Jonathan Muskat

The Twin Holidays of Chanukah and Sukkot

As Jews across the world begin our preparations for the holiday Chanukah which begins next week, I ponder the following question.  If I were to assign partners to every Jewish holiday, which holiday would be the partner to Chanukah?  I think that our knee-jerk answer to that question would be Purim.  After all, both Chanukah and Purim are Rabbinic holidays created in the same era, either during or shortly before the Second Temple period.  But what about Sukkot?  Can we partner Chanukah with Sukkot?  Both holidays last for eight days.  But is there anything else that connects these two holidays to each other?

First, the Midrash in Pesikta Rabati states that the work of the mishkan was completed on the 25th day of Kislev but it wasn’t set up until the 1st day of Nissan.  Since the month of Kislev “lost out” on being the month when the mishkan was set up and dedicated, the month was “compensated” by having the Beit Hamikdash rededicated during Kislev years later during the story of Chanukah.  How is this connected to the holiday of Sukkot?  The Vilna Gaon explains that the holiday of Sukkot celebrates the time when God commanded us to build the mishkan after we were forgiven for having worshipped the Golden Calf.  The work to build God’s house in the desert, then, begins on Sukkot and concludes on Chanukah.

But that’s not the only Chanukah-Sukkot connection.  For example, when Beit Shammai argues with Beit Hillel and states that we should light eight candles on day one, seven candles on day two, six candles on day three, etc., the rationale for this position is that it’s “kneged parei ha’chag.”  Just like we decrease the number of oxen we offer each day as a sacrifice each successive day of Sukkot, so, too, we decrease the number of candles we light each successive day of Chanukah.  Additionally, in his commentary on the Siddur, Rav Elazar of Worms explains that the Greeks outlawed the celebration of the holiday of Sukkot and in his Sefer Ha’Rokeach he writes that the eight days of Chanukah were established to correspond with the eight days of Sukkot.

Furthermore, when you read the Gemara in Masechet Sukkah which describes the nature of the simcha on Sukkot during the Simchat Beit Hashoevah, the Gemara writes that “menorot shel zahav hayu sham” – they had menorot and young kohanim had “kadim shel shemen” – pitchers of oil and they would light the menorot.  The Gemara continues and states that “aina me’irah mai’or beit hashoevah” – there was no greater light than the light of the Simchat Beit Hashoevah.  In fact, some of our great leaders used to perform tricks with this light.  They said about Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel that “k’shehaya sameach simchat beit hashoevah” – during the simchat beit hashoevah, “hayah notel shemonah avukot shel or” – he would take eight torches, “v’zorek achat v’notel achat v’ein nog’ot zu b’zu” – and he would juggle them.  This Gemara indicates that the light of Sukkot seems to be like the light of Chanukah!

Perhaps if we take a deeper dive into the essence of Chanukah, we can better understand why it is so connected the holiday of Sukkot.  Both holidays reflect the challenge of spiritual apathy and inaction.  In the desert only 3,000 people worshipped the Golden Calf and they were killed immediately afterwards so why do the rest of the Bnei Yisrael require atonement?  And the answer is that we need atonement not for what we did, but for what we didn’t do.  We need atonement for the inaction of hundreds of thousands of Jews when a ½% of the male population worshipped a calf that ultimately led to the departure of God’s Shechinah, His Divine Presence, that only returned when we started building the mishkan during the holiday of Sukkot.  Years later, as foreign Hellenistic beliefs began to settle in amongst our brethren, many Jews simply responded passively, saying that we don’t need to resist this new culture and these new ideas.  This inaction for so many years ultimately led to Greek architecture in the synagogue and the adoption of Greek methods of governance and eventually it led to a Hellenized Jewish Priestly aristocracy asserting control of and profaning the Beit Hamikdash.   Only once a band of Jews decided to stand up and fight this culture and fight those Jews whose influence was destroying Judaism did we merit God’s return to us.  At that very moment, the light of Sukkot over a thousand years earlier became the light of Chanukah.

Ultimately, then, Chanukah is the holiday when we challenge ourselves to fight inaction, to fight complacency and to fight a laissez-faire approach to Judaism.  Chanukah tells us that we live in an impure world ready to seduce us and if we don’t act decisively, then it is amazing how much inaction can affect us, our families and our communities.   We can look at this challenge in a negative light, that Judaism is all about saying no, about shutting out everything from the outside because everything from the outside is a danger to our unique way of life.  However, Rav Lichtenstein beautifully explained that on one level Chanukah is about purity, about “v’tiharu et mikdashecha,” about removing the impurities in our life and returning to or restoring a previous state.  However, Chanukah is more than that.  The essence of Chanukah is not simply a return to a previous state, but it’s “Chanukah,” meaning dedication or initiation.  It is a time to act and to create a new framework and implement it.  Chanukah, then, is an expression of a new beginning.

After we sinned by the Golden Calf, our restoration was not merely a restoration.  We created something new – a mishkan.   After we allowed Hellenism to creep into and distort our way of life over 2000 years ago, we didn’t merely purify the Temple, but we created a new class of spiritual leaders – perushim or Pharisees, which led to the explosion of Torah she’ba’al peh, the Oral Tradition.

Protecting ourselves from the outside world does not need to be all negative.  It can be innovative and exciting.  Imagine if we eliminated gossip and idle chatter from our holy Shabbat tables, but not by simply getting rid of the bad.  Imagine if we engaged in a “Chanukah” for our table, if we dedicated a Shabbat table to be a place of zemirot, divrei torah and quality conversation.  Imagine how alive we would feel!  Imagine if we didn’t merely eliminate so much wasted time in our daily life, but we dedicated a greater portion of our day to different mitzvoth, shiurim or acts of chesed.  If we do these things for a continued period of time then we become so much more alive.

May we all appreciate the connection between Chanukah and Sukkot, the need to fight inaction and to reject bad influences through innovation and creation.  If we are successful, we can live a life of more than just tahara, but we can live a life of Chanukah.


About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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