“What is Chanukah Really About?”
(updated and revised from Mikeitz 5761-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, continues the magnificent saga of Joseph, specifically Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph interpretation of the dream, and the aftermath. However, because of the joyous festival of Chanukah, the focus of this week’s message will be instead on the wonderful festival that we began celebrating on Sunday night, November 28th.

The Talmud, in tractate Shabbat 21b, states: תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן, נֵר חֲנוּכָּה מִצְוָה לְהַנִּיחָהּ עַל פֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ, Our Rabbis taught: The proper way of performing the mitzvah of Chanukah is to place the candle by the door, outside one’s home. However, אִם הָיָה דָּר בַּעֲלִיָּיה, מַנִּיחָהּ בַּחַלּוֹן הַסְּמוּכָה לִרְשׁוּת הָרַבִּים, if one lives high up, the Chanukah candles should be placed at the window that faces the public thoroughfare. וּבִשְׁעַת הַסַּכָּנָה, מַנִּיחָהּ עַל שֻׁלְחָנוֹ וְדַיּוֹ , 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 פִּרְסוּמֵי נִיסָּאpir’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 Talmudic times, the Chanukah menorah was placed outside the door for everyone to see, which was open to the public thoroughfare. (This is still the practice of many in Israel today.) Obviously, when living high up, it was preferable to place the candles in the window, as is the custom today, so that all can “behold the miracle.”

Twenty-one hundred and eighty-eight years ago, in the year 167 B.C.E., on the 25th of Kislev, the Jews secured a great victory over the Syrian-Greeks. But truth 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, 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. Once again, we see, how devoted Jews often are to alien values that they adopt. Would that our brothers and sisters have the same devotion to G-d and to His 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. This theme is boldly confirmed in the popular traditional Chanukah prayer, Al haNissim: מָסַרְתָּ גִבּוֹרִים בְּיַד חַלָּשִׁים, וְרַבִּים בְּיַד מְעַטִּים, וּטְמֵאִים בְּיַד טְהוֹרִים, וּרְשָׁעִים בְּיַד צַדִּיקִים, וְזֵדִים בְּיַד עוֹסְקֵי תוֹרָתֶךָ… (מתוך על הניסים) , You [G-d] delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the degenerates into the hands of those who cling to Your Torah.

This explains why publicizing the miracle is such an essential element of Chanukah. But what is the purpose of the third part of the Talmudic statement, that in times of danger it is sufficient to place the menorah on the table, even though no one but the household members can see it? It certainly makes sense that when Jews are being persecuted by their enemies and it would be dangerous to display the menorahs publicly, that the Chanukah menorah be lit inside the house, on the table.

Perhaps the answer may be found by exploring a more comprehensive understanding of the term, שְׁעַת הַסַּכָּנָהSha’at ha’sakana, “atime of danger.” It might be suggested that the term refers to not only physical danger, but also to 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 powerful, it is vital to reinforce everyone’s commitment to the light to Torah, by making certain that the light is placed firmly on the table of every Jewish home, in the bedrooms, in the kitchen–literally pervading all parts of the Jewish home and all of family life.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook writes that this is what is meant by the words in the twenty-third psalm, תַּעֲרֹךְ לְפָנַי שֻׁלְחָן נֶגֶד צֹרְרָי, 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, many are deeply moved by the special blessing, שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בִּזְּמַן הַזֶּה, 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.

Whether we light our candles on our windowsills or in our doorways, let us also light our candles inside 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 constantly permeates the lives of our family and our homes.

Like the increasing number of candles on the menorah, let us be certain to be מוֹסִיף וְהוֹלֵךְ mo’sif v’ho’laych, to always increase the light of our spiritual candles, until the entire world is illuminated by these lights, spreading the values of our Torah and our traditions to all.

Happy Chanukah!

May you be blessed.

Please note: The festival of Chanukah began on Sunday night, November 28, 2021 and continues through Monday night, December 6, 2021.

Wishing all a happy conclusion of the Chanukah festival.