Chanukah & the Halachic Enterprise (Ideas #40)

As Chanukah approaches, we find ourselves learning all kinds of halachot associated with it. It is amazing that such a small mitzvah as lighting candles can be so complicated. We learn about when to light, how much to light, who has to light, where to light and all sorts of permutations of the above. Then we have to review how our daily prayers are affected, which prayers are added, which are omitted. And of course, we have to know how Chanukah effects the rest of our halachic lives – what is the interplay between Chanukah and Shabbat, Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh, Chanukah and avelut. By the time we get to Chanukah, we’re so exhausted learning all this halacha that we really need the vacation.

In truth, this can lead us back to a question that bothers many Jews and that is – why did the Rabbis create so much halacha? Why did Chazal want us to be so busy with mitzvot? What did they have in mind?

When I say Chazal and not G-d, I do so deliberately. The pristine Divine Torah as given to Moshe, is actually sparse in its daily demands upon us. It only legislates a few blessings each day. It tells men to put on Tefilin and gives some general guidelines for our behavior. It prohibits some situations, most of which we rarely encounter. In addition, it tells us to keep Shabbat and Yom Tov, which to transgress on a Torah level, is not uncomplicated. The vast majority of our religious behavior, however, is rabbinic in origin. Most of our prayers and blessings were ordained by the rabbis. Kashrut and especially Shabbat are full of rabbinic emendation, which makes them quite demanding. What we do when we mourn and when we get married is almost entirely rabbinic. The picture that emerges is that the rabbis had a conscious plan in expanding the Torah into a system that makes constant demands on our daily and weekly schedules.

Historically, we are aware of an attenuation of man’s connection to spirituality, as man became more aware of his own powers. The less man sought G-d, the less G-d was perceived in the world. During the period of the second Beit haMikdash, for example, prophecy and miracles were extremely muted. After that, things declined even further, as there was no Beit haMikdash altogether. The rabbis, influenced by Ezra and Nechemia, developed a strategy, already toward the end of the Babylonian exile to counteract this attenuation of man’s awareness of G-d. That strategy was the expansion of halacha.

Indeed, the gemara (Shabbat 123b) views an extremely strict legislation of the muktza laws as the rabbinic response to Nechemia’s generation, whose awareness of G-d was so attenuated that they were losing their entire religious identity – to the point where they were violating Torah prohibitions and marrying non-Jewish women. What the rabbis did in that generation is representative of the rabbinic approach to the historical weakening of the Jewish people in general.

I once heard in the name of Rav Kuperman, the Dean of Michlala, that we need to be permeated by Judaism and not just punctuated by it. By punctuated, he meant that an observant Jew must often stop or pause as if there were a comma or period forcing him to do so. Rav Kuperman means that such "punctuation" is not an ideal state of affairs, if it stops there. I would say it somewhat differently, however. I would say that since the time of Ezra, the only way for Jews to be permeated by Judaism is to be punctuated by halacha. Ezra and Nechamia intuited the fact that Jews could no longer connect to G-d on their own within the general guidelines of the Torah. As a result, the rabbis embarked upon the halachic enterprise. That enterprise was meant to force us to stop many times a day, and even more on spiritually pregnant occasions such as Shabbatot, Yamim Tovim and life cycle events. Once man became distant from G-d, he needed these constant reminders of His presence.

But the halachic enterprise does not stop with simply stopping to remind us of G-d’s presence. Its obsession with detail is meant to engender a very specific response. Many of the details in halacha, are a question of "lechatchila", meaning the best way to perform a mitzvah, and not a question of whether we are simply fulfilling the mitzvah or not. In the study of such detail, what we are really trying to do is to find the best possible way to serve G-d. In and of itself, this creates a proper awareness of G-d – when relating to G-d, it is axiomatically appropriate to serve Him in the best way possible.

But there is something possibly even more important. The relationship that halacha creates is that of a lover for his beloved. The relationship between G-d and the Jewish people is constantly compared, in the biblical text, to that between a man and a woman. In fact, it may not be overstatement, that the whole point of love between man and woman, is to create an easily accessible paradigm for the relationship between man and G-d. A true lover’s concern for, and infatuation with, his beloved will make him constantly seek the best way to please her. By looking for that best way, we are responding to what our relationship to G-d can, and ultimately must, become.

