The Talmud describes the story of Ĥanuka, which occurred during the Second Temple era, in a brief passage:
When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein. When the Hasmoneans prevailed and defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was marked with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was performed there and they lit [the Menora] for eight days with this [oil]. Another year these [days] were designated a holiday with [the recitation of] Hallel and thanksgiving. (Shabbat 21b)
It is likewise forbidden to fast or deliver eulogies on these days (Megilat Ta’anit 9:2).
The Sages established many holidays during the Second Temple era, to thank God and rejoice over the salvations He performed for Israel. These holidays are all mentioned in Megilat Ta’anit. Many of these holidays commemorate the victories of the Hasmoneans: 13 Adar was “Nicanor Day,” when the Hasmoneans defeated a large Greek army and killed their commander, Nicanor; 14 Sivan was the day they conquered Caesarea; 22 Elul, when the Hasmoneans killed the apostates who refused to repent; 23 Marĥeshvan, when the Hasmoneans destroyed the brothel that the Greeks had built near the Holy Temple; and 25 Marĥeshvan, when they conquered Samaria and began settling it.
However, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sages abolished Megilat Ta’anit (sa 573:1) because all of the wonderful things that happened on those days were no longer relevant and thus no longer constituted a reason to rejoice. One may even fast and deliver eulogies on these days. Only Ĥanuka remains of all those day, as the Sages explain, because of the unique miracle of the oil that it commemorates and the mitzva of lighting Ĥanuka candles that the Sages enacted to publicize the miracle. And since we already observe the mitzva of lighting the Ĥanuka candles, we also preserve the other aspects of the holiday: we thank God by inserting Al Ha-nisim into our prayers; we praise God for saving His people by reciting Hallel; and we refrain from fasting and eulogizing throughout the holiday (see rh 18b; Rashi and Ritva ad loc.).
In order to understand better the significance of Ĥanuka and the miracle of the oil – the only remnants of all the holidays that existed during the Second Temple era – we must elaborate a bit on the events of those days and their meaning.
. Additionally: On 22 Shevat, because during the Hasmonean Revolt, the wicked Antiochus traveled to Jerusalem to destroy the city and annihilate its Jewish inhabitants. Upon hearing troubling reports of rebellion in the eastern part of his kingdom, however, he was forced to end the siege of Jerusalem on that day (in 167 BCE). He eventually died during these rebellions. On 3 Kislev, the Hasmoneans removed the idols that the Greek troops had placed in the Holy Temple. On 24 Av, the Hasmoneans reinstated Torah law as the official legal system, instead of Greek law. On 23 Iyar, Shimon ben Matityahu the Hasmonean conquered the Acra fortress that housed a Greek garrison even after the city was liberated. On 27 Iyar, the Hasmoneans (apparently during the reign of Yonatan ben Matityahu) banned the idolatrous images that hung upon the entrances of houses and stores. On 15-16 Sivan, the Hasmoneans conquered Beit She’an and drove out the gentiles who oppressed the Jews. The Sages also established holidays to commemorate the deaths of evil kings who persecuted them: King Yannai on 2 Shevat and King Herod on 7 Kislev. Many other dates are mentioned in Megilat Ta’anit.
Over the course of hundreds of years, an advanced culture developed in Greece and accomplished a great deal in the realms of science, philosophy, literature, art, architecture, military strategy, and politics. Its power increased gradually. In defeating his adversaries, King Philip II of Macedon united the Greek city-states under his rule. He invited the great Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle to tutor his son, Alexander III, later known as Alexander the Great. When Alexander ascended the throne, he began a campaign of conquests, and within three years (3426-3429/ 334-331 BCE), his army had conquered vast expanses of territory – Asia Minor, Eretz Yisrael, Egypt, and the entire mighty Persian Empire as far as India.
After Alexander died, the generals of the Macedonian army began fighting over the throne. In the end, they divided the vast territory under their control into several Greek kingdoms.
As a result of the conquests, Greek culture spread throughout the world, consuming all other cultures and forming a single Hellenistic civilization. The system of government, language, culture, and sporting competitions in every country were Hellenistic. The upper classes and the nobility of every land assimilated into Hellenistic culture imitated its ways.
Judea was among the areas ruled by the Greeks, and there, too, Hellenism spread. The Jews, however, were different from all the other nations, and the process of Hellenization proceeded relatively slowly in Judea. Nonetheless, over the course of 160 years of Greek rule, the influence of the Hellenists grew increasingly stronger, mostly over the affluent. It reached the point where the High Priests, Jason and Menelaus, were leading supporters of Hellenization, working to increase Greek influence in Judea. Jason built a gymnasium near the Holy Temple, which caused the priests to prefer watching wrestling matches rather than performing their sacrificial duties in the Temple.
