Jonathan Muskat

Why wait a year to establish the holiday of Chanukah?

On the surface, it seems that our generation can relate very well to the holiday of Chanuka. After all, Chanuka is the holiday when we defeated those who forbade us from observing the Torah. Chanuka is the holiday when we defeated the ancient antisemites. We currently find ourselves still fighting against antisemitism in both Israel and America, so the message of this holiday is very meaningful to us in 2022. However, Chanuka is not only about defeating antisemites, but Chanuka is about what to do once we’ve defeated them.

After all, the rabbis of the generation that defeated the Greeks did not immediately declare a Chanuka holiday. The Gemara (Shabbat  21b) states that “l’shana acheret kav’um v’asa-um yamim tovim b’Hallel v’hoda-a,” that that waited until the following year to establish the days of Chanuka as days of praise and thanksgiving.

Why did the rabbis wait a year to establish the holiday of Chanuka? Perhaps they delayed for technical reasons. The Ritva writes that during the first year they simply didn’t know how long the miracle of lights was going to last so they couldn’t establish a holiday that year. Once it was clear that the miracle lasted for eight days, then the following year they established an eight-day holiday. The Shem Mi-Shmuel writes that they couldn’t formally establish these days as holidays because they were currently tamei, or ritually impure. As such, they were forbidden to enter the lishkat ha-gazit, the particular room in the Temple complex where decisions were made to establish holidays. Therefore, at that time they were technically unable to establish a holiday.

However, there is another way to understand the delay in establishing the holiday of Chanuka. Perhaps the rabbis waited to see how this story would turn out. The Bnai Yissachar explains that the Rabbis waited a year to see if the shefa Eloki, or the spiritual Divine light that the Jewish people experienced during the miracle of the oil, would return. Once they sensed the shefa Eloki the following year at this time, they established these days as days of celebration. The rabbis wanted to make sure that the spiritual aftermath of the military victory was positive. Maybe they were concerned that the leaders of the revolt were Kohanim and they should not have taken on political positions in Jewish government. However, after a year they saw that the restoration of the Beit Hamikdash brought about positive results and did not bring about any unintended negative consequences.  Therefore, they established these days as days of celebration.

Additionally, maybe it took a year for the rabbis to determine not just whether to celebrate the holiday, but how to celebrate the holiday. The gemara states that a year later, the rabbis defined these days as days of hallel and hoda-a, praise and thanksgiving. The Sfat Emet explains that by the next year the rabbis understood why we needed this holiday and why the miracle of lights was so necessary for the Jewish people. Even before the military victory and the miracle of lights, darkness had begun to surround and penetrate our nation. The darkness was not the darkness of antisemitism or anti-Jewish decrees. It was the darkness of freedom and the darkness of access to the best that the world seemingly had to offer. It was the darkness of Hellenism and Hellenistic beliefs that threatened the heart and soul of our nation.

About two-thousand years after the Chanuka story, in Germany, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch recalled how “one evening on the ninth of Av, the rabbi of a small town in South Germany had his synagogue brilliantly lit up and invited the members of his congregation to attend in their best clothes.” Given the civil rights that German Jews had recently won, petitioning God for a return to Holy Land on the 9th of Av had evidently become an anachronism to this rabbi. “Jerusalem, he said, was here. Palestine was now situated on German soil.”

In hindsight, these sentiments are tragically deluded, but even at the time, before Hitler, Rav Hirsch found them problematic. On the 9th of Av, he wrote, “Jews grieved for much more than their historic loss of political rights, and they still had much to mourn even after having been offered equal status as citizens: In the darkest centuries of the exile, when the Roman sword rent the curtain of the Temple . . . the majesty of God and the holiness of the Torah found refuge in Jewish family life, the Jewish home. . . . The barriers are [now] falling, the chains are being struck off. . . . Will Israel be able to carry over its intimacy with God from the ghetto into the court, from the hovels into the mansions, from the heder into the salon, from the corner shop into the office, from the shul into the “temple”? Is Israel equipped to take over with it into the new civic life the old allegiance to God, the old sanctity of the Torah? Or do the divine presence, the kingship of God, the Torah, face the last and sternest stage of their exile?”

Rav Hirsch and other rabbinic leaders were aware of the dangers of 19th century freedoms that were afforded to the Jews, just as Rabbis two thousand years beforehand were aware of the danger of Hellenism even following the Chanukah story. Two thousand years ago, the rabbis said that we need a holiday, not just to thank God for the military victory, for the miracle of lights and for the restoration of the Beit Hamikdash, but we need a holiday for ourselves. We need a holiday that will prepare us and protect us from the darkness that freedom may pose, the darkness of Hellenism that threatened our nation before Judaism was outlawed and that may now threaten our nation once we have defeated our enemies. It took the rabbis a year to create a holiday that confronts the danger and lure of a sophisticated culture and fascinating ideas which are alien to Torah values. After a year of discussion and debate, they created a holiday of hoda-a. Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Chanuka #2) explains that hoda-a doesn’t only mean thanks, but it also is an expression of admission, confession of commitment. When we say “modim anachnu lach” in shemona esrei, we express to God that we are committed to Him. Chanuka then becomes a holiday of renewed commitment and passion to our Divine mission.

In 2022, Chanuka teaches us that we must act heroically to fight antisemitism like our ancestors did years ago. But Chanuka also teaches us that danger lurks even in the absence of antisemitism, and we fight this danger with hoda-a and passionate commitment to our inspiring tradition.

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