First time in English: Hanukkah and the power of prayer

Sixth of the late Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira's illuminating essays on Hanukkah: "We must be happy and sing from a place of holiness and closeness to Hashem, feel the words ' My soul thirsts for You.'"

Harav Avraham Shapira zts"l, | updated: 08:58

Judaism 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 and here. For a film about the revered rabbi, click here.

The Renewal of the Power of Prayer in the Time of the Second Beit Hamikdash

Previously, we discussed the renewal of the power of Torah in the time of the second Beit Hamikdash, and how this fundamental principle is expressed in the holiday of Hanukkah.

In fact, however, during this time period, an additional renewal took place, and that is the establishment of a set nusach – organized arrangement - of Teffilah (prayer). Although the Rambam holds that the obligation of Tefillah is from the Torah, up until this time period, everyone prayed with a different nusach, and it is during this time that the Members of the Great Synagogue established a unified nusach.

This relates to the cessation of Nevu’ah, prophecy, which occurred in that time period as well, for it was then that the need arose for an organized arrangement of the Tefillah, through which a person could connect to Hashem. A person can connect to Hashem either by receiving inspiration from above, as in Nevu’ah, or by way of ascent, as in Tefillah.

The moment Nevu’ah ceased, the set order of Tefillah was established, for Tefillah is an inner worship and connection to Hashem. To counter the externalism of the Greeks, “the  beauty of Yefet,” Noah's son, the Hashmonaim lit the candles of the Menorah, an inner-focused service. Together with the Hanukkah candles, the Jewish people were given additional ways to feel the connection to Hashem through the internalized Torah, and through Tefillah, an inner-oriented service as well. On Hanukkah, we celebrate and thank Hashem for this inner-focused method of serving Him.

The Maharal writes, that in contrast to the four kingdoms which desecrate the name of Heaven, the Jewish people consecrate the name of Heaven, as referred to by the passuk, Am zu yatzarti li, tehillati yisaperu – “This people I formed for Myself; they shall recite My praise.” Tehillati clearly indicates any Tefillah which describes the praises of Hashem. Yet, the word Tehillah has an additional meaning. The Gemara tells us that the passuk Mi yimallel gevuros Hashem, yashmi’ah kol tehillato – “Who can narrate the mighty deeds of Hashem? [Who] can make heard all of His praise?” comes to teach us, “To whom is it proper to teach to cite the praises of Hashem? To a person who can recount all of His praises.” The Gemara is referring here to the entire Torah, as Rashi explains, “A person who is an expert in Tanach, Mishnah, Halakhot, and Midrash.” The praises of Hashem are Tefillah and Torah, and the role of the Jewish people is to thank Hashem through Tefillah, and through Torah, the ultimate way to cling to Hashem, and to thank Hashem for bestowing these great treasures upon us.

The lighting of the Hanukkah candles is a continuous, eternal testimony to the strength of the bond between the Jewish people and Hashem, “a testimony to the fact that the Shechinah dwells among the Jewish people.”

Days of Joy and Praise

The Rambam writes that, “It is due to this that the Chachamim of that generation declared that these eight days, beginning on the 25th of Kislev, shall be days of happiness and praise.” Although there is no obligation to conduct seudot, festive meals, during this time, there is an obligation to be happy and praise Hashem. One of the p’sukim of Hallel says, Zeh hayom asah Hashem, nagilah v’nismichah vo – “This is the day that Hashem made; we shall exult and rejoice thereon.” On this day, it is important to be happy. Chazal look into this passuk more deeply, and ask:

We don’t know what to be happy about, the day, or Hashem. Shlomo Hamelech came and explained the passuk, Nagillah v’nism’chah bach – “We shall exult and rejoice in You” – in You, Hashem, in Your salvation, in Your Torah, in fear of You.

We must feel the soul’s thirst, and when a person does so, he becomes close to Hashem. When a person is thirsty, he drinks to satisfy his thirst, and when a person’s soul is thirsty, he satisfies his thirst with holiness, and tries to achieve closeness to Hashem.
Certain aspects of happiness and closeness to Hashem are accessible by means of His salvation, His Torah, and in fear of Him. When we thank Hashem for His salvation, learn His Torah, or fear Him, we become close to Him.

We must not act from a place of externality, but from a place of closeness to Hashem. We must be happy and sing from a place of holiness and closeness to Hashem, and in song, to feel the passuk – Tzama nafshi l’elokim, kama lecha b’sari  – “My soul thirsts for You, my body yearns for You.”