. Alexander the Great died in 3437 (323 BCE). At first, Ptolemy I and Seleucus I fought Antigonus I, defeating him in the Battle of Gaza in 3448 (312 BCE). The winners divided the spoils, with Ptolemy taking Egypt and Seleucus taking Syria and Babylonia. Later, the two fought each other over Eretz Yisrael, and the Ptolemaic dynasty prevailed, taking control of the Holy Land for over a hundred years, starting in 3458 (301 BCE). In the year 3562 (198 BCE), Antiochus III, a member of the Seleucid dynasty, conquered Eretz Yisrael, but his power waned toward the end of his life. He attempted to conquer the kingdom of Pergamon in Asia Minor, but the Romans intervened on their behalf and defeated Antiochus, who was forced to pay a steep war indemnity. His son Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the wicked king who enacted evil decrees against the Jews, took the reins of power after his father’s demise (3584-3596/ 176-164 BCE). (Most of the information in this and the following notes is taken from Dr. Mordechai Breuer’s Divrei Ha-yamim Le-Yisrael U-le’umot Ha-olam.)
In the year 3591 from creation (169 BCE), around 160 years after the Greeks conquered Eretz Yisrael, Antiochus IV Epiphanes began oppressing the Jews. Under his rule, the Greeks plundered the holy vessels of the Temple, breached the walls of Jerusalem, murdered thousands of Jews, and enslaved many others. In 3593 (167 BCE), Antiochus decreed that the Jews must forsake the Torah and its mitzvot and worship idols. He made it a capital crime to perform mitzvot, abolished the sacrificial service in the Temple, and turned the Temple into a place of idolatry. Torah scrolls were torn and burned. Antiochus’ soldiers went from town to town forcing the Jews to eat pork and erect an altar for idol worship. They prohibited the practice of brit mila and Jewish women who insisted on circumcising their sons were executed. As a result of these decrees, many pious Jews fled to the wilderness, caves, or other countries; and many were murdered in sanctification of God’s name.
The intense pressure that the Greeks exerted against the Jews kindled a spark in their souls, and when the Greeks arrived in the village of Modi’in, with the intention of forcing Matityahu b. Yoĥanan the High Priest to worship idols, Matityahu rose up and killed the Greek officer and his Hellenized Jewish collaborators. The novelty of his action was that instead of dying in sanctification of God’s name, like the other pious Jews, he decided to kill the oppressor. By doing so, he and his sons raised the banner of rebellion against the Greeks and Hellenization.
The war was difficult. Yehuda the Maccabee, the boldest of Matityahu’s sons, led the fighters. With courage and skill, the Hasmoneans overcame the Greek forces, and after two years of fighting they succeeded in conquering Jerusalem. On the 25th of Kislev, 3596 (165 BCE), they began purifying the Temple and restoring the sacrificial service to its original state. This is when the miracle of the oil took place.
Later on, the Greeks returned to Eretz Yisrael in greater numbers, conquered Jerusalem, and put Hellenized Kohanim in charge of the Temple. However, in order to avoid increasing tensions with the Jews, they abolished the evil decrees and allowed the Jews to observe the Torah and the mitzvot. But this did not stop the rebellion; the Hasmoneans continued to fight against the Greeks and Hellenism. The war effort had ups and downs, but the Hasmonean brothers combined strength, diplomacy, and cunning to eventually gain political independence, decades later. Granted, the Jews lived under the aegis of the mighty empires of the ancient world – first the Greeks and then the Romans – but rule over Eretz Yisrael was by the Jews and for the Jews.
It seems quite evident that had the Greeks been more patient, Judea would have succumbed to Hellenism, just like the other nations did. But the hand of God, which conceals itself in the historical process, generated the conflict. Just as He hardened Pharaoh’s heart during the Exodus, so too, He hardened Antiochus’ heart, and in the process helped reveal the faith, self-sacrifice, and courage of the Jewish people.
. On the thirteenth of Adar, 3599 (161 BCE), Yehuda the Maccabee’s troops defeated the army of Greek general Nicanor; Nicanor was killed and the remnants of his troops retreated. This day was celebrated as “the Day of Nicanor” for generations. Immediately thereafter, the Greeks sent Bacchides at the head of a large army. Yehuda, unable to mobilize a greater number of fighters, stood against him with a mere 800 soldiers. Yehuda was killed in this battle (3600/ 160 BCE). Bacchides conquered the entire Eretz Yisrael and awarded the position of High Priest to Alcimus, a Hellenist, who executed sixty of Israel’s elder sages. Yonatan, Yehuda’s brother, assumed command of the remaining Hasmonean fighters, who had fled and gone into hiding. Over time, the Hasmoneans regained their strength and managed to harass the Greeks, but they were unable to reconquer Jerusalem. Then, a threat arose against King Demetrius’ rule, and in order to maintain his power he made a pact with the Hasmoneans, giving them Jerusalem and autonomy. Yonatan took advantage of the struggle for power in the Seleucid dynasty and obtained additional concessions from Demetrius’s rival. Thus, in the year 3608 (152 BCE), the Hellenist administrators of the Holy Temple were deposed and Yonatan began serving as High Priest. Diodotus Tryphon, one of the Greek rulers who opposed Yonatan’s increasing power in Jerusalem, lured him into meeting for a friendly conference and then murdered him (3618/ 142 BCE). Shimon inherited his brother’s command and made a treaty with Tryphon’s rival, in exchange for a tax exemption for the Jews of Judea. While the Greek kings were preoccupied with internal battles, Shimon cleansed Eretz Yisrael of the vestiges of Greek influence, conquered the fortress of Accra (23 Iyar, 3619/ 141 BCE, a date later established as a holiday), as well as additional cities surrounding Judea, and fortified its political independence. When Antiochus VII Sidetes defeated his enemies and no longer needed Shimon’s aid, he instigated a conspiracy against him, and indeed, Shimon’s son-in-law Ptolemy murdered Shimon, along with two of his sons (3625/ 135 BCE). With Antiochus’s help, Ptolemy tried to take control of Judea, but Yoĥanan Hyrcanus, Shimon’s faithful son, fought him. Then, Antiochus came to assist the murderous Ptolemy, pillaging Judea and bringing Jerusalem under heavy siege. However, Antiochus was forced to retreat because of revolts that sprang up against him elsewhere. He accepted Yoĥanan’s peace proposal, which stated that the Jews would pay a heavy tax to the Greeks in exchange for partial autonomy. Yoĥanan was appointed High Priest and nasi. Shortly thereafter, Antiochus’ army was crushed by the Parthians and Antiochus himself was killed. At this time, Yoĥanan began conquering additional territory in Eretz Yisrael, in order to expand Jewish settlement at the expense of the gentiles and to cleanse the land of idolatry. These conquests brought the Jews wealth and economic prosperity. Yoĥanan ruled Judea for 31 years (3625-3656/ 135-104 BCE), acting righteously most of his lifetime and strengthening the Sanhedrin. At the end of his life, however, he joined the Sadducees.
