First time in English: The light of the candles

Fourth of the late Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira's essays on Hanukkah: 'In the time of the miracle of Hanukkah they merited the light of the Shechinah, despite the lack of the Holy Ark in 2nd Temple times.'

Harav Avraham Shapira zts"l, | updated: 18:57

הרב אברהם שפירא זצ"ל
הרב אברהם שפירא זצ"ל
צילום: ישיבת מרכז הרב

For previous Hanukkah essays by Rabbi Avraham Shapira zts"l, translated for the first time and posted exclusively on Arutz Sheva, click here. For a film about the Rabbi, click here.

The miracle of the flask of oil – impurity of the entire community became permitted

The miracle of Hanukkah includes several miracles in addition to the salvation of the Jewish people: the war, the rededication of the mizbeiach – altar -  and the lighting of the candles of the Menorah. Yet, why does our thanks and commemoration of the miracle of Hanukkah take place specifically by lighting candles?

The Ba"ch questions further, asking why there was a need for oil prepared by a pure person to light the candles in the Beit Hamikdash, for impurity of the entire community became permitted. He brings an answer from the Re’em, who says that impurity of the entire community became permitted only with regard to the actual lighting, but not with regard to the instruments necessary for the lighting, in the same way that the preparation of the instruments for a Bris Milah does not override Shabbos.  

The Shu”t Chacham Tzvi disagrees with the position of the Re’em, for it says in the Gemara that impurity can be overridden even when only the service vessels are impure.

The sefer Mikdash David writes that the ruling is that only the service of the korbanot, offerings, can override impurity. Therefore, the fact that the lighting of the Menorah does override impurity, can stem from an additional aspect of the lighting, as we will explain later on.

The Miracle of the Flask of Oil and the Victory in War

The Chiddushei Harim asks:

What is so novel about the miracle of Hanukkah? As it says in the Gemara, “Rabbi Chanina ben Dossa says, ‘Let the One who told oil to burn, tell vinegar to burn.’ And he himself performed a similar miracle, so why was a holiday established for the miracle that occurred in the time of the Beit Hamikdash?

The Chiddushei Harim answers this question, saying:

A tzaddik whose every deed and act are above nature, will receive Divine assistance beyond natural constraints as well. However, … with the miracle of Hanukkah, had all of the Jewish people not been worthy of a miracle, the Menorah’s lights would not have stayed lit, because the Menorah is communal, and to bring all of the Jewish people up to that level, is a true miracle.

The Mishnah tells us that every day, ten miracles took place in the Beit Hamikdash, but what was so special about the miracle of the candles lit in the Beit Hamikdash by the Hashmonaim? The Gemara teaches that there was a miracle with the Western candle in the Beit Hamikdash, which would last longer than the rest of the lights, “He would light the others from it and with it he would finish.” Seemingly, this is the exact same miracle, which shows that the miracle of Hanukkah is not unique at all.


Had all of the Jewish people not been worthy of a miracle, the Menorah’s lights would not have stayed lit, because the Menorah is communal, and to bring all of the Jewish people up to that level, is a true miracle.
Another question arises from the Gemara, which tells us that, “Women are required to fulfill the miracle of lighting Hanukkah candles, for they, too, were involved in the miracle.” This refers to the miracle of the victory at war, not to the miracle of the oil. Rashi explains, “The Greeks decreed on all young brides to first have relations with the Greek King Tafsar, and by the hand of a woman a miracle occurred.” A similar question can be asked regarding the Tefillah of Al Hanissim, which mentions only the miracle of the victory at war, and not the miracle of the oil.

One possible explanation is that the main part of the miracle was indeed the victory at war, but this miracle can easily appear to us as an act of nature. As such, the miracle of the oil comes to teach us that the victory at war of the few against many was a miraculous event as well.

It essentially teaches us to view our entire lives as part of G-d’s master plan. Rabbi Chanina ben Dossa’s command of, “Let the One who told oil to burn, tell vinegar to burn,” refers to this as well, for just as the burning of vinegar is a miracle, also the burning of oil is a miracle. So, too, the war is a miracle. In war, the fighting looks like ordinary, human effort, and yet we must realize that it is a war controlled by Hashem, and so we must view it as a miracle.

This is the message of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah – the Completion of Ezra’s Work

The Rema writes, “Some say that there is an aspect of a mitzvah to partake in seudot – festive meals in honor of Hanukkah, for it was in those days that the Hanukkat Hamizbeiach – the dedication of the mizbeiach took place.” As such, we see a connection between Hanukkah and the dedication of the mizbeiach in the time of Ezra.

The Gemara brings the words of Reish Lakish, who talks about the inhabitants of Bavel, saying:

'By G-d! I hate you… Had you made yourselves like a wall and had all come up in the days of Ezra, you would have been compared to silver, which no rottenness can ever affect. Now that you have come up like doors, you are like cedar wood, over which rottenness prevails.' 

The Maharasha explains that because very few Jewish people came to the Land of Israel in the time of Ezra, they had to build a surrounding wall to protect themselves from enemies. The aliyah from Babylon in Ezra’s time was incomplete, for the Jewish people did not all come to the Land of Israel as one strong, unified force. This deficiency, however, was corrected in the time of the Hashmonaim, who removed the yoke of outside forces from upon the Jewish people, and began to rule with full authority once again.

From this we see that the holiday of Hanukkah is the completion of the Beit Hamikdash that was built in Ezra’s time, which highlights the connection between the holiday of Hanukkah and the dedication of the mizbeiach.

