The celebration of the eight-day holiday of Chanukah centers on the lighting of the Chanukah menorah[i].
The Talmud[ii] explains that the holiday of Chanukah is all about the lighting of the Menorah and the miracle of the oil. It describes how the ancient Greeks had occupied the Second Temple and polluted the store of olive oil. When the Hasmoneans overcame and defeated the Greeks, they entered the Temple. There they found only one unspoiled container of oil, which was inscribed with the seal of the High Priest. It was only sufficient to light the Menorah for just one day; yet it miraculously lasted for eight days. In later years, these days were fixed as a holiday period of thanksgiving and for the recitation of the Hallel.
Why this singular focus on kindling lights[iii]? Why don’t we also have some special observance of the miraculous victory over the Greeks? While, there is a reference to the triumph over the Greeks in the additional Al Hanissim prayer[iv], inserted into the Amidah and Bircat HaMazon, it too concludes with a recitation of the miracle of the oil and lighting of the Menorah.
There is little of the pomp and circumstance of Purim, when we celebrate the miraculous victory over Haman and his cohorts. Where’s the gleeful public reading of a Megillah, like Megillat Esther[v], detailing the events and proclaiming the miracles that occurred? What about the noisemakers to blot out the name of the enemy, like Haman’s name on Purim? There’s also no Mishloach Manot[vi], gifts to the poor[vii], costumes or formal[viii], obligatory, celebratory feast[ix]. To add to the mystery, why do we work on Chanukah[x]? Why is it not like many other Jewish Holidays, when work is prohibited? Indeed, even on Purim, the custom is not to work[xi].
On Chanukah, we rush home to light the Chanukah menorah with the family and that’s pretty much it. All right, we do sing as a part of the lighting ceremony and there are the foods fried in oil, like potato latkes and sufganiot. However, these fried foods are selected as symbols, once again, because of their association with the oil. It’s all about the miracle of the oil.
It is suggested that the act of kindling the lights is more than a symbolic exercise. It has a very special meaning in the context of Chanukah and the challenges overcome in Hasmonean times, as well as, many of the same challenges we face today.
The engagement between ancient Greek and Jewish cultures originated many years before the climactic war with Antiochus and the victory that marked the beginning of Chanukah. The Talmud[xii] reports on a fateful encounter between Alexander the Great and Shimon HaTzaddik, the Kohen Gadol. The result was to avert the Samaritans’ plot to destroy the Second Temple. At the time, there seemed to be a healthy respect between Alexander and Shimon, as representatives of their peoples and cultures. Indeed, the Talmud notes Alexander associated his success in battle with the image of Shimon[xiii].
There were cultural exchanges and even the Torah itself was translated into the Greek language[xiv]. Some in the Land of Israel adopted Greek customs. The Book of Maccabees reports that they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem and elected not to circumcise their sons[xv]. I guess they wanted to fit in and be an unobtrusive part of the pervasive Greek culture. After all, Greece was the dominant power in the region and the Land of Israel was under its suzerainty.
There were aspects of Greek culture, which were attractive and appealed to some. There was the shared goal of seeking perfection, although, in application there were marked differences in approach. Abstract thinking and noble thoughts, as well as, aesthetical considerations are good examples. Is there anything inherently wrong with appreciating beauty? But what about the pursuit of beauty for its own sake, is that a gainful activity? Some might say yes and others might not agree. They might argue, if it is associated with making something utilitarian more useful, because it enhances its functionality and the user experience, then why not? But what about art in the abstract; isn’t bringing beauty into the world a goal in and of itself? The ancient Greeks would likely have enthusiastically answered in the affirmative. However, many Jews in ancient Israel and since would likely have questioned the premise.
Is pursuing aesthetical beauty for its own sake and without any tangible purpose, really the way to achieve perfection? In this regard, while perfection of the body might attract some, Jewish thinkers like Maimonides[xvi] rejected the notion. The pursuit of perfection of the body’s appearance and function was viewed as a wasted effort. It’s one thing to exercise to keep in good shape and health. However, as Maimonides quips, no amount of weight training will make a person as strong as a lion or elephant. Thus, the object of this type of perfection does not yield any great utility. Beyond basic health, it does not do much for the soul.
Maimonides[xvii] did appreciate art, music, strolling through beautiful gardens and seeing splendid architecture, because they fulfilled the useful function of enlivening the mind and dissipating gloomy moods. The purpose was to restore the healthful condition of the body. Maintaining the body in good heath is required in order to attain wisdom and knowledge of G-d. This in turn was accomplished by performing all of G-d’s commandments in the Torah, which are commonly referred to as the 613 Mitzvot.