After the war against the Greeks ended in a military and political victory, the cultural struggle returned to the fore. We still needed to defend ourselves against the torrent of Hellenism that had already engulfed all of the surrounding cultures. Greek culture was very powerful. Its methods of scientific research were advanced; its military strategy was excellent; its system of government was efficient; its sculptures and architectural designs were impressive; its dramatic performances captivated; and its sporting events thrilled. This is why Greek culture succeeded in spreading so vigorously throughout the civilized world. Centuries later, when Rome had already become the major military power in the world, Greek culture remained the dominant cultural force.
Although the Hasmonean revolt impeded the process of Hellenization, it did not stop it entirely. A few decades later, Hellenism once again struck deep roots among wealthy Jews and among those who were in close contact with the gentiles. The Hellenists of the Hasmonean era were known as Sadducees; they did not preach total assimilation, but they believed that it was possible to combine loyalty to the Written Torah and Greek culture within a Jewish national framework.
One of the great tragedies of Jewish history is that the descendants of Matityahu, who sacrificed his life to fight Hellenism, were themselves drawn to Hellenism and persecuted the Sages of Israel, the defenders of our tradition. Matityahu’s great-grandson was King Yannai, who also served as High Priest. An evil man, Yannai believed that his death would gladden the Sages and their supporters. In order to spoil their joy, he commanded that immediately following his death a large number of Sages should be executed. After he died, however, his heirs, led by his wife Shlomtziyon, disobeyed his orders. The Sages declared the day of Yannai’s death a joyous day of thanksgiving, marking the demise of an evildoer and the salvation of the Sages.
Eventually, the slaves of the Hasmoneans – foremost among them, Herod – overcame their masters, annihilated the entire Hasmonean line, and ruled in their stead. The Sages thus declared: “Anyone who claims to be from the Hasmonean dynasty is either a slave or a liar” (bb 3b).
Based on this, we can understand the criticism that certain Sages leveled against the Hasmoneans, accusing them of failing to appoint a king from the tribe of Yehuda, as the Torah prescribes: “The scepter shall not depart from Yehuda” (Bereishit 49:10; see Ramban ad loc.). At first, the Hasmonean leaders were called nesi’im (chieftains), but they eventually crowned themselves as kings. They also reserved the position of High Priest for themselves. Clearly, their involvement in matters of state interfered with their priestly duties, blemishing the holy service, which was supposed to be performed in sanctity and purity, and strengthening the influence of Hellenism. From a political standpoint, as well, their kingdom was lacking, as it existed in the shadow of the mighty empires and, more often than not, under their aegis. This political weakness also strengthened Hellenism’s influence over Judea.
