The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is an annual eight-day celebration of religious liberty and freedom from oppression.
It centers on the lighting of the Chanukah menorah[i] as a means of publicizing the miracle of the oil, which the Talmud[ii] explains is the basis for the holiday of Chanukah. The ancient Greeks had occupied the Second Temple and polluted the store of sacred and pure olive oil. When the Maccabees overcame and defeated the Greeks, they entered the Temple and rededicated it. Indeed the name Chanukah is derived from the Hebrew word to dedicate. As noted below, there was no golden Menorah to light, as a part of the daily Temple ritual, so they had to jerry rig one[iii]. They found only one unspoiled container of oil, inscribed with the seal of the High Priest. It was likely not even sufficient to light the Menorah for just one day[iv]; 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. The Talmud presents the martial victory of the Maccabees over the ancient Greeks, almost as an afterthought, merely to set the scene for the occurrence of the miracle of the oil.
Why this singular focus on kindling lights[v]? 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[vi], 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. There’s no gleeful public reading of a Megillah, like Megillat Esther[vii], detailing the events and proclaiming the miracles that occurred. There are no noisemakers to blot out the name of the enemy, like Haman’s name on Purim. There’s also no Mishloach Manot[viii], gifts to the poor[ix], costumes or formal[x], obligatory, celebratory feast[xi]. To add to the mystery, why do we work on Chanukah[xii]? Why is it not like many other Jewish Holidays, when work is prohibited? Indeed, even on Purim, the custom is not to work[xiii].
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 suvganiyot. 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 has a very special meaning both in the context of Chanukah and the challenges overcome in Hasmonean times, as well as, some 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[xiv] 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[xv].
There were cultural exchanges and even the Torah itself was translated into the Greek language[xvi]. 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[xvii]. 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 many. 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. There’s nothing inherently wrong with appreciating beauty. However, is pursuing aesthetical beauty for its own sake and without any tangible purpose really the way to achieve perfection?
Maimonides[xviii] rejected the notion. He viewed the pursuit of perfection of the body’s appearance and function 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[xix] 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. Restoring and maintaining the healthful condition of the body are merit worthy purposes, required in order to create the potential for attaining wisdom and knowledge of G-d. Perfection, though, requires more. It can only be accomplished by performing all of G-d’s commandments in the Torah, commonly referred to as the 613 Mitzvot. Maimonides explains[xx] they were designed to engage every part of a human being to facilitate the foregoing. He writes[xxi] that perfection is, ultimately, about emulating G-d’s loving kindness, justice and equity[xxii]. A person’s mental, physical and soul health are dependent on the person’s moral conduct and taking the middle path[xxiii].
The Sefer HaChinuch[xxiv] notes that outward actions have the power to shape character. A person is influenced by his or her actions and the heart and mind follow those actions. A wicked person can be transformed into a noble one by doing good deeds and not following his or her inclination to do bad deeds. 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. Thus, the Torah provides for a person to perform all sorts of good actions, known as the Mitzvot, which were designed by G-d to improve the person’s character.
The Talmud[xxv] expresses this concept in practical terms. It advises a person to study the Torah and perform the Mitzvot, even if he or she doesn’t have the appropriate intent. Through performance of the Mitzvot, a person gains understanding and will eventually have the proper intent.
It’s all about doing good; not just thinking good thoughts. The Talmud[xxvi] cautions that study in the abstract of what is good and just, without putting those lessons into practice by actually doing Mitzvot (i.e.: good deeds) in daily life, is an anathema.
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 and wanted to live in accordance with the dictates of the Torah[xxvii]. However, the ancient Greek overlords had other ideas. 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, they sought to sever the connection of the Jewish people to G-d and, by extension, their access to divine protection.
Megillat Antiochus[xxviii] 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 Jewish Holidays. This is because the actual dates of the Jewish Holidays were calculated as a function of the date fixed for the new month. Hence, the popular aphorism that Rosh Hashanah may be early or late, but hardly ever on time.
The Book of Maccabees[xxix] 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[xxx] 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[xxxi] 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 went so far as to require horns of animals to be engraved with the statement that they had no part in the G-d of Israel[xxxii]. Maimonides notes[xxxiii] Jews even had to write on their clothes that they had no share in the G-d of Israel. If there was any confusion about the intent of the Greek overlords, Maimonides reports[xxxiv] they promulgated decrees that 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[xxxv], stealing the Temple treasury, golden Altar, Menorah and other Temple utensils. Maimonides reports[xxxvi] that the period of this Greek oppression lasted for 52-years. It was a period of darkness[xxxvii] 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[xxxviii]. This included removing the stones from the profaned altar and building a new one. They also built a new Menorah out of iron spits[xxxix] 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 makeshift Menorah with one made out of silver and then of gold.
The compelling need for religious liberty and the freedom to perform the Mitzvot is at the heart of the observance of Chanukah. It is not, as an opinion piece recently appearing in the New York Times[xl] erroneously suggests, a celebration of fundamentalist Orthodox Jews imposing classical Judaism on everyone else. If anything, as noted above, it was the other way around. In this regard, it is important to recognize that the Sages did not canonize the Book of Maccabees as a part of the Tanach. It is suggested[xli] that this was because its messages of zealotry[xlii] was rejected by the Sages[xliii]. To put this in perspective, Rabbi Meir, a descendant of Emperor Nero of Rome[xliv], was one of the most brilliant and accomplished Sages in the Talmud[xlv]. At the same time he also had a continuing friendship with Elisha ben Abuya[xlvi], a notorious heretic, known as Acher[xlvii].