Maimonides states[xviii] the 613 Mitzvot were designed by G-d to engage every part of a human being and their performance enables a person to reach a state of perfection. He writes[xix] that perfection is, ultimately, about emulating G-d’s loving kindness, justice and equity[xx]. A person’s mental, physical and soul health are dependent on the person’s moral conduct and taking the middle path[xxi].
The Sefer HaChinuch[xxii] explains that outward actions have the power to shape character. A person is influenced by his actions and a person’s heart and mind follow those actions. A wicked person can transform himself into a good one by doing good deeds and not following his inclination to do bad ones. A righteous person, on the other hand, who does bad deeds, can become a wicked person. It’s not about what a person thinks; it’s about what a person does that counts. Every person is affected by his actions. Thus, the Torah provides for a person to perform all sorts of actions, known as the Mitzvot, which were designed by G-d to improve the person’s character.
The Talmud[xxiii] expresses this concept in practical terms. It advises a person should always engage in Torah study and performance of the Mitzvot, even if he doesn’t have the appropriate intent. This is because through performance of the Mitzvot, a person gains understanding and comes to perform them with the proper intent.
It’s all about doing good; not just thinking good thoughts. In this regard, the Talmud[xxiv] records that Resh Lakish made a critical observation. He states that a while a student learns and rejoices in study, it doesn’t end there. The time comes when a person must do good deeds (i.e.: put all that learning into practice). He cautions that the student is judged on whether he performed all the teachings he learned.
This principle is expressed in an even more poignant manner in another part of the Talmud[xxv]. In that text, Rabbi Papa quotes from the Bible[xxvi] about how Moses called all of Israel together and said to them to listen to G-d’s decrees and ordinances, learn them and be careful to perform them. The key is both learning and performing them. Rabbi Papa cautions if a person doesn’t perform the decrees and ordinances, then he does not have Torah, either. It is not just an academic exercise. It must be done Lishma (i.e.: for the purpose of doing the Mitzvot). Along these same lines, the Talmud[xxvii] condemns Torah scholars, who just immerse themselves in Torah and are not in awe of Heaven. If they were in awe of G-d, then they would demonstrate it by performing the Mitzvot. For those who do[xxviii], it is an elixir of life. On the other hand, for those who study Torah in the abstract, without corresponding performance of the Mitzvot, it is a deadly drug.
While some Jews embraced the Greek way, others didn’t. It appears there was somewhat of a live and let live attitude for a time. This situation of détente, though, didn’t continue and discord erupted. The so-called Hellenizers, who had fully adopted the Greek ways, sought to impose their views on their brethren. Matisyahu and his sons rejected these impositions. They wanted to live in accordance with the dictates of the Torah[xxix].
However, the ancient Greeks overlords wouldn’t leave them be. They formulated an insidious plan to accomplish their goals of subjugation and assimilation of the Jewish people. To do so, they sought to undermine the culture and power of the nation of Israel. The plan was designed to stop the performance of the Mitzvot. By doing so, the connection of the Jewish people to G-d and, by extension, their access to divine protection, was severed.
Megillat Antiochus[xxx] reports the ancient Greeks issued decrees against the Jews observing the Sabbath, New Moon (month) and the Rite of Circumcision. By prohibiting the fixing of the date of the new month, they also, in effect, disrupted the observance of the Holidays. This is because the actual dates of the Holidays were calculated as a function of the date fixed for the new month.
The Book of Maccabees[xxxi] notes the Greeks also caused a cessation of burnt and flour offerings in the Holy Temple, as well as, wine libations. Indeed, they sought to disrupt the entire concept of a centralized sacrificial service, by profaning the Temple and the priests and erecting local altars where pigs and other non-kosher animals were sacrificed. In addition, they built temples devoted to idol worship. The plan was to enjoin the Jews from performing the Mitzvot and force them to change their ways, so as to conform to Greek culture and customs.
Megillat Yehudit[xxxii] reports Antiochus’ minions also sought to undermine the sanctity of marriage and the family, by requiring droit de seigneur, as a prelude to marriage. Midrash Ma’aseh Chanukah[xxxiii] notes that the Greek authorities went so far as to prohibit locks and latches on doors, so that anyone could enter a Jewish home, day and night, as they pleased. They hoped to remove any sense of dignity or modesty. The use of ritual baths was also prohibited in an effort to undermine family purity.
The Greeks authorities were determined to show they were in charge. They sought to undermine the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d, which afforded them divine protection. They went so far as to require horns of animals to be engraved with the statement that it has no part in the G-d of Israel[xxxiv]. Maimonides notes[xxxv] Jews even had to write on their clothes that they had no share in the G-d of Israel. Lest there be any misunderstanding about the intent of the Greeks overlords, Maimonides reports[xxxvi] decrees were promulgated which banned, outright, the practice of the Jewish religion. The Jews were not allowed to engage in Torah study or the performance of Mitzvot.