. The troubles began following the death of Yoĥanan Hyrcanus (3656/ 104 BCE). Yoĥanan’s heirs did not obey his last will; his oldest son, Yehuda Aristobulus, an ally of the Sadducees, acted like a Hellenist ruler, incarcerating his mother and brother and declaring himself king and High Priest. He died a year later, after which his brother Alexander Yannai reigned for 27 years. Yannai was a Sadducee who favored the Hellenists and fought against the Sages. Despite this, he continued to extend the borders of Israel. Alexander Yannai repented toward the end of his life, realizing that his ties with the Sadducees undermined Jewish nationalism. He therefore commanded that his righteous wife, Shlomtziyon, sister of Shimon b. Shetaĥ, inherit his throne. Shlomtziyon reigned for nine years (3684-3693/ 76-67 BCE). After her death, a bitter civil war broke out between her two sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus (who were educated by their father Yannai). In the year 3695 (65 BCE), the two brothers turned to the Roman commander Pompey, asking him to mediate between them. Two years later, Pompey and his army invaded Judea, abolished the Hasmonean kingdom, and stripped Judea of some of its territory. He allowed Hyrcanus to retain his position of High Priest and leader of the Jews in Judea, giving over the rest of Eretz Yisrael to autonomous gentile rule, subordinate to Rome. In the course of time, Antipater the Idumean, an adherent of Hyrcanus, established ties with the Romans and became their trusted ally, eventually taking control of Judea. After he died, his son Herod continued in his ways. Since Herod helped Hyrcanus defeat his nephew Antigonus, Hyrcanus gave him his granddaughter Miriam’s hand in marriage. This enabled Herod to eventually claim the Hasmonean throne. In the year 3720 (40 BCE), the Parthians conquered Eretz Yisrael and Aristobulus’ son Antigonus seized control of Judea taking revenge on his uncle Hyrcanus. Herod fled to Rome, where he was officially appointed King of Judea. Armed with Roman troops, he returned to the Holy Land and reconquered it. Thus began his 36-year reign. He murdered his opponents and anyone else whom he perceived as a threat to his authority, including the members of the Hasmonean family, and even some of his own sons. When Herod died in 3756 (4 BCE), the Sages ordained the date of his death – the seventh of Kislev – as a holiday. Nevertheless, Rambam considered his kingdom genuine Jewish sovereignty, as he writes in mt, Laws of Ĥanuka 3:1: In the merit of the Hasmonean victory, “sovereignty returned to the Jewish people for over 200 years.” Rambam teaches us here that even Herod’s reign was better than the oppression that preceded the rebellion and the subjugation that followed the destruction of the Second Temple.
Despite all their shortcomings, the victories that the Hasmoneans achieved had great value. The political independence that they won, though limited, contributed to the prosperity of the Jewish population in Eretz Yisrael in every way. Previously, around forty percent of Judea’s produce was taken by the Greeks as a tax; now all of it remained in Eretz Yisrael, stimulating economic growth. By virtue of the victories, Jewish settlements sprung up throughout the country, Jews immigrated from the Diaspora, birthrates rose, and the Jewish nation, which had undergone destruction and exile, rehabilitated itself, to a large degree.
Through the protection afforded by political independence, Eretz Yisrael became, once again, the national and spiritual center of the Jewish people. Houses of study grew and flourished, fully expressing the injunction of the Men of the Great Assembly: “Produce many disciples and make a fence for the Torah” (Avot 1:1). The spiritual foundations of the Oral Torah, which enabled Jewry to safeguard its faith and its Torah for 2,000 years of harsh exile, were laid in those days.
For this reason, the miracle of the oil expresses Ĥanuka more than any other symbol. Although the Second Temple was destroyed and all the political achievements of the Hasmoneans were lost, the study of the Oral Torah, which developed and crystallized during that period, endured forever. The miracle of the oil manifested the eternal dimension of the Torah, its ability to illuminate the darkness supernaturally. By virtue of the Torah, we managed to survive the long, dark exile. The miracle of the oil showed that the Jewish people are unique, different from all other nations, and that it is impossible to subdue us or extinguish our faith.
It was in the merit of the self-sacrifice of Matityahu and his sons that the deep foundations of the Torah and the uniqueness of the Jewish people were revealed. But the Hasmonean dynasty, with all its problems and complexities, was short-lived, and we do not commemorate it in a particularly celebratory manner.
This explains the Sages’ statement (rh 18b) that the holiday of Ĥanuka endures because of the miracle of the oil and the rabbinic mitzva of lighting the candles. The miracle of the oil showed that the military victory over the Greeks did not benefit that generation alone, but all generations. Therefore, the Sages determined that we should continue observing Ĥanuka even though the other holidays mentioned in Megilat Ta’anit were abolished after the Temple was destroyed. Thus, in addition to the mitzva of lighting candles all eight nights of Ĥanuka, we recite Al Ha-nisim and Hallel, to thank and praise God for saving us and allowing us to defeat our enemies.
Over the years, it became clear that the miracle was even greater than we originally thought. Not only did we manage to survive the torrent of Hellenism that inundated the world, but Judaism shattered – through a long and complicated process – most of the pagan foundations of Hellenism. The abstract belief in one God, ethical values, the aspiration to fix the world – all fundamental principles of the Torah – increasingly spread among the nations of the world, eventually becoming, through means both direct and indirect (i.e., via Christianity and Islam), the foundations of all the good and beneficial aspects of human culture.
The longer our exile lasted, the longer and brighter the light of Israel and its Torah shone. It will continue to illuminate the world until we merit bringing new and pure oil from the olives of Eretz Yisrael, from which we will light the Menora of the Holy Temple, and the world will be filled with the knowledge of God, speedily in our time. Amen.
. We express our thanks by reciting Al Ha-nisim in the Amida and in Birkat Ha-mazon, which emphasizes the victory over the Greeks, who wanted to make us forget the Torah and the mitzvot. God came to our aid and delivered our strong, wicked enemies into the hands of the righteous few. Afterward, the prayer relates that they purified the Temple and kindled lights. No mention is made of the miracle of the oil.