In this sense, the halachot of Chanukah serve as the perfect model of our search to permeate our lives with an appropriate awareness of G-d. As is well-known, the lighting of the candles is normally performed in a way, described as mehadrin min hamehadrin, meaning that we seek to do it in the absolutely best possible way. The simple halacha is to light only one candle each night, but it is rare to find anyone doing so. This situation is unusual in two respects: 1) the halachot of ner Chanukah seek a higher level of perfection than generally mandated by halacha - in other words, mehadrin min hamehadrin is not something usually discussed in halacha at all. 2) We don’t normally see a mitzvah where the entire Jewish people has taken on the practice of performing the mitzvah beyond its normative requirements. Thus, Chanukah represents our collective assent to the rabbinic challenge. Once a year, the entire Jewish people shows its understanding of the relationship with G-d that a Jew must attempt to create. If it not cannot always be what it should, we must at least have an idea of what it can be. Chanukah is the time to focus on this idea.


The way in which we light candles on Chanukah (i.e. mehadrin minhamehadrin) seems to follow perfectly from our description of the goals of the halachic enterprise. As a result, we may want to know why it is the exception and not the rule. To understand this, we may need to look at something all Jewish holiday-creators have to deal with: The Talmud makes the point that one who says Hallel everyday is like someone who is blasphemous. Another way to say this, is that sometimes more becomes less. For Hallel, or any halacha, to be meaningful, it cannot be performed all the time. For a point in time to be significant, it must be differentiated from what comes before and after it. In the case of Chanukah, the full message of mehadrin minhamehadrin may best be made if it only happens once a year.

If more is often less, creating new rabbinic holidays was not an obvious thing to do. While there was a whole book about special days of note (Megilat Ta’anit), the only days that were singled out as days for celebration and ritual were Chanukah and Purim. Throughout the long history of the Jewish people, there were many events that were significant, yet only in two cases did true holidays get legislated. Chazal knew that too much addition is counterproductive. In the realm of adding holidays, many new dates on the calendar would have taken away from the importance of the holidays set aside by the Torah. So what gave Chazal the sense that Purim and Chanukah would not create such a problem?

While one could certainly find much within the specific events that make them special, I will focus on the time of year of these two events as the factor that gave Chazal the intuitive green light. For better or worse, the Torah holiday calendar is highly asymmetrical. All of these holidays occur within approximately six months and a week, leaving the other half of the year completely devoid of holidays. Presumably, the intense experience of the holidays of Tishrei is enough to keep us spiritually charged through the whole winter until we get to Pesach. We know from our own experience, however, how easily the inspiration of Tishrei dissipates. Thus, Chazal may have been more than happy to receive a Divine cue to legislate holidays specifically during this long dry spell.

On this level, Chanukah may be viewed as a booster shot of Sukkot and Purim as an early mini-dose of Pesach. In fact, if we look carefully one could see many similarities between Sukkot and Chanukah on the one hand and Pesach and Purim on the other.

Immediately, one notices that Sukkot (including Shmini Atzeret) and Chanukah are both eight days. Besides Sukkot, there are no other eight-day holidays in the Torah. How interesting that the miracle of Chanukah should last exactly eight days. (The classic question of the Bet Yosef about the miracle only being seven days may even strengthen the notion that Chazal were reinforcing the connection between the two holidays, with Shmini Atzeret corresponding to the extra day of Chanukah that lacked an obvious miracle.) To this, Chazal responded with the saying of full Hallel for eight days modeled after Sukkot. The rededication of the Temple, for which Chanukah is named, also has a historical association with Sukkot. When Shlomo built the Beit haMikdash, it was dedicated right before Sukkot (and the Talmud in Moed Katan 9a maintains that it really would have been dedicated on Sukkot, were it not for the principle of not mixing two joyous occasions – ain marvin simcha be’simcha).

