ended. The Jews emerged victorious, and were once again able to practice the mitzvot as they pleased, and study Torah without pressure or hardship as they had before. They truly rested on the 25th.
It is this spiritual tranquillity that is found through engaging ourselves in Torah study, which we celebrate on Chanukah. It is not a festival to rest from prohibited labour, but rather it is a time to partake in the type of “vacation” that Yaakov had asked for, and that the Maccabees won with their defeat of the Greeks. It is a time to study our holy Torah.
This newly acquired freedom of being able to submerge ourselves into the depths of the Torah, and observe its laws is what we thank G-d for in the prayer of Al Hanisim recited throughout Chanukah. Nowhere in this prayer do we mention the story of the jug of oil that miraculously lasted for eight nights on only one night’s supply, which the Talmud explains was the reason why the rabbis decreed Chanukah as a formal festival. The prayer only describes and gives thanks to G-d for the war that we won against the Greeks. Perhaps this is because that victory is a personal victory for each one of us. Through the demise of the Greeks, we were granted spiritual tranquillity. The study of Torah was once again rekindled and is subsequently studied by all of us today. This is truly a personal miracle from which we all derive benefit.
During Chanukah, let us feel this miracle by strengthening ourselves spiritually in perfecting our observance of mitzvot, and by putting more effort and time into Torah study. In this way, we might just have the best winter vacation ever.