We find similar circumstances in the episode of Eliyahu on Har Carmel. As we learn in Sefer Melachim, “[Eliyahu] repaired the torn-down mizbeiach of Hashem.” Even though this was done at a time when bamot (private altars) were forbidden, the Gemara teaches that hora’at sha’ah – temporary order of a Navi is permitted in exceptional circumstances, “Even if the Navi tells you, ‘Transgress any one of the commandments of the Torah’ as in the case, for instance, of Eliyahu on Har Carmel, obey him in every respect, in accordance with the needs of the hour.”

The hora’at sha’ah of Eliyahu Hanavi permitted the sacrificing of the korban outside of the Beit Hamikdash, as well as the slaughtering of the korban outside of the Beit Hamikdash.  It was the Navi’s commandment to bring the korban on Har Carmel which ascribed importance to that place as if it was done bamakom asher yivchar Hashem – “in the place that Hashem will choose,” i.e. the Beit Hamikdash.

Rashi expounds upon this passuk:

“[Eliyahu] repaired the torn-down mizbeiach of Hashem” and built a mizbeiach; he reminded the people that the mizbeiach of Hashem should be in their hearts and fluent in their speech, for the mizbeiach was ruined and torn-down, and name of Hashem was nullified from the mouths of the ten tribes.'

As such, the building of the mizbeiach on Har Carmel is the completion of the building of the mizbeiach in the Beit Hamikdash. In the same vein, the victory of the Hashmonaim and the purification of the Beit Hamikdash that they carried out were the completion of the building of the Beit Hamikdash in the time of Ezra. This is the connection between the holiday of Hanukkah and the dedication of the mizbeiach.

An Eternal Testimony that the Shechinah Dwells Among the Jewish People

From the position of the Rema, it seems as if the dedication of the mizbeiach is more important than the holiday of Hanukkah, for it is only the dedication of the mizbeiach that provides the grounds for partaking in seudos mitzvah on Hanukkah, not the holiday itself.

What is the reason for this? It seems that we can explain that the very nature of each service was different. The service of the mizbeiach was a more external service, relevant to the entire Jewish nation; even the Yisraelim (not only priests or levites) were allowed to eat from korbanot sacrificed on the mizbeiach. The service of the Menorah, on the other hand, was an internal service, for only one person was allowed inside, and its light shone only to those who entered the Heichal.  

Therefore, the service of the mizbeiach can be the source of the holiness and of the mitzvah of partaking in seudot on Hanukkah, for it is the source for the consumption of the korbanot, while the lighting of the Menorah operates only in the spiritual realm, shining an inner light.

The Gemara teaches us:

“Outside the Parochet – dividing curtain of the testimony… [Aharon] shall set it up.” Does he require its light? During the entire forty years that the Jewish people traveled in the desert, they traveled only by His light! But it is a testimony to mankind that the Shechinah dwells among the Jewish people."

The Midrash says, “During the entire forty years that the Jewish people traveled in the desert, they did not need a single candle.” Rabbi Shimshon from Shantz expounds upon this, saying, “Even more so in the place of the Shechinah, Whose light shines forth constantly.” The Yerushalmi explains “Until the Aron was taken, the Kohen Gadol would enter and exit by its light; after the Aron was taken, he would feel his way in and enter, then feel his way out and exit.”

From here we learn that the light of the Shechinah would rest upon the Aron, the Holy Ark, and so, in the second Beit Hamikdash, when there was no Aron, and there was no Shechinah as in the first Beit Hamikdash, the light of the Menorah was necessary to light up the Heichal. In the time of the miracle of Hanukkah they merited the light of the Shechinah, despite the lacking of the Aron.

Yet, how indeed does the Menorah testify to the fact that the Shechinah dwells among the Jewish people? The Menorah stands inside the Beit Hamikdash, and no one sees it other than the Kohen who prepares and lights its candles. It is clear from here that the spiritual reality exists even if it is not visible. Neither does anyone see the Kohen light the Menorah, but the very act of its lighting shines light unto the entire world.

This act of lighting is what expresses to the entire world that the Shechinah dwells among the Jewish people. The Mishnah says, “Each and every day, a Heavenly Voice goes forth from Har Chorev, proclaiming and saying, ‘Woe to the people because of their affront to the Torah.’”


The Greeks did not believe in man’s ability to sanctify the mundane. The Jewish people, on the other hand, believe that the spiritual has the potential to completely transform anything material.
The Sefer HaChareidim comments on this, saying that although we don’t physically hear this Heavenly Voice, any time a person has even the slightest thought or desire to do Teshuva for no apparent reason, its source is from the Heavenly Voice. There are spiritual channels of influence and awakening, which stem from this Heavenly Voice. Even if the ears cannot hear, the heart listens, for the spiritual state is indeed reality.

Chazal relate very harshly to anyone who does not believe this. The Mishnah says, “When a person profanes sacred things… even though he may possess Torah and good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come.” The Tiferes Yisrael explains this, saying, “A person who profanes sacred things, does so because he does not believe that there is any holiness in the world; he considers everything to be secular, material and worthless, even the holiest things in the world.” As such, he has no share in the World to Come.

This is one of the fundamental principles of Hanukkah. The Greeks did not believe in man’s ability to sanctify the mundane. The Jewish people, on the other hand, believe that the spiritual has the potential to completely transform anything material. We believe that man’s speech has the power to transform oil, which serves a physical purpose, into something holy.  As we say in the Tefillah of Ma’oz Tzur: Haneiros hallalu kodesh hem – “These candles are holy.” We believe that the spiritual is the reality.

From the power of this spiritual reality, the Menorah serves as a testimony to the world that the Shechinah dwells among the Jewish people. Not a testimony as in two witnesses testifying in court, but rather establishing a reality in the hearts of the entire world.

Translated by Chaya Ben Rachamim. Note: Footnotes have been omitted due to programming constraints.



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