We must feel the soul’s thirst, and when a person does so, he becomes close to Hashem. When a person is thirsty, he drinks to satisfy his thirst, and when a person’s soul is thirsty, he satisfies his thirst with holiness, and tries to achieve closeness to Hashem. The holiday of Hanukkah is the optimal time to achieve this closeness to Hashem. Hanukkah is the holiday of the Oral Torah, and it is at this auspicious time that we can become close to Hashem’s Torah, salvation, and fear of Him, and through this, to Hashem Himself. To testify to the world, but first of all to oneself, that the Shechinah dwells among us.

Hanukkah – the Continuation of Succot and Simchas Torah

Based on this, we can understand the connection between the holidays of Hanukkah and Succot. The same way Hoshana Rabbah is established as a day of final judgment, Hanukkah also presents a final opportunity for judgment, due to the happiness present on these days. The time of Succot – Zman Simchaseinu –  time of our great happiness - is called that as it complements and completes the fast of Yom Kippur. Further, the depth of the relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem is revealed, in their happiness over their atonement before Hashem on Yom Kippur and over the miracles that He performed for them when they left Egypt and in the desert, until they came to the Land of Israel.

At this time of happiness, the final judgment for the Jewish people ends, for it is then that they are worthy of being judged favorably. We have seen in the Yerushalmi that Hashem judges the Jewish people when they are involved in mitzvos. Just as the day of Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Succot, presents a day of final judgment due to the happiness of the time period, also the holiday of Hanukkah presents a time of final judgment, due to the happiness of the time, in which the Jewish people rejoice in their salvation from the Greeks.

The Mishnah hints to this, saying that, “from Shavuos until Succot, one may bring Bikkurim and recite [the accompanying p’sukim]; from Succot until Hanukkah, a person may bring Bikkurim but does not recite [the accompanying p’sukim].” The beginning of the building of the Mishkan took place on Succot as well, after Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Har Sinai on Yom Kippur, and it was finished being built on the 25th of Kislev.

The Maharal writes that when important things happen at a certain time, it is not a coincidence.

The holidays of Hanukkah and Succot have much in common. Both holidays have the concept of “seeing.” Regarding the olei regel – pilgrims to the Beit Hamikdash on Succot, the Gemara says, “‘On the pure shulchan’ teaches that we raise [the table in the Temple] and present the lechem hapanim, showbreadto the olei regel, and say to them, ‘see how beloved you are to Hashem.’”

It is very important to see the lechem hapanim, an expression of Hashem’s love for us, and simultaneously, for the olei regel to see the Menorah, located in the same place. On Hanukkah, as well, the concept of seeing is very important. We say the bracha of Al hanissim when we see the Hanukkah candles, which testify to the love Hashem has for the Jewish people, putting His Shechinah among them. Therefore, even a person who does not actually light the candles makes this bracha when he sees them, as established by the Shulchan Aruch.

It is also likely that on Hanukkah, the Shulchan was dedicated anew, for the Menorah and the Shulchan are interdependent.

Even the argument in the Gemara between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai regarding the number of Hanukkah candles to light each day is related to Succot.

The reasoning behind Beit Shamai’s position correlates to the number of bull-sacrifices brought over Succot [which decreased in number every day], while the reasoning behind Beit Hillel’s position relates to the concept that in areas of holiness we should increase and not decrease.

From here we see the source for the idea brought in Sefer Hamaccabim, that the holiday of Hanukkah is celebrated just like the holiday of Succot with the four species.

As we have mentioned, Hanukkah is the holiday of the Oral Torah, as well as the continuation of Simchas Torah.

  • There are 70 days from Succot until Hanukkah, and it seems clear that these days correlate to the 70 bull-sacrifices brought over Succot.
  • Hanukkah is eight days long, which corresponds to the level of Torah, which is 8. The number 7 corresponds to the level of nature, while the number 8 corresponds to the level above nature.
  • On Simchas Torah there is the unification of Hashem and the Jewish people. Chazal tell us that on Shmini Atzeret, we have a small seudah with Hashem, as it were, in which we sacrifice only one bull. On Shmini Atzeres, we become unified with Hashem, and this is the holiday of Torah. On Hanukkah, as well, we experience the unity of Hashem and the Jewish people, as it is a “testimony to the world that the Shechinah dwells among the Jewish people.”

May it be the will of Hashem that all of the world see eye to eye the Shechinah dwell among the Jewish people, Amen.