Rambam further emphasizes the national-political victory:
During the Second Temple era, the Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish people, abolishing their religion and refusing to allow them to observe the Torah and its mitzvot. They did violence against their property and their daughters; they entered the Temple, wrought havoc within, and made the sacraments impure. The Jews suffered great difficulties from them, for they oppressed them greatly until the God of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from their hand, and saved them. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overpowered [the Greeks], killed them, and saved the Jews from their hand. They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for over 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple. (mt, Laws of Ĥanuka 3:1)
This means that the miracle of the oil symbolizes the triumph of faith and Torah over Hellenism. It is the basis for the fact that Ĥanuka is a perpetual holiday. However, we would not have been privileged to receive the everlasting mitzva of lighting the candles or the triumph of faith if not for the miracle of the military victory – the righteous defeating the wicked – and the other national achievements, as described in Al Ha-nisim. This is why we praise God specifically by reciting Hallel, since the Sages prescribed that we recite Hallel mainly to commemorate times when the Jewish people were delivered from bondage or saved from death. Hence, Rambam emphasizes the national aspects of Ĥanuka. This also explains why Rambam emphasizes the joy of Ĥanuka, as he writes later: “Accordingly, the Sages of that generation decreed that these eight days, beginning from the 25th of Kislev, be commemorated as days of joy and praise. Candles should be lit…” (ibid. 3:3). (It may be that Rambam viewed the military victory as the primary miracle, contrary to what I wrote in the first section of this chapter, based on the opinion of several Rishonim.) For more on this issue and the following discussion, see the essay in Orot titled essay “Le-mahalakh Ha-idei’ot,” where Rav Kook explains that the Second Temple era prepared the Jews for the subsequent exile, by absorbing sacred vitality from the Temple and integrating it into the Oral Torah that accompanied the Jews into exile. See also the essay titled “Ĥakham Adif Mi-navi,” and Orot Ha-Torah, ch. 1.
It is no coincidence that the holiday of Ĥanuka falls out at a time of year when nights are longest and when the cold of winter spreads throughout the land. Moreover, since Ĥanuka flanks the new moon of Rosh Ĥodesh, there is barely any light to illuminate the long, dark, chilly night.
Yet as the sun sets and darkness begins to envelop the land, and the long night casts its cold, ominous shadow, Jews go out with candles in their hands and light the Ĥanuka candles. These candles symbolize the mighty Jewish faith, which breaks through all forms of darkness. Even in the darkest times, when the mightiest empires ruled the world ruthlessly, we did not despair of the light of Torah and faith, and we continued learning and teaching. A small ray of our light has the power to disperse a great deal of their darkness.
Ĥanuka is the celebration of the Oral Torah. First, this holiday was established by the Sages (the expounders of the Oral Torah), and second, the mitzva of lighting the candles was one of the first mitzvot the Sages enacted. But beyond these reasons, the holiday of Ĥanuka is a general expression of the essence of the Oral Torah. During the First Temple era, prophecy abounded among the Jewish people, and they studied the Written Torah primarily. After the Temple was destroyed and prophecy ceased, however, the time came for the Oral Torah to take precedence. The Oral Torah reveals the high stature of the Jewish people, who share in revealing the Torah’s light. The principles are set in the Written Torah, but the Sages of the Oral Torah paved the way for the realization of these principles. Granted, the light of the Written Torah shines brighter – it is compared in this regard to the midday sun – while the light of the Oral Torah is compared to that of the moon and the stars. However, the Oral Torah is able to descend to the hidden recesses of the soul and illuminate all dark corners of the world. The foundations for the methods of the Oral Torah were laid during the Second Temple era – including all enactments, safeguards, and customs. By virtue of the unique light of the Oral Torah, which, like the Ĥanuka candles, illuminates the darkness, we have managed to overcome all the difficulties of the exile.
These ideas, which are hidden within Ĥanuka, seem to be the inner reason why Jews love and cherish it so much, to the point where almost every Jew, no matter how far removed from Torah observance, lights Ĥanuka candles. Moreover, everyone follows the custom of fulfilling this mitzva in the best possible way – mehadrin min ha-mehadrin (see below 12:2).
Everything in the world is fleeting and ultimately perishable. This is true of ideas and memories as well; they lose their strength and vitality over time. However, when it comes to lighting the Ĥanuka candles, we discover that faith in God never wanes. On the contrary, it continues to exist and even thrive, despite the hardships and surrounding darkness. The pure spirituality expressed in the Torah is eternal; therefore, it constantly increases. Other, more transient ideas, however, fade away and expire. Affectionately embracing this wondrous idea, the entire Jewish people fulfills the mitzva of lighting Ĥanuka candles in the most exemplary manner possible, mehadrin min ha-mehadrin, adding a candle each night until the final night when eight candles are lit.
It is well known that the number eight alludes to the metaphysical, the supernatural. The world was created in seven days, and there are seven days in a week, so the number eight indicates that which lies beyond nature. For example, the purpose of brit mila is to rectify and elevate nature to a higher level, and therefore it is performed on the eighth day from birth. The Torah, as well, belongs to the eighth level, as it serves to elevate nature to a divine level. This is why the Torah was given after the seven-week omer period, which represents the wholeness of nature. After the seven weeks of the omer, we rise to a level above nature – the festival of Shavu’ot, when the Torah was given. Similarly, we complete the annual Torah-reading cycle on Shemini Atzeret (the eighth day from the beginning of Sukkot), which is also called Simĥat Torah (in Israel).