Greek misbehavior knew no boundaries. Private property, the family and the Temple were not sacrosanct; the Greeks plundered and defiled at will. Upon Antiochus’ return from battle with the Ptolemy king of Egypt, he passed through Jerusalem. He used the opportunity to plunder the Second Temple[xxxvii], stealing the Temple treasury, golden Altar, Menorah and other Temple utensils. Maimonides reports[xxxviii] that the period of this Greek oppression lasted for 52-years. It was a period of darkness[xxxix] and the Jewish people suffered greatly. The pressure was unbearable, but G-d had mercy and saved them.
It began with the revolt, led by Matisyahu and his sons, including Judah the Maccabee. They miraculously succeeded in winning the war with the Antiochus, the Seleucid king in Syria. They then renewed and rededicated the Temple[xl]. This included removing the stones from the profaned altar and building a new one. They also built a new Menorah out of iron spits[xli] that were clad with tin. As noted above, Antiochus had taken the golden Menorah, when he sacked the Temple. As the nation of Israel prospered, they replaced the jerrybuilt Menorah with one made out of silver and then of gold.
The symbolism of lighting the Chanukah menorah is particularly cogent, given the insidious plan of Antiochus and the ancient Greeks. Antiochus[xlii] focused on three particular Mitzvot, in his decrees. They were calculated to perplex and confound, because they did not directly challenge any ethical teachings. They did not require a person to perpetrate some wicked deed. Indeed, it appeared that a virtuous and ethical life was entirely possible without following these esoteric, uniquely Judaic, practices. After all, circumcision was a medical procedure and served only to distinguish Jews from Greeks at the gym. Why not do away with it? Why this focus on not working on the Sabbath, everyone else did? Why were all these complex astronomical and mathematical calculations of the lunar month necessary? Wouldn’t an ordinary Greek calendar suffice?
The Greeks saw this initial set of decrees as a predicate to undermining observance of the Mitzvot, generally. They wanted to interfere with the relationship that bound the Jewish people to G-d. If the Jewish people did not perform G-d’s commandments, as embodied in both the written and oral law of the Torah, then they would not merit G-d’s protection. They would then be like all of the other subjects of the Greeks. They would no longer have that special quality, which Alexander the Great first recognized.
Following Antiochus’ edict enabled the wonderful aspects of Greek culture to be accessed, including the arts, sports, theater and entry into the governing elite. There were also the seedier aspects of Greek society, including promiscuity, but that too had its own appeal. Why sacrifice so much for the institution of marriage and family purity in a society that flaunted its permissiveness? It didn’t seem to harm the Greeks; maybe it wasn’t so wrong? But, it was wrong and just like in today’s times there is confusion and clouded judgment, because of the darkness. The breaching of boundaries upset traditional family values and practices, which were designed to foster modesty, dignity and respect.
The response is renewal and rededication to the Mitzvot. It begins with the affirmative act of lighting the Chanukah menorah. It is the counterpoint to Antiochus’ nefarious plan. He had enjoined the Jewish people from doing the Mitzvot and the rejoinder is to perform this Mitzvah of lighting the Chanuka menorah, very publically, to demonstrate our continuing resolve. It is the light, which pierces through the darkness to restore clarity to our vision.
It would appear, though, that today we still face many of the same challenges our ancestors did then. We live in a permissive society with little or no effective boundaries. The lines between work and play and right and wrong have been blurred. Despite vocal affirmations of virtue, many leaders in government, media, entertainment and business appear to lead less than virtuous lives. While the media coverage is deluged with strident and diverse views about these problems, few if any solutions are offered. Frankly, many of these problems are not very new. They date back to ancient times and the Jewish experience with Greek culture. As our Sages observed so well, the answer does not lie in a cultural or actual war. This is because it is not about what a person thinks; it is about what a person does. It’s time to renew and rededicate our commitment to the Mitzvot. Perhaps, this is another reason why the Talmud focused on the kindling of the light.
It takes a person to arrange the Chanukah menorah, pour the olive oil, fix the wicks, ignite them and release the beautiful light. The menorah and all the fixings are much like a person and the actions he or she takes to shape their character. It’s not about differences in philosophy, personalities or personal Weltanschauung. They make no difference when kindling light or doing good deeds. The Sages encapsulated this notion in a pithy statement about what G-d really wants from mankind. They said[xliii], would that people forget about G-d and observe the Torah.
We observe the Torah by performing one Mitzvah at a time. Kindling a light is a particular easy one to perform. Yet, it has its own innate charm and beauty. Do so publically; it proclaims we are doing a Mitzvah and it is important to do it well. This is one of the times when we are urged to overdo it somewhat. Everyone in the house should each light his or her own Chanukah menorah[xliv]. The menorah should be a new or clean and refurbished old one. It should not be some old used clay one that hasn’t been thoroughly cleaned[xlv]. Chanukah is a time of renewal and rededication.
