Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

The Essence of Chanukah: The Relationship of Halachic Commitment and Performance

Responding to the celebrated question of "mai Chanukah" (Rashi- which miracle is the basis for Chanukah), the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) delineates the miracle of the cruise of oil as the background of the holiday. The Talmud then establishes that Chanukah was formulated with the following ingredients: "yom tov, hallel and hodaah." Rashi, noting that the term "yom tov" is normally associated with the prohibition of melachah, interprets the passage to mean that these days are special (yom tov) by virtue of the obligation to recite hallel and to insert the "al ha-nissim" ("hodaah") in our prayers. Some of the mefarshim note the irony that the two crucial ingredients, hallel and hodaah, that are emphasized in the formulation of the celebration of Chanukah do not emphasize the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights which apparently occasioned the commemoration. The Sefat Emet explains that generally praise and thanksgiving are not associated with the performance of particular mitzvot, but with the larger salvation of Klal Yisrael. Thus, while the miracle of the candles was central, the expression of praise and thanksgiving relate to other themes of the holiday.

However, an analysis of the Rambam's perspective on this holiday leads us to a quite different conclusion. It appears that the Rambam's opening remarks in hilchot Chanukah (3:1-3) are intended as an explanation and interpretation of the Talmudic passage of "mai Chanukah". Thus, it is highly significant that he reformulates the Talmudic formula, defining the principle ingredients of Halachic observance as the components of simcha (joy), hallel, and the kindling of the candles on each of the successive nights of Chanukah. Apparently, the Rambam interpreted the term yom tov as connoting simcha and he understood that hodaah is expressed in the lighting of the candles! The fact that Rambam does not interpret hodaah as referring to the recitation of "al ha-nissim", as Rashi did, is unsurprising since he omits any mention of this prayer in hilchot Chanukah. He only records this insertion in the context of his treatment of the laws of tefillah. The association of hodaah with the lighting of the candles, however, is extremely intriguing, particularly in light of the Sefat Emet's comment that praise and thanksgiving are not generally linked with particular mitzvot. Why should this mitzvah constitute an exception to that rule? Moreover, in what sense does the candle lighting convey a sense of thanksgiving, even if one could possibly understand that the miracle that it commemorates does generate Divine praise. And yet, Rambam's perspective is accented also in his concluding comments to Hilchot Chanukah (4:12) in which he describes the mitzvah of the candles as extremely precious and as a source of praise and thanksgiving to Hashem!

The Rambam's view of the relationship of hallel and the lighting of the menorah is also fascinating. He chose to develop the laws of hallel specifically in Hilchot Chanukah, although one might have anticipated that he would have integrated these halachot in an earlier section of hilchot Yom Tom. The fact that the Rambam interrupts the laws pertaining to the lighting of the Chanukah candles with the rules of hallel is noteworthy. In fact, he inserts the discussion of hallel (Hilchot Chanukah 3:5-14) between his formulation of the berachot on the kindling (3:4) and the actual performance of the mitzvah (4:1)! Although the Rambam develops the rules of hallel in these sections of Hilchot Megilah and Chanukah, he lists only 2 rabbinic commandments, megilah and Chanukah, in his introduction to these sections. The discernable pattern in the Rambam's presentation is that hallel and the lighting of the menorah on Chanukah represent a single theme. [The same is true of the reading of the megilah which the Talmud explicitly characterizes as a form of hallel.]

The central role of hallel and hodaah in the performance of this mitzvah may help explain several unusual phenomena. While the concept of "zeh keili ve-anveihu" establishes the value of enhancing all mitzvot, only in this mitzvah do we encounter quite different forms and avenues of performance, mehadrin and mehdarin min ha-mehadrin. Although some halachists (See, for example, Chidushei ha-Griz, Hilchot Chanukah) insist that the rules of hidur mitzvah pertaining to the Chanukah candles basically conform to the universal principle of "zeh keili ve-anveihu", there are other indications that the significance and methods of enhancing this specific mitzvah considerably transcends the general principle. According to some rishonim (Orchot Chayim etc.) one recites a separate berachah for the hidur mitzvah when he has already accomplished only the basic performance of "ner ish u-beito (one candle per household). Some poskim (R. Akiva Eiger, Responsa , no. 13) rule that one can still make the berachah as long as one has not concluded lighting the extra mehadrin candles.

The Talmud records that in addition to the blessing of "lehadlik neir shel Chanukah", one recites the berachah of "she-asah nissim ". The Rama rules that this second beracha should also be said prior to the lighting, although as a blessing of praise it might be perceived to be more appropriate after the performance, as other authorities rule. There are some views that one should say "she-asa nissim" after lighting the first candle during the completion of the mehadrin candles! A similar discussion can be found with respect to the singing of "ha-nerot halalu", as recorded in Massechet Sofrim. On what basis can one justify the interruption of the act of lighting under these circumstances?

The central role of praise and thanksgiving in the mitzvah of the Chanukah candles justifies these perspectives. An expanded role for hidur mitzvah reflects the motifs of praise and thanksgiving and underpins the integration of praise and thanksgiving by means of the beracha of "al ha-nisim" and the singing of "ha-neirot halalu" either prior to the lighting or during the additional candles of the hidur mitzvah.

But why is this mitzvah unique in its integration of the themes of praise and thanksgiving in the actual mitzvah performance? The answer lies with the Talmud's original question. Perhaps the term "mai Chanukah" should be rendered as follows: what is the quintessential character of the struggle and celebration of Chanukah (as opposed to Rashi's interpretation cited previously). As the Rambam depicts it, the decision of the Hasmonaim to revolt was triggered by the ban on the study of Torah and the observance of Torah. The status of shaat ha-shemad (religious crisis), which demands that Jews sacrifice their lives is based on the premise that Jews cannot survive in a state in which they are denied spiritual expression by means of the performance of mitzvot. The mishnah in Berachot explains that the sections of Shema include both kabalat ol malkhut shamayim (religious commitment) and kabalat ol mitzvot (religious conduct). Neither of these components can long survive without the other. Halachic commitment is unique precisely due to the special interplay between these two indispensable motifs. Klal Yisrael found themselves spiritually imperiled by the decree that denied them the religious expression of mitzvot. In the aftermath of the revolt motivated by this awareness and sensitivity for the urgent need for this spiritual outlet, the opportunity to reintegrate the norm in the Beit ha-Mikdash became a symbolic focal point of the struggle itself. Thus, even in the recitation of "al hanissim" reference is made to the kindling of the menorah in the Beit ha-Mikdash. The Talmud explains that the quintessence of this holiday can be apprehended by appreciating the significance of the miracle of the cruise of oil which enabled Klal Yisrael to reintegrate the norm into their spiritual lives. Thus, the mitzvah of neirot Chanukah became a vehicle not only for the commemoration of a miracle that enabled the nation to accomplish a specific mitzvah, but for expressing praise and thanksgiving for the very opportunity to properly observe Halachic norms, ensuring a meaningful spiritual existence. The time of Chanukah provides an opportunity to reaffirm our appreciation of this special integration of Halachic commitment and punctilious observance. From this perspective, the mitzvah of neirot Chanukah, conveying joy-simcha, praise-hallel, and even thanksgiving (hodaah), constitutes, indeed, an exceedingly precious mitzvah ("chavivah hi ad meod") as the Rambam concludes.

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