Ĥanuka, too, belongs to the realm of the supernatural, as it reveals the lofty stature of the Oral Torah. Therefore, we light candles for eight nights, adding a new candle each night.
. See Maharal’s Tiferet Yisrael, ch. 2, 25, and Ner Mitzva p. 23. The Greeks’ worldview stemmed from nature, and since there are different forces in nature, they believed in multiple gods. In addition, since nature has no values, only strength, beauty, and external wisdom, they yearned for these things. In contrast, Judaism is based on the belief in one God, who created nature but who Himself transcends it. The goal is to discover God’s oneness in the world, to reveal the image of God within man through morals, the Torah, and the mitzvot. The Greeks cannot coexist with us, because our belief in one God and our ethical values undermine the foundation of their worldview. Judaism, however, can coexist with Greek culture and use it as a tool for research, classification, and the revelation of Jewish concepts. For more on this notion, see Bina Le-itim 1:25-27.
The Sages instituted the holiday of Ĥanuka in order to thank and praise God for delivering Israel. For this purpose, they formulated the Al Ha-nisim prayer, which we insert in the berakha of thanksgiving in the Amida. We also recite it in Birkat Ha-mazon, in second berakha (Nodeh Lekha). We do not, however, mention Ĥanuka in the berakha of Me-ein Shalosh (recited after eating grain products or the special fruits of Eretz Yisrael, or after drinking wine or grape juice). If one forgot to recite Al Ha-nisim in the Amida or in Birkat Ha-mazon, he does not need to repeat it. If one remembers before concluding the berakha in which Al Ha-nisim is inserted, he should go back and recite it, unless he has already said God’s name at the conclusion of the berakha (sa 682:1). In such a case, though, it is proper to recite Al Ha-nisim at the end of the Amida, after all the berakhot, because one may add as many supplications and expressions of thanks as one desires at that point. Similarly, one who forgot to recite Al Ha-nisim in Birkat Ha-mazon should recite it after concluding the berakhot, together with the Ha-Raĥaman paragraphs, where one may recite as many additional prayers as he desires (Rema 682:1, mb ad loc. 4).
It is a mitzva to recite the full Hallel, with a berakha, on all eight days of Ĥanuka (Arakhin 10a). The halakha states that whenever the Jewish people are in dire straits, such as when they are enslaved or under the threat of death, they must recite Hallel when they are delivered (Pesaĥim 117a, Megilat Ta’anit 9:2). The mitzva to recite the full Hallel, with a berakha, on all eight days of Ĥanuka attests to Ĥanuka’s prominence. After all, we recite the full Hallel on Pesaĥ only on the first day of the festival, while we recite it every day of Ĥanuka.
Women are exempt from reciting Hallel, since it is a time-bound mitzva. Nonetheless, a woman who wants to recite Hallel on Ĥanuka on her own volition fulfills a mitzva in doing so. According to Ashkenazic custom, as well as the custom of some Sephardim, she should even recite a berakha, while according to many Sephardic poskim she should not recite a berakha (see Peninei Halakha: Laws of Women’s Prayer ch. 2 n. 10).
The Sages also instituted a special Torah reading for Ĥanuka, which describes the offerings that the nesi’im brought to inaugurate the Mishkan. Each day we read about one nasi’s offerings, and on the eighth day we begin with the eighth nasi and read all the way through the section dealing with the Menora, at the beginning of Parashat Be-ha’alotekha (Megilla 30b, sa 684:1).
. Rabbeinu Tam maintains that if one did not yet step back at the end of the Amida, he returns to the berakha of Modim in order to recite Al Ha-nisim. The halakha, however, does not follow this opinion. Rather, once one says God’s name at the conclusion of the berakha, he no longer goes back to repeat the berakha; he should not even conclude the berakha with the words lamdeini ĥukekha (mb 294:7). Regarding Birkat Ha-mazon, the Gemara (Shabbat 24a) implies that reciting Al Ha-nisim is merely a custom, not an obligation. Rashba and Ritva agree. Rambam, on the other hand, seems to maintain that one must recite it, and Or Zaru’a states that the masses have accepted it as an obligation. Raavya maintains that one must eat meals with bread on Ĥanuka and therefore one must repeat Birkat Ha-mazon upon forgetting Al Ha-nisim. However, according to the halakha, if one did not recite Al Ha-nisim, he should not go back to recite it.
. We recite Hallel on two different types of occasions: on festivals and in commemoration of miraculous salvation. The Gemara (Arakhin 10b) explains that, we recite the full Hallel all seven days of Sukkot because each day has distinct sacrificial offerings. On Pesaĥ, however, the same offerings are brought every day. The reason we recite Hallel on Ĥanuka is to commemorate the miraculous salvation, and we recite the full Hallel all eight days because the miracle increased in greatness every day. This is also why we light an additional candle every night (Shibolei Ha-leket §174, Beit Yosef §483). It is clear that the primary basis for reciting Hallel on Ĥanuka is the military victory, as the Gemara states in Arakhin and Pesaĥim, and as Rabbeinu Gershom posits. Nevertheless, it was the accompanying miracle of the oil that revealed the greatness of the victory. See above, 4:6, regarding whether reciting Hallel is mandated by Torah law or rabbinically.