The Talmud rails against the evil of groundless hatred[xlix]. Hate has no home in classical Judaism and to insinuate otherwise is inappropriate. It also displays a lack of knowledge and understanding of our traditions. To do so in the guise of being cosmopolitan or a progressive is also inexcusable. I can’t help but remember the anecdote, in Alan Dershowitz’s book Chutzpah, when he challenged his teacher and asked whether that made him an Apikores (heretic). The teacher reportedly responded that no, an Apikores knows something and that he was rather an ignoramus. There is a popular adage that seems particularly apt under the circumstances, to wit: ‘Better to light a candle than curse the darkness’.
The symbolism of lighting the Chanukah menorah is particularly cogent, given the insidious plan of Antiochus and the ancient Greeks. Antiochus[l] focused on three particular Mitzvot, circumcision, the Sabbath and declaring the new month, 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; when 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 Chanukah menorah, very publicly, to demonstrate our continuing resolve. It is the light, which pierces through the darkness to restore clarity to our vision. It is the light that unites the humanity in all of us, no matter what our level of observance, identification or persuasion.
The olive oil also has particular significance in the Talmud[li]. It represents our ability to restore our knowledge of Torah even after many years of desuetude. Like producing olive oil, it does take some self-sacrifice, work and devoted efforts[lii]. However, as the lighting Chanukah Menorah symbolizes, the divine providence is still present among us and protects us[liii]. We are still here, despite all the turmoil and vicissitudes of history, including the ancient Persians, Greeks and Romans and in spite of the Holocaust.
It would appear, though, that today we still face many of the same challenges our ancestors did then. As our Sages observed so well, the answer does not lie in a cultural 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 doing 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.
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 publicly; 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. Why not light with real olive oil to enhance the experience? Everyone in the house can each light his or her own Chanukah menorah[lv]. 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[lvi]. 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[lvii] 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] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractates; Menachot (page 28b), including Rashi and Tosafot thereon; Avoda Zara (page 43a), including Rashi thereon; and Rosh Hashanah (page 24b), including Tosafot and the Rashba thereon. See also Megillat Taanit, Kislev 25th day, Midrash Pesikta Rabati 2:1 and Megillat Antiochus.
[iv] See Sheiltot Rav Achai Gaon (an 8th Century Halachic authority), Parshat Vayishlach 26 (and Shoel Keinyon thereon), as well as, the Maharsha on the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chulin, page 55a.
[v] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 671-681.
[vi] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 682:1.
[vii] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 687-689.
[viii] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 694:1. See also Terumat Ha-Deshen, Section 111.
[ix] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 694:1.
[x] 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. This is in recognition of the miracle that occurred with the milk (dairy dish), which Yehudit fed the Greek overlord seeking to abuse her, in order to lull him, before she dispatched him, as described below.
[xi] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 695:1,
[xii] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 670:1.
[xiii] Rema, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 696:1.
[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 69a.
[xv] Ibid. See also Megillat Taanit, Kislev, 21rst day.
[xvi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at pages 9a-b.
[xvii] Maccabees I, 1:17
[xviii] Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter 54.
[xix] Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 5.
[xx] Guide to the Perplexed, Part III, Chapters 31 and 27.
[xxii] See Jeremiah 9:23.
[xxiii] Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 3.
[xxiv] Mitzvah 16.
[xxv] 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.
[xxvi] See Babylonian Talmud Tractates Shabbos (page 63b), Yevamot (page 109b) and Yoma (page 72b).
[xxvii] Maccabees I, 2:13-et. seq.
[xxviii] Also known as Megillat Beit Hasmonai and Kitab Bnei Hasmonai.
[xxix] Maccabees I, 42-51.
[xxx] 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.
[xxxi] Otzar Tov, pages 39-40, as well as, Otzar Hamidrashim, Chanukah, on Sefaria.
[xxxii] See Midrash Ma’aseh Chanukah and Maimonides’ Iggerot HaRambam, Iggeret Teiman 10.
[xxxiii] Iggerot HaRambam, Iggeret Teiman 10.
[xxxiv] Mishne Torah, Hilchot Megillah and Chanukah 3:1.
[xxxv] Maccabees I, 1:20-24.
[xxxvi] Iggerot HaRambam, Iggeret Teiman 10.
[xxxvii] Bereishit Rabbah 2:4.
[xxxviii] Maccabees I, 4:38-57.
[xxxix] Supra, note iii.
[xl] The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah, by Michael David Lukas, New York Times Opinion, dated December 1, 2018.
[xli] This is based on a lecture given by Rav Hayyim Angel, a noted Biblical scholar, which I was privileged to hear.
[xlii]See I Maccabees 2:23-27, 49-50 and 54, as wel as, Jersualem Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 9:7 (page 27b). See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah at page 14a.
[xliii] See Mishna Sanhedrin 8:7, appearing in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 73a. See also Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Laws of Murder and the Preservation of Life 1:11.
[xliv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, at page 56a.
[xlv] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at Page 86a. See also Tractate Gittin, at page 4a.
[xlvi] See Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Chagigah, at page 9b, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 39b and Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chagigah, at pages 15a-b.
[xlvii] A Talmudic Hebrew colloquialism, meaning the other or one who shall not be named.
[xlviii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 10a.
[xlix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Gittin (pages 55b-56a) and Yoma (9b).
[l] As reported in Megillat Antiochus, as noted above.
[li] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Horayot, at page 13b.
[lii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot, at page 53b.
[liii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Shabbos (page 22b) and Menachot (page 86b). See also Sifra, Emor, Section 13:9.
[liv] Eicha Rabba Petichta 2.
[lv] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 21a-b and Rema, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 671:2.
[lvi] Minor Tractate Soferim 20:3.
[lvii] Exodus 20:8-10.