Go home and light the Chanukah menorah with the family. Work is important, but so is doing this special Mitzvah with the family. The same can be said about lighting the Sabbath candles. Eight days of light, which perforce include a Sabbath. Antiochus commanded us to work seven days a week. Our response was G-d commanded[xlvi] us to work six days and rest on the seventh day, because it’s Sabbath. Perhaps that is why we work on Chanukah and only stop working for the Sabbath. We are demonstrating our dedication to this vitally important Mitzvah.
May our lighting of the Chanukah menorah and Sabbath candles pierce the darkness and inspire us to do and be better. May our good actions transform us all into the noble and perfected individuals we aspire to be. Happy Chanukah.
[i] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at pages 21b and 23a-b.
[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 21b.
[iii] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 671-681.
[iv] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 682:1.
[v] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 687-689.
[vi] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 694:1. See also Terumat Ha-Deshen, Section 111.
[vii] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 694:1.
[viii] See, however, the Rema (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 670:2), who notes that even though there was no formal obligation to have a formal celebratory seudah, some said it was somewhat of a Mitzvah to add meals. This was because Chanukah was the time of the dedication of the Altar, as noted below. The Rema also notes the custom to recite hymns and songs of praise during the meals (which, in effect, convert them into Seudat Mitzvah). The Rema also reports the custom to eat cheese on Chanukah, in recognition of the miracle that occurred with the milk (dairy dish), which Yehudit fed the enemy, as summarized below.
[ix] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 695:1,
[x] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 670:1.
[xi] Rema, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 696:1.
[xii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 69a.
[xiii] Ibid. See also Megillat Taanit, Kislev, 21rst day.
[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at pages 9a-b.
[xv] Maccabees I, 1:17
[xvi] Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter 54.
[xvii] Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 5.
[xviii] Guide to the Perplexed, Part III, Chapters 31 and 27.
[xx] See Jeremiah 9:23.
[xxi] Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 3.
[xxii] Mitzvah 16.
[xxiii] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Pesachim (page 50b), Arachin (page 16b), Sanhedrin (page 105b), and Sotah (pages 22b and 47a). Cf. BabylonianTalmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 17b, but see explanation in Rashi and Tosafot on this Talmudic text.
[xxiv] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbos, at page 63b.
[xxv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, at page 109b.
[xxvi] Deuteronomy 5:1.
[xxvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 72b.
[xxviii] See the Chiddushe Aggadot commentary, by Rav Shmuel Eidels (the Maharsha), on the forgoing Talmudic text (Yoma at page 72b).
[xxviii] Maccabees I, 1:22-24.
[xxix] Maccabees I, 2:13-et. seq.
[xxx] Also known as Megillat Beit Hasmonai and Kitab Bnei Hasmonai.
[xxxi] Maccabees I, 42-51.
[xxxii] Yehudit is referenced by the Rashbam, as reported in Tosafot, on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 4a. Rashi refers to a heroine of Chanukah in his commentary on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 23a, although he does not mention Yehudit by name. The Ran, in his commentary on this Shabbos text, does refer to Yehudit by name and notes she fed the chief enemy cheese to eat. He goes on to say that this is the source for eating cheese on Chanukah. The Kol Bo (Section 44) also similarly describes how Yehudit fed the king of the Greeks a cheese dish so that he would be thirsty, drink too much and fall asleep. Yehudit was then able to decapitate him and the Jewish people miraculously won the battle.
[xxxiii] Otzar Tov, pages 39-40, as well as, Otzar Hamidrashim, Chanukah, on Sefaria.
[xxxiv] See Midrash Ma’aseh Chanukah and Maimonides’ Iggerot HaRambam, Iggeret Teiman 10.
[xxxv] Iggerot HaRambam, Iggeret Teiman 10.
[xxxvi] Mishne Torah, Hilchot Megillah and Chanukah 3:1.
[xxxvii] Maccabees I, 1:20-24.
[xxxviii] Iggerot HaRambam, Iggeret Teiman 10.
[xxxix] Bereishit Rabbah 2:4.
[xl] Maccabees I, 4:38-57.
[xli] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot, at page 28b. See also Megillat Taanit, Kislev 25th day, Midrash Pesikta Rabati 2:1 and Megillat Antiochus.
[xlii] As reported in Megillat Antiochus, as noted above.
[xliii] Eicaha Rabba Petichta 2.
[xliv] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 21a-b and Rema, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 671:2.
[xlv] Minor Tractate Soferim 20:3.
[xlvi] Exodus 20:8-10.