Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Chanukah as a Holiday of Idealism and Maximalism

The gemara in Shabbat (21b) responds to the query "mai Chanukah" (what is the basis and character of Chanukah) by describing the miracle of the cruise of oil that miraculously burned for eight days in the aftermath of the Chasmonean victory. The account is striking for its de-emphasis of the military victory as a motivating force in the establishment of the holiday.

To be sure, the significance of the military campaign registers in other accounts (Pesikta Rabbati, Megillat Taanit, in the insertion of "al ha-nissim" etc.), and even in numerous halachic references and nuances. Abudraham and Shibboleit ha-Leket even find allusion to the victory in the very name of Chanukah (hanu be-kaf hei). The Peri Chadash posits that the first day is celebrated in tribute of the decisive victory since the oil was sufficient for that day. Indeed, the Netziv argues that one should focus attention also on the miraculous survival as one recites the beracha of shehecheyanu on the first night.

Notwithstanding these and other expressions, it is precisely the first post-revolt event, the effort to rededicate the mizbeach, that is the primary focal point of Chanukah. The Or Zarua sees the name "Chanukah" in this reference (see also Rashi Megillah 30b). In any case, it was the lighting of the menorah that emerged as the central mitzvah and symbol of Chanukah.  

Why should a post-revolt event, even one that was miraculous, be accorded such centrality, even eclipsing national survival, an apparently more urgent miracle. Moreover, there were other miraculous manifestations, recorded in Megillat Taanit, that did not generated equivalent days of hallel and hodaah. What is singular about the miracle of the candles?

A celebrated question posed by R. Eliyahu Mizrachi and discussed extensively by the meforshim further highlights the problem. Why doesn't the halachic principle that ritual defilement is not an obstacle to national temple obligations (tumah hutrah betzibbur) dictate that the menorah could have been kindled with impure oil as well, rendering the miracle of the cruise of oil completely superfluous?  While many mefarshim conclude that this rule does not apply in this case, others confirm that the rule does prevail. The Chakham Zvi argues that the miracle, while not indispensable, was an important projection of Hashem's special affection for Klal Yisrael. Still, is it conceivable that the miraculous centerpiece of Chanukah may not have been fully necessary?

We encounter parallel difficulties when we examine the eight-day period. The Raavad explains that it took this long to return from Tekoa with the most refined (mehudar) oil. Thus, the miracle sustained the higher ambition of lighting the menorah with the most preferred oil, but may not have been required simply to discharge the Temple obligation of ritually pure oil! The Beit ha-Levi queries why the menorah was not lit with thinner wicks during this period to stretch the oil supply. Wouldn't a concession in the quality of the mitzvah have been justified given the crisis?

It is conceivable that the menorah miracle emerged as the central feature and symbol of Chanukah precisely because it was not technically indispensable. As the Levush, Bach, and others note, Chanukah (in contrast to Purim) celebrates salvation from spiritual extinction. The Chasmonean revolt rejected the very notion of institutionalized spiritual mediocrity even at the expense of national survival. The nation could not acquiesce to the decrees against the study of Torah and performance of mitzvot because such acquiescence would have undermined the very foundation of Jewish existence, even if it might temporarily have secured the physical continuity of the nation. The concept of shaat ha-shemad (Sanhedrin 74a:Rambam, Hil. Yesodei ha-Torah 5:3; Chanukah 3:1) which demands that Jews sacrifice life itself to affirm their Torah commitment in a time of religious crisis stems from the realization that Jewish life cannot long survive without the idealism and ambition of a life of mizvot. Each discrete challenge to halachic life might warrant a response of yaavor ve-al yeihareg (Sanhedrin 74a- violate rather than be killed) as a concession to the sanctity of human life. However, when applied pervasively to justify a comprehensive and systematic breakdown of halachic life, this policy condemns Klal Yisrael to spiritual oblivion. The principle of shaat ha-shemad underscores the transcendent value of ideal halachic standards as worthy of sacrifice. Chanukah, then, represents a struggle for a maximalist halachic lifestyle.

Precisely because attaining victory in the military struggle once joined was indispensable, this miracle did not accurately convey the singular character of Chanukah, although it certainly occasions the hodaah expressed in al ha-nissim. However, the miracle that resolved the first national-spiritual challenge in the aftermath of victory, the ritual impurity of the Temple oil, dramatically captured the very spirit of the Chasmonean struggle. A miracle that obviated the need to rely upon the bedieved halachic response of tumah hutrah betzibbur, or even the thinning of the wicks or use of halachically inferior oil forcefully projected halachic idealism and maximalism as the foundation of the revolt and set a powerful tone for the new era. Thus, the gemara's question "mai Chanukah" conveys an effort to capture the essence of the holiday, not merely to record its history or the details of its observance. The miracle of the neirot, which enabled the mitzvah to be implemented without compromise, perfectly encapsulates the motive, goal and impact of Chanukah.

It is entirely appropriate that unique among mitzvot, the mitzvah of neirot Chanukah projects three distinct levels- neir ish u-beito, mehadrin, mehadrin min ha-mehadrin. While the concept of zeh Keili ve-anveihu establishes a general concept of hiddur mitzvah (adorning the mitzvah), only in Chanukah do we encounter different qualitative performances. Moreover, the Shulchan Aruch and Tur almost exclusively emphasize the more ambitious and idealistic performance of the mitzvah!  According to R. Bechya the term "Chanukah" also suggests chinuch - an educational program. May we succeed in internalizing and inculcating maximalism and idealism in halachic standards and performance thereby fulfilling the aspirations of Chanukah.    

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