Chanukah 5779

Why is Chanukah night different than every other night[1]

נר חנוכה עדיף משום פרסומי ניסא
Lighting the menorah for Chanukah is better, for it publicizes the miracle[2]

On Chanukah we light the menorah to commemorate the miracle of the jug of oil. The Maccabees found one uncontaminated jug of oil for the Menorah, which was only enough to last for one night. It ended up lasting for eight nights. However, on Chanukah we don’t officially discuss the miracle. On Pesach we read the Torah portions which describe the Exodus from Egypt. We have the Seder night where we discuss all the miracles occurred when Hashem took us out of Egypt. On Purim we recite the Megillah, which describes all the events which lead to the miraculous salvation of the Jews. All of these rituals are to fulfill a specific religious mandate that we are supposed to publicize the miracle[3]. Chanukah’s version of publicizing the miracle solely involves lighting the menorah[4]. Why don’t we have as part of the prayers any mention of the miracle? Why don’t we read the book Megillas Antiochus, which describes the Chanukah story[5]? Sure, we do mention in the prayer Al Hanisim the Chanukah story, but there’s no mention of the miracle itself. Why is Chanukah different than the other holidays?

Hashem told Moshe: “…I will give you the stone tablets, and the Torah and the Mitzvah…”[6]. The stone tablets contained the Ten Commandments. The Torah is the Torah Scroll which we have today[7]. What does “the Mitzvah” refer to? We are taught that it refers to the explanation of the Torah[8]. How does the word “Mitzvah”[9], which is usually translated as “commandment”, connote an explanation? What is an explanation? It’s a revelation of the true intent or meaning of something. So too a Mitzvah. Mitzvos reveal the Divine Will that is laden within the Torah[10]. In that sense, a Mitzvah is an explanation of the Torah.

What’s the opposite of revelation? Concealment. This could be another explanation of what it means that the Greeks טימאו כל השמנים, they contaminated all the oil[11]. Oil very often signifies the Torah, or Torah knowledge[12]. Tumah, ritual impurity, is the same root as the word to be blocked or sealed[13]. There were two aspects of the Greek empire. One is that Alexander conquered the entire world[14]. The second is that their ideology was enforced on all of those that they subjugated. The first aspect ended immediately after Alexander died, as his kingdom was thoroughly divided. However, the latter aspect remained for centuries, and in many ways until this very day. Greek philosophy and ideology permeate many people’s ways of thinking. The Greeks tried very hard to force their ideology on the Jews. This is symbolized by their attempting to contaminate all the oil. But there was one jug of oil that remained pure. The Torah was unaffected. The Jews defeated the Greeks in their ideological battle, as their religion was the only one to survive the Greek conquest[15].

Getting back to our original question: We are taught[16] that when Malachi, the last prophet, died, Alexander began his conquest[17]. A main difference between the time of the prophets and afterwards is the ability to describe something’s essence. A prophet is able to relate something, whereas the Greeks and those that followed them can only relate about something. The Greeks and the scientists are great at providing descriptions of something, but that they can never discuss its essence. That requires Divine knowledge, of which only the prophets have. Since the story of Chanukah occurred after the cessation of prophecy, we can no longer describe the essence of the miracle that took place. Any public recitation or communal storytelling wouldn’t do the miracle justice.

However, reciting from the Torah or the Megillah is different, as they were written by prophets. Miracles that are described in those books aren’t just descriptions about the miracle, they convey the essence of the miracle. We are then able to publicize the miracle in the utmost way. So too when we perform a mitzvah. Since a mitzvah is a revelation of the Divine Will, it’s an explanation of the Torah, by lighting the menorah we are publicizing the miracle[18]. We aren’t simply describing it, we are revealing its essence[19].

Happy Chanukah!

[1] Based on my limited understanding of a machshavah shiur from Rav Moshe Shapira zt”l for parshas Mikeitz 5768

[2] Shabbos 23b

[3] משום פרסומי ניסא. See Pesachim 112a, Megillah 3b, 18a, Berachos 14a

[4] See Shabbos loc. cit.

