Ilana Sober Elzufon
Ilana Sober Elzufon

The missing mitzva of Chanuka

Tomb of Matityahu ben Yochanan Ha-Kohen. (Ariel Palmon [CC BY-SA 3.0 (])

In a bloody episode in Bereishit, Ya’akov’s sons Shimon and Levi respond to the rape of their sister Dina by massacring the rapist’s city of Shechem. Their father Ya’akov rebukes them, and they respond with a challenge of their own:

And Ya’akov said to Shimon and Levi: You have made trouble for me and made me odious among those who dwell in the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites, and I am few in number and they will gather against me and destroy me and smite me, and I will be destroyed, me and my household.

And they said: Shall he make our sister like a harlot?

Bereishit 34:30-31

Ya’akov reminds his sons that they are a single family upon whom the much more numerous Canaanites are likely to take revenge. An attack could easily wipe out the family, and with it the life’s work of the patriarchs and matriarchs.

Shimon and Levi do not address Ya’akov’s practical concerns. Instead, they declare that they cannot morally allow their sister to be shamed. Justice and honor compel action. Practical consequences matter little in comparison.

Ya’akov does not respond to his sons’ moral challenge.

The two sides talk past each other.

Two World Views

Why can’t Ya’akov and his sons communicate more effectively? Because they see the world differently.

Ya’akov is a pragmatist. Although he is terribly distressed by the rape and abduction of his daughter, he recognizes that his family are still sojourners in Canaan and will need to find a way to coexist with the local population.

Shimon and Levi are kana’im, zealots. They will not compromise. Where the honor of God and family demands decisive and violent action, they will act.

In future generations, the tribe of Levi continue their progenitor’s tradition of zealotry, channeling it in the service of God. For example, in the aftermath of the Golden Calf, Moshe stands in the gate of the camp and cries out “Whoever is for God – to me!” The tribe of Levi responds and, at Moshe’s direction, traverse the camp with drawn swords, killing 3,000 of their brothers, relatives, and friends who had worshiped the calf. (Shemot 32:26-28)

The Zealots of Chanuka

We remember that call to action – “Whoever is for God – to me! Mi le-Hashem elai!” – as the battle cry of Matityahu and the Maccabees, Kohanim descended from the tribe of Levi.

A midrash also draws a connection between the story of Dina and the outbreak of the Maccabean revolt:

The Greeks would abuse the virgins of Israel [droit du seigneur, compelling each bride to spend her wedding night with the Greek commander] … until the deed of the daughter of Matityahu the High Priest…. When they sat down to [her wedding] feast, Chana daughter of Matityahu … ripped her royal cloak and stood before all of Israel exposed…. When her brothers saw this, they were ashamed and their faces fell to the ground and they rent their garments and they stood over her to kill her. She said to them “Listen to me, my brothers and my kinsmen: If I when I stood before the righteous naked without any sin you are zealous for me, why are you not zealous when it comes to handing me over to the uncircumcised to abuse me! Shouldn’t you learn from Shimon and Levi, the brothers of Dina, who … were zealous for their sister and killed a large city like Shechem and gave themselves up for the Oneness of God …. At that time, her brothers became zealous… (Otzar Ha-midrashim, Chanuka, p. 190. See more at “In what way were women essential to the miracle?”)

The Maccabees, descendants of Levi, were fierce ideological opponents of the Greeks and of the Hellenization they fostered among the Jews. Their zeal and commitment against all odds, their refusal to compromise, their rejection of pragmatism, brought about a great salvation.

The Pragmatism of Purim

This zealotry stands in direct contrast to the Purim story, where Esther submits to the roundup of maidens for the royal harem, and remains married to the Persian King Ahashverosh for the rest of her life. At the end of the Megilla, Mordechai becomes viceroy and “finds favor with most of his brothers.” (Esther 10:3)

Why only most of his brothers? Mordechai was a pragmatist, accepting a high position at the court of a capricious and hedonistic Persian king who, not long before, had casually approved a genocide against the Jews. Perhaps some Jews felt that Mordechai compromised too much, and did not stand firm in opposing the Persian regime.

Telling the Story

On Purim, we read Megillat Esther. We are obligated to hear every word of the story, including battle dates and casualty counts, twice.

But on Chanuka, there is no comparable mitzva to read the full story of the Maccabean revolt. We don’t even have a single, canonical version of it. We allude to the victory in the “Al Ha-nissim” prayer, without details, and light candles instead. We publicize the miracle, but refrain from recounting it.

Why don’t we place more emphasis on retelling the full story of the miraculous military victory of Chanuka?

Let’s look at the story of Pinchas, another descendant of Levi and the archetypical Jewish zealot, who ran his spear through a Jewish leader and the Midianite woman with whom he was consorting publicly (Bemidbar 25). The mishna in Sanhedrin states that Pinchas acted in accordance with the law: “One who has relations with a non-Jewish woman, zealots attack him” (Sanhedrin 81a). Yet the Gemara adds:

Rabba bar bar Chana said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: One who comes to consult [a halachic authority as to whether he should attack such a couple], we do not instruct him [to attack them] (Sanhedrin 82a)

If a prospective zealot has the presence of mind to ask a halachic question, halachic authorities will not encourage him.

Judaism is a complex religion. Zealotry is part of our heritage and history. Passionate zealotry in service of God can bring about great salvation. But we cannot normalize zealotry.

Perhaps in this spirit, the Gemara emphasizes the miracle of the cruse of oil over the military victory of Chanuka:

What is Chanuka?… When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in the Temple, and when the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and defeated them, they checked and found only one cruse of oil set aside with the seal of the Kohen Gadol, and it contained only enough oil to light [the Menora] for one day. A miracle took place, and they lit from it for eight days. (Shabbat 21b)

Zealotry is at the foundation of the Chanuka miracle, but our sages did not wish to establish a holiday explicitly celebrating or encouraging zealotry. And so, we tell the fiery story through light.

Chag Chanuka Sameach!

About the Author
Ilana Sober Elzufon is a Yoetzet Halacha in Yerushalayim, and a writer and editor for Nishmat's Yoatzot Halacha websites ( and for Deracheha (
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