Most importantly, the theme of Sukkot is the realization of Divine control. By dwelling in huts, we desist from attempting to protect ourselves from the world around us. This realization, so easily attained after the Yamim Noraim, gives us the proper perspective for the longest uninterrupted period of work in the calendar. (In yeshivot and seminaries too, the long winter zman is known for its lack of breaks and therefore as the period in which the most work can be accomplished). Chanukah, like Sukkot, is a period of appreciation for Divine providence, not through overwhelming miracles, but rather by seeing what happens when we expose to the dangers of the world. When the Chashmonaim began their rebellion against the Syrian Greeks, it was like sleeping in a sukkah. They did not have the type of manpower or weaponry to adequately wage war against one of the mightiest empires of the time. But like Sukkot, they were living in a state of bitachon, knowing that G-d is in charge. To put this bitachon into a Jewish perspective, G-d does not ask us to camp out in the open, but rather to build a flimsy structure. We have to do what we can according to the ways of the world (derech hateva), and only then does G-d protect us from the elements. The Chashmonaim also had to do what they could in order to elicit G-d’s help. Be that as it may, however, the theme of both holidays is the internalization of Divine providence, which creates a sense of bitachon, knowing that whatever happens is always in our best interest. The release created by such a feeling is what makes the holiday of Sukkot zman simchatenu. Reminding ourselves of our trust in G-d’s providence of is also what gives Chanukah its sense of joy, manifested by the singing of full Hallel on all eight days. Thus, Chanukah was inserted into our calendar to remind us of Sukkot’s inspiration.

Even as we are the main actors in Sukkot and Chanukah, wherein we demonstrate our trust in G-d, G-d is the main actor during Pesach and Purim. As opposed to where the Jew’s bitachon creates simcha, what we see during Pesach and Purim is the creation of emunah through Divine revelation. During Pesach, G-d reveals himself in a dramatic way to create the basis for our faith. It is a time of birth, a time of religious creation. Pesach is the holiday of the rebirith of Spring, of a little child being shown the way. Sukkot is the holiday of the mature adult, who now knows his G-d and already has a relationship with Him. After the hiatus of winter, the Jew’s faith needs to be reborn again. The process that begins at Pesach and culminates in the mature bitachon of Sukkot starts over. However, here also it was too hard for post-Biblical Jews to wait until Pesach. The Jews needed to get a sense of Divine intervention before this holiday.

As a result, G-d intervened in Jewish history one month before the full display of Divine intervention, that we know as Pesach. Rashi, in his brilliant terse style, makes this exact point in Ta’anit 29a. The Talmud there states that "meshenicnas Adar marbin be simcha" – that we should increase our joy from the beginning of Adar. This statement is usually understood as referring to the period between Rosh Chodesh Adar and Purim, or as per the continuation of the discussion in the Talmud, extending to the end of Adar. In this context, Rashi says something strange - he says that the Talmud is referring to the "days of miracles…Purim and Pesach". With these few words, Rashi alerts us to the common theme that exists in these two holidays. While Chanukah and other holidays may contain miracles, it would be incorrect to identify them as the "days of miracles". Divine revelation is not their focal point. It is, however, the focal point of both Pesach and Purim.

When Jews could no longer maintain the bitachon of Sukkot through the entire winter, Hashem brought about a mini-Sukkot to keep us going through the rest of the winter. Even before that, when Jews needed a reminder of G-d’s mastery over the world from above before they got to Pesach, G-d created a mini-Pesach in the middle of Adar. Once the rabbis developed their strategy of the halachic enterprise, G-d responded by creating the right impetus for the rabbis to create Chanukah and Purim.

In summary, rabbinic law is meant to make us stop on a regular basis in order to give us the opportunity to reflect on the Divine. Its focus on minutiae is meant to give us the correct perspective on what our relationship with G-d should be. It stops us just enough to keep those moments differentiated from our regular activity. Purim and Chanukah are examples of such moments. As with all halacha, when we stop to light the candles or to say Hallel, we need to focus on their particular meaning. In the case of Chanukah, we are reminded of Sukkot. We are reminded of our need from below to allow G-d to control the world. We are reminded that we can not achieve anything by going against his Will. We are reminded that our efforts are secondary, albeit necessary, in accomplishing any desirable end. This release of realizing Who’s in control is the secret to simcha, both on Sukkot and Chanukah. Focusing on this secret will allow us not only to enjoy Chanukah and the rest of the winter, it will allow us to live properly throughout the rest of the year.