“What is Chanukah Really About?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, Parashat Mikeitz, deals with the continuing saga of Joseph, specifically Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph’s interpretation of the dream, and the aftermath. However, this week I wish instead to focus on the festival that we are presently celebrating, which is Chanukah, of course.

The Talmud, in tractate Shabbat 21b states: “Tanu ra’banan: Ner Chanukah, mitzvah l’hanicha al pe’tach bay’to,” Our Rabbis taught: The proper way of performing the mitzvah of Chanukah is to place the candle by the door, outside one’s home. “Im ha’ya dar ba’aliya, manicha ba’chalon ha’s’mucha lir’shoot ha’rabim,” If one lives high up, one should place the Chanukah candles at the window that faces the public thoroughfare. “U’vish’at ha’sakana, ma’nicha al shul’chano v’dayo,” but in times of danger, it is sufficient to place the Chanukah candles on the table.

It is from this Talmudic selection, that we learn that the basic purpose of displaying the Chanukah candles is the mitzvah of “pir’sumai nisa,” to publicize the miracle: to allow the public to know of the great victory of the Jews over the Syrian Greeks, and, of course, the wondrous miracle of the cruse of oil that lasted for eight days instead of one. In ancient times, the place to put one’s menorah for everyone to see was outside one’s door, which was open to the public thoroughfare. Obviously, if one lived high up, it was better to place the candles in the window, as we do today, so that everyone could “behold the miracle.”

Twenty one hundred and sixty-seven years ago in the year 167 B.C.E. on the 25th of Kislev, the Jews won a great victory over the Syrian-Greeks. But the truth of the matter is, that it wasn’t so much a victory over the Syrian-Greeks, as it was a victory of the Traditional Jews over the Hellenist Jews. Hellenist culture was extremely popular at that time, and exceedingly attractive. Many Jews, of course, became leading advocates of Hellenism, adopting and promoting this alien culture. History books tell us that some Jews were so keen on Hellenism, which promoted the physical world over the spiritual realm, that they engaged in naked wrestling, just as the Greeks did. And because many Jewish men were embarrassed that their bodies had been marred, they underwent the most painful operation to reverse their circumcisions. We see, once again, how devoted the Jews are to alien values that they adopt. Would that our brothers and sisters have the same devotion to G-d and to Torah!

And so, while the story of the military victory over the Syrian Greeks is very popular, Rabbinic tradition emphasizes the spiritual victory over the Jewish Hellenists. “Ma’sarta t’may’im b’yad teh’ho’rim,” You [G-d] delivered the impure into the hands of the pure, “V’zay’dim, b’yad oskay to’ra’techa,” and those who defy G-d, You [G-d] delivered into the hands of those who engage in Your Torah at all times.

That explains why publicizing the miracle is such an essential element of Chanukah.

But what about the third part of the Talmudic statement, that in times of danger it is sufficient to place one’s menorah on the table? It certainly makes sense that when Jews are being persecuted by their enemies and it would be dangerous to display the menorahs publicly, that one should light one’s Chanukah menorah inside the house, on the table. But, “Sha’at ha’sakana,” time of danger, may not only mean physical danger, but spiritual danger, as well, that is–assimilation! When the forces of assimilation gain ascendance, says the Talmud, “Light your candle on the table, and that will be sufficient.” When the blandishments of the outside society are so attractive, it is vital to reinforce one’s commitment to the light to Torah, by making certain that the light is placed firmly on the table in one’s home, in the bedrooms, in the kitchen–literally pervading all parts of one’s home and family life.

Rav Abraham Yitzchak Ha’Cohen Kook (first Chief Rabbi of Israel, 1865 – 1935) writes that this is what is meant by the words in the twenty third psalm, “Ta’aroch l’fah’nai shul’chan neged tzo’r’rai,” You [G-d] will prepare before me a table in the face of my enemies. It is at the table, where we eat, in the intimate moments of our home life–where we gain the strength, the spiritual strength, to fight off the cultural and philosophical enemies.

Of all the blessings of Chanukah, I’m always deeply moved by the blessing, “Sheh’asa nissim la’avoteinu bayamin ha’haym baz’mahn ha’zeh,” Thank You G-d, who wrought miracles for our forefathers in those days in these times. How valid is that blessing today, because we too, just like the Maccabee’s of old, are truly fighting for our very survival.

And while we light our candles on our windowsills and in our doorways, let us also light our candles in our homes, as well–on our tables. In fact, let us celebrate a form of Chanukah every day of the year, by making certain that the light of Torah becomes the focal point of our family and our home life. Let us be “mo’sif v’ho’laych,” let us increase the light of our Chanukah candles, until the whole world is illuminated by the light of Torah, which the Jewish people have spread.

Happy Chanukah!

May you be blessed.