[5] While this isn’t part of the Jewish canon, and thus didn’t make its way into Tanach, it is respected as a historical account as to what happened to the Jews at that time. It’s quoted by the Rishonim and Achronim, such as Tosafos Rid (Sukkah 44b s.v. חביט, who brings those who actually had the custom to read it) and Chidah (Chadrei Beten 1:22)

[6] Exodus 24:12

[7] Berachos 5a

[8] Rambam’s Hakdamah to Mishneh Torah, based on Berachos loc. cit. Cf. Rashi ad. loc. who seems to explain that it refers to the 613 mitzvos

[9] Rav Moshe Shapira pointed out that the word מצוה is a very strange word. It sounds tangential but I believe it was essential for his presentation. Unfortunately, I only understood it enough to leave it as a footnote. What he says is really, the word should be ציווי, which means commandment. Why is the word referred to instead as “Mitzvah”? There are certain roots which can take on different forms, and one form is a combination of them all. For example, the word שופט is a judge, and the נשפט is the one who was judged, the defendant, and the שפיטה is the judgement. משפט is usually the word which ties them all together. It represents the judge ruling a judgement towards or against the defendant. We find a similar case with a loan. A מַלוה is the lender, the לוה is the borrower, and the הלוואה is the loan. All together they can be summarized with the word מִלוה, which connotes a lender giving a loan to the borrower. So too the word Mitzvah. There’s the מְצוֶה, the commander, who commands the מְצוּוֶה, the commanded, the ציווי, the commandment. All of this is summarized with the word מצוה

[10] The meforshim (such as Tzafenas Paneach Chatimah to Seder Zeraim, Tikkunei Zohar p. 73a, brought by the Shela Yoma Chapter Derech Chaim Tochechas Mussar 16) point out that if you take the first two letters of מצוה, and perform the א”ת ב”ש conversion, you get י and ה, which are the first two letters of Hashem’s name, combined with the last two letters of מצוה to get the last two letters of Hashem’s name. This name is known as the שם המפורש, literally the explained name. The Rosh (Yoma 8:19) says that this name includes every other name of Hashem. Really, the entire Torah is made up of Hashem’s names (Ramban’s Introduction to Chumash)

[11] Shabbos 21b

[12] See Menachos 85b and Berachos 57a

[13] מטמטם, מטומטם, or טומטום are the same root as טמא

[14] Yalkut Shimoni Nach § 211, which lists him as one of the ten rulers who conquered the entire world. Cf. Megillah 11a which only mentions three, excluding Alexander. See also Rabbeinu Bachaye to Genesis 14:1 who assumes the number is ten, presumably including Alexander

[15] Rav Moshe Shapira went on to describe two types of beauty. Again, I’m not sure how this fit into the whole presentation, but I’m sure it did. One is described by the Torah as יפה תואר ויפה מראה (Genesis 39:6), and the other is יפה מאוד (Genesis 12:14). The former is an external beauty, which the Greeks obsessed over. The latter is an intrinsic beauty, which was alien to the Greek ideology. However, the Torah focuses many times on the latter. We see by the mitzvah of lighting the menorah on Chanukah, that there are different ways to do it in a more beautiful fashion. One is for everyone to light their own menorah. Another is to light more candles on each successive night of Chanukah (Shabbos 21b). We aren’t able to grasp how this is more beautiful than other ways of lighting, but this is what we are taught. This is the intrinsic beauty of the mitzvah

[16] Rav Moshe Shapira got this from Seder Olam Rabbah Chapter 30

[17] It is also when the yetzer hara for idol worship ceased, leaving only a yetzer hara for heresy and lust, which were well-abused by the Greeks

[18] Even though the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah was enacted after the cessation of prophecy, we can still say that it reflects the Divine Will. I’d say that this is so because the concept of Chanukah is alluded to in the Torah (see Ramban to Numbers 8:1). However, I believe Rav Moshe Shapira addressed this directly. Seder Olam Rabbah loc. cit. says that once there was a cessation to prophecy, go and listen to the Sages. Rav Moshe Shapira explained that this is because they still have some element of ruach hakodesh. Since the Sages were the ones to institute Chanukah, their ruach hakodesh can still be accessed through performing the mitzvah of lighting the menorah

[19] Rav Moshe Shapira added that the same is so with the mitzvos of Pesach. Eating matzah and marror not only are fulfilling Hashem’s commands, they reveal the essence of the miracles of Pesach