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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

What We Are Celebrating on Chanukkah

by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz (Posted on December 5, 2023)
Topics: Chanuka, Moadim/Holidays, Vayeishev

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There is a well-known contradiction between the liturgy and the Talmud regarding what we are celebrating on Chanukah. During the holiday we insert the Al Hanisim poem in our prayers. The poem commemorates the Maccabees military victory over the Greeks. In evocative language the poet describes how against all odds the ill equipped Maccabees defeated the well-armed Greeks, and that subsequently the Rabbis instituted an eight-day holiday celebrating the victory.

The Talmud, however, offers a very different reason for the celebration. It describes the development of the holiday as following:

What is [the reason for] Hanukkah? … For when the Greeks entered the temple, they defiled all the oils therein. When the Hasmonean dynasty defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest. It contained sufficient oil for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle happened and it lasted for eight days. (Bavli, Shabbat 21B)

According to the Rabbis, Chanukah celebrates the Divine miracle that happened to the oil.

In the more than four pages of Talmudic discussion about Chanukah there is not one mention of the military aspect of the holiday. If one were to just read the Talmud, without paying attention to the liturgy, one would have never known that Chanukah also commemorates Jewish political sovereignty. The absence is so glaring that one is left with the impression that Chazal deliberately suppressed any mention of the military component of the holiday.

Our liturgy predates the Talmud. The liturgy was composed early in our history, (historians are not certain about the precise date the Al Hanisim poem was composed) while the Babylonian Talmud was redacted ca. 499 CE. The liturgy was accordingly composed while the Jews still enjoyed sovereignty. The Talmud, however, was primarily compiled after the destruction of the temple, when the Jews were living under foreign rule.

Clearly the sages who authored both the liturgical and Talmudic texts believed that both events happened, namely their enemies were defeated and that the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. Nevertheless, prudence dictated that they emphasize different aspects of the miracle at different times.

Since the liturgy was composed during an era when the Jews still had power, it made sense to celebrate Jewish military prowess. By the time the Talmud was written, however, they no longer controlled their destiny. They were now ruled by oppressive foreign rulers. Emphasizing their past military victories would now be fatal. The ruling Romans would have interpreted their celebration of past glories as a subtle attempt at subversion and rebellion. In response, Chazal decided to shift the focus of the holiday away from the military victory and instead chose to highlight the miracle of the oil.

Emphasizing a different miracle has significant implications for the nature of the holiday. The military victory is primarily a political celebration. The miracle of the oil, on the other hand, is by its nature religious, it does not imply political aspirations.

That change also resulted in a significant sociological transformation; it turned Chanukah into an inclusive and egalitarian holiday. Military victories celebrate warriors, who historically tend to be men. As a matter of fact, this cultural phenomenon has consequently become codified in Jewish law. Halakha explicitly prohibits women from joining the battlefield. In the early stages of the holiday when the tradition emphasized the war, the holiday was primarily about male warriors and largely celebrated by men. The switch in the holiday’s focus changed that orientation. War is gender specific, religious observance is not!

For Chazal the miracle of the oil symbolizes the Jews’ religious prowess during that time. From their perspective, the fact that the laws of nature were superseded during those eight days was proof that they were living just and righteous lives. Living righteously is gender-neutral. Men and women are equally able to create a just society, making them deserving of a world that transcends natural limitations. This shift in the understanding of what Chanukah is about transformed the nature of the holiday; it now became egalitarian and all-inclusive.

This transition is hinted at in the Talmud. Concluding a lengthy debate which, although not explicit, is quiet clearly about the question of whether the holiday celebrates the war or the miracle of the oil, the Talmud emphatically declares: השתא דאמרת הדלקה עושה מצוה, אשה וודאי מדליקה שאף הן היו באותו הנס; now that we have concluded that the mitzvah is to light (i.e. that we are celebrating religious victory,) certainly women must light as well since they too were part of the miracle. In other words, since we are no longer celebrating the war, there is no reason to exclude women from the Chanukah rituals. The holiday is now for women and about women as much as it is about men.

This change is also codified. The Halakha accordingly is that men and women are equally obligated in the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles.

In its final iteration Chanukah was conceived by the Rabbis as a familial and egalitarian holiday. The candles remind us that when we strive to live lives filled with holiness, we can transcend the limitations that life, society and even nature imposes upon us. The obligation to create such a world is gender-neutral. During this celebratory time, all of us-men and woman, adults and children, fathers and mothers-are charged with the task of לתקן עולם במלכות שדי; to help create a holy world, one that is kind, just and where no person is neglected or left behind-it is a holiday celebrated by all people for the sake of all of humanity.