The holiday of Ĥanuka is a time of joy, praise, and thanksgiving. Therefore, one may not fast or eulogize on Ĥanuka, even on the yahrtzeit of a parent – when many people customarily fast – that coincides with Ĥanuka. Similarly, a bride and groom who follow the custom of Ashkenazim and some Sephardim to fast on their wedding day do not do so on Ĥanuka.
Likewise, one may not deliver a eulogy on Ĥanuka at a funeral or at a memorial service at the end of the shiva or shloshim period. The only exception is a Torah scholar’s funeral, where one may eulogize in the presence of the body (Shabbat 21b; sa, Rema 670:1). The laws of mourning apply on Ĥanuka as on any other day (sa 696:4).
Many people refrain from visiting cemeteries on Ĥanuka, whether on a yahrtzeit or at the conclusion of shiva or shloshim, because such visits are liable to elicit crying and mourning, which are forbidden on Ĥanuka. Instead, they should visit the cemetery either before or after Ĥanuka. Others, including Moroccan Jews and some Jews from other communities, visit cemeteries even on Ĥanuka. According to all customs, one may visit the graves of righteous people on Ĥanuka (Ben Ish Ĥai, Vayeshev 22; see also Gesher Ha-ĥayim 29:6).
Sephardic custom is to recite Tziduk Ha-din on Ĥanuka (sa 420:2), while Ashkenazic custom is not to do so (Rema 420:2, 683:1). According to all customs, Taĥanun and La-menatze’aĥ are omitted on Ĥanuka. Likewise, mourners customarily do not lead prayers on Ĥanuka.
. When the Jewish people celebrated all the holidays mentioned in Megilat Ta’anit, they would refrain from fasting and eulogizing on the day before and the day after Ĥanuka as well. Nowadays, however, one should not be stringent on those two days, because even though Ĥanuka endures for all generations, Megilat Ta’anit as a whole was abolished. This is the opinion of Tur and sa 686:1. Others take a more stringent view and prohibit fasting on the day before Ĥanuka (Ha-ma’or, Pri Ĥadash, and Baĥ). mb states that, le-khatĥila, one should heed this viewpoint. See also Kaf Ha-ĥayim 686:3-7.
. mb 683:1 and Kaf Ha-ĥayim 683:5 state that a mourner may not lead Shaĥarit on Ĥanuka or Rosh Ĥodesh, but he may lead Minĥa or Ma’ariv. bhl §132, however, states that mourners do not lead the services on any day when La-menatze’aĥ is omitted. The source for this is Maharil §22. The prevalent custom is that mourners do not lead any service on Ĥanuka or Rosh Ĥodesh.
Ĥanuka was instituted as a holiday of praise and thanksgiving. Nonetheless, unlike Purim, there is no obligatory mitzva to partake in a festive meal. On Purim, we commemorate our enemies’ attempt to destroy our bodies by rejoicing physically, by eating and drinking. In the Ĥanuka story, however, the Jewish people experienced a spiritual victory. The Greeks enacted decrees only against Torah observance; one who complied and conducted himself like a Greek was safe. Therefore, the main idea of Ĥanuka relates to the spirit, so we thank and praise God for helping us preserve the Torah and the mitzvot (Levush).
Even though one is not obligated to prepare festive meals on Ĥanuka, many poskim maintain that one fulfills a mitzva by partaking in festive meals, in order to rejoice over the salvation that God performed for the Jews “in those days, at this time.” Some say that the Sages enjoined us to give thanks and recite Hallel over the spiritual salvation, but it is still appropriate to eat festive meals in commemoration of the rededication of the Temple.
In practice, we partake in festive meals on Ĥanuka, during which we share words of Torah and sing songs of praise to God. This way, the meals are considered se’udot mitzva according to all opinions. Moreover, by discussing Torah matters, the meals assume the special character of Ĥanuka, which is mainly spiritual joy, and through this the joy carries over to the meal.
There is a custom to eat dairy on Ĥanuka, in commemoration of the miracle that occurred through such foods. Yehudit, the daughter of Yoĥanan the High Priest, fed the enemy general dairy foods and killed him after he fell asleep, bringing salvation to the Jews. Even though this story happened before the events of Ĥanuka, Yehudit’s act of courage emboldened the Hasmoneans later on, giving them the strength to rebel against the Greeks. Therefore, her bravery is connected to the miracle of Ĥanuka. There is also a custom to eat foods fried in oil, like sufganiyot (fried doughnuts) and latkes (potato pancakes).
. mt, Laws of Ĥanuka 3:3, as well as Ritz Gi’at and other Rishonim, state that Ĥanuka is a time of “joy and praise,” and the way to express joy is through se’udot mitzva. Maharshal, Baĥ, and many others agree. Raavya goes even further, stating that one who forgets to recite Al Ha-nisim in Birkat Ha-mazon must repeat the prayer, implying that, in his view, one is obligated to eat a meal with bread on Ĥanuka (although the halakha does not follow his opinion). On the other hand, Maharam of Rothenburg §605 states that there is no mitzva to partake in festive meals on Ĥanuka, and sa 670:2 cites his opinion. Several Rishonim suggest that one should impart words of Torah at the meal, so that it should be considered a se’udat mitzva according to all opinions. Rema rules this way in practice.
. The custom of eating dairy is mentioned by Ran (Shabbat 21b), Rema 670:2, and other Rishonim and Aĥaronim. According to many authorities, the episode of Yehudit did not take place at the same time as the Maccabean revolt. Ben Ish Ĥai, Vayeshev 24 explains that since her story also involved a Greek king who tried to force the Jews to abandon their faith, the Sages appended the custom commemorating this miracle to the holiday of Ĥanuka. I added another explanation in the main text above. Another minor custom, which is mentioned in a few books, involves eating foods fried in oil. Rabbeinu Maimon, Rambam’s father, writes (in his commentary on Ĥanuka) that one should not treat any custom lightly, even a minor one like eating sufganiyot, for one should not denigrate the customs of our people.
Jewish women have preserved a special custom to refrain from working while the Ĥanuka candles are burning. Some women do not work the entire holiday, especially on the first and eighth days. In practice, though, the custom is to avoid work only while the candles are lit, and even then only during the first half-hour, which is the minimum time that the candles must be lit to fulfill the mitzva.
Two reasons are given for this custom. First, so they do not use the light of the Ĥanuka candles accidentally. Since women were more likely to make this mistake, only they must refrain from work while the candles are lit. The second reason is based on the sanctity of Ĥanuka, when we recite Hallel, indicating that it is similar to Ĥol Ha-mo’ed and Rosh Ĥodesh. This sanctity is revealed when the candles are lit. Only women observe this custom because they have a special merit on Ĥanuka, since the courage of Yehudit and other women set the miracle in motion.
The custom is that women refrain from forms of work that are prohibited on Ĥol Ha-mo’ed, like laundering, sewing, and the like. However, cooking and frying are permitted.
Upon close examination, we find that there are often two reasons given for customs that apply specifically to women. The first is that women were generally less astute and are thus were more likely to use the light of the Ĥanuka candles mistakenly. The second is that they have a certain special virtue, and therefore the sanctity of the day manifests itself in them to a greater extent.
. Shibolei Ha-leket and Tur 670:1 cite a custom that women do not work all eight days of Ĥanuka, and they conclude that one who has such a custom should not be lenient. Beit Yosef, however, states that since there is no prohibition to work on Ĥanuka, this custom is inappropriate. Ĥakham Tzvi §89 goes so far as to say that one may not remain idle all day long, since idleness leads one to sin. mb 670:5 concurs. ma states that some women refrain from working as long as the candles are burning in the synagogue, which is until midnight, while other women avoid working the entire first and eighth day. mb ad loc. 4 rules that women should only stop working for a half-hour. Sefer Ĥasidim §121 states that it would be appropriate for men to refrain from working as well, but this is not common practice. See also Kaf Ha-ĥayim 670:9. According to the first reason stated in the main text, it would seem that cooking and frying should be prohibited during the first half-hour like all other forms of work. Nonetheless, we are lenient in this matter, perhaps because the primary idea is to treat certain acts as forbidden just as a reminder that one may not benefit from the light of the candles. Still, some maintain that a family that is stringent in practice should continue in its ways. See Ben Ish Ĥai, Vayeshev 27; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 670:9. Also see Peninei Halakha: Festivals 11:7, which states that one may iron clothes on festivals for the purpose of wearing them during the festival; the same certainly applies to Ĥanuka.
. The Sages say that women must hear the Megilla on Purim, drink the four cups on Pesaĥ, and light the Ĥanuka candles, because “they too participated in that miracle” (Megilla 4a, Pesaĥim 108b, Shabbat 23a). Tosafot and many other Rishonim maintain that these mitzvot are primarily incumbent upon men, while women are also obligated because they too were saved from Egypt, Haman, and the Greeks. Rashi and Rashbam (Pesaĥim 108b) maintain that a woman’s obligation in these mitzvot stems from the fact that women played a major role in the miracles that took place. After all, the Gemara (Sota 11b) states that we were redeemed from Egypt by virtue of the righteous women of that generation, who had faith in God and encouraged their husbands to procreate despite the harsh decrees. The Purim miracle as well came about through Esther, and the Ĥanuka miracle was precipitated by Yehudit. From this perspective, these mitzvot are more pertinent to women than they are to men. Therefore, only they are meticulous and refrain from working while the candles are lit.
See above, 1:7, regarding Rosh Ĥodesh, which is more significant to women than it is to men, because women were not involved in the sin of the Golden Calf, and they also donated toward the construction of the Mishkan. Perhaps this is also why women have a higher connection to Ĥanuka, because the Hasmoneans rededicated the Temple at that time, just as the Israelites completed the construction of the Mishkan in the wilderness. In addition, the element of the Oral Torah, which we mentioned above, is connected to the attribute of kingship (malkhut), which has a feminine aspect. See Ben Ish Ĥai, Vayeshev 27. See also Peninei Halakha:Laws of Women’s Prayer 6:2, regarding the berakha of She-asani Ki-rtzono; 7:1, regarding Torah study; and ch. 3, which discusses the respective virtues of both men and women and the ways in which these virtues are manifested.