Hanukkah - Getting the Point

Although it goes without saying that we must perform all the misswoth to the utmost of our ability, we must never allow precise Halakhic observance, the 'trees,' to cloud our perception of the 'forest,' the Torah's underlying message and purpose.

Rabbi David Bar-Hayim,

Rabbi Bar-Hayim
Rabbi Bar-Hayim
Arutz 7
Why do we Jews celebrate Hanukkah? What's it all about? Many of us tend to concentrate on questions such as whether to light candles or use oil, by the door or by the window - and somehow, we miss the point. Although it goes without saying that we must perform all the misswoth to the utmost of our ability, we must never allow precise Halakhic observance, the 'trees,' to cloud our perception of the 'forest,' the Torah's underlying message and purpose.

To better understand the holiday, we need to review the historical events that we celebrate 2,170 years later.

The Story of Hanukkah

After the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE), the empire he had carved out was divided among his generals. The area known as Yehudhah (Judea) first fell into the hands of the Ptolemaic Empire, centred in Egypt, and later became part of the Greco-Syrian Empire (198 BCE). The inevitable result was that Greek thinking and culture began to make inroads into the culture and life of the Jewish homeland.

By 175 BCE, when the evil Antiokhus Epiphanes ('God personified' in Greek!) rose to the throne, Hellenism had taken root within the Jewish people. The Hellenists - a significant minority among the Jews, drawn almost exclusively from the wealthy elite of Jerusalem and the large coastal cities - saw Greek culture as the most advanced and enlightened of the day, and turned their backs on their God and their people. Such betrayal always has its rewards. These 'Jews' were feted by the Greco-Syrian government and were often appointed to positions of power within the colonial administration; the position of 'tax collector' was particularly coveted, which afforded the opportunity to rob and extort with official sanction. These traitors constantly fought for the minds and hearts of the populace, with not insignificant success (Macabees I, 1:11).

For the hard-core Hellenists, however, this was not enough. Envisioning a New Middle East, they petitioned the king to adopt a programme calculated to undermine Jewish life and culture. If their Jewish brethren did not recognize the 'beauty' of Greek 'progress' and insisted on remaining true to their God and His Torah - even at the price of being out of step with the rest of the Empire - then they would simply have to help them see the light.

Antiokhus was only too ready to comply and the new government policy was proclaimed. Circumcision, Shabbath observance and Torah study were outlawed. Women whose babies were discovered to be circumcised were put to death together with their sons. An idol of the Greek god Zeus was erected in the Miqdash (Temple). Torah scrolls were sought out and torched. Many Jews chose to die a martyr's death rather than transgress the Word of God (Macabees I, 1:44-64). For a time, it seemed that the anti-Torah forces would prevail.

This was the state of affairs when a force of Greek soldiers arrived in the town of Modhi'in to enforce the edict requiring every Jewish settlement to sacrifice on a Greek altar. The townspeople were forcibly gathered and Matithyahu, the head of the clan of Kohanim who resided in the town, was approached by a Greek official to 'do the honours'.

"Heaven forbid - I and my sons shall follow the example of our forefathers. We shall never forsake the Torah," he replied (Macabees I, 2:20-21). Another Jew, however, who was willing to do the dirty work (for a price) was called upon.

As this Jew was about to desecrate HaShem's Name in public, Matithyahu decided that enough was enough; it was now clear beyond doubt that the only choice left was to live as an idol-worshipping Greek or die as a Jew. Matithyahu resolved that if he must die, he would die fighting:
And Matithyahu was zealous [for HaShem], being greatly perturbed; in his just outrage he ran and slaughtered the man on the altar. He then killed the official in charge and destroyed the altar. He acted zealously for the Torah, like Pinhas did to Zimri Ben Salu, and he cried: 'All those who are zealous for the Torah, who are faithful to the Covenant [with HaShem] - follow me! And he and his sons fled to the mountains, leaving all their belongings behind." (Macabees I, 2:15-28)
Thus began the Hashmonean revolt. The rest, as they say, is history: in a campaign that lasted three years, an irregular army of untrained peasant-soldiers, poorly armed and forced to live off the land, led by Matithyahu's son Yehudhah, succeeded in driving the Greco-Syrian forces out of Jerusalem and much of the country. They reinstated the laws of the Torah, and actively persecuted the Hellenist turn-coats.

The victorious Jewish forces marched to Jerusalem - which the Greeks and Hellenists had declared off limits to Jews - and entered the Miqdash. The sight that met their eyes was not a pretty one: the Temple was desolate, the altar had been desecrated and weeds grew in the cracks of the stone floors.

It took eight days to restore some semblance of order, rebuild the mizbeah and produce the necessary vessels for the Temple service (Meghilath Ta'anith, 23). On the 25th day of the ninth month (Kislew), they rose early in the morning and performed the first sacrifice that had been offered in three years:
And the people fell on their faces, and prayed, and praised HaShem for having granted them victory. And they celebrated the re-dedication of the Altar for eight days... and the rejoicing of the people was very great; the ignominy of foreign domination was removed. And Yehudhah, his brethren, and all of the Assembly of Israel instituted that these Days of Rededication of the Altar be observed annually for eight days, beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislew...." (Macabees I, 4:55-58)
A letter was sent by Yehudhah and the Sanhedrin to the Jews of Egypt, informing them of the new festival:
May HaShem be praised for bringing the evil-doers low. We are preparing to celebrate, on the 25th day of Kislew, the Festival of the Purification of the Miqdash. We inform you so that you too shall celebrate the Festival of Sukkoth...." (Macabees 2, 1:17-18; This unusual epithet is clarified later: "And they celebrated the eight days with rejoicing as the days of Sukkoth, for they recalled the dire straits in which they had been some time before during the Festival of Sukkoth, when they had been living in the mountains and in caves like animals...." )
This is the essential story of Hanukkah: the successful revolt of God-fearing Jews, dedicated to the Torah of their forefathers, against those 'Jews' and non-Jews determined to eradicate their way of life.

The revolt succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Not only did they restore the primacy of Torah culture and practice in the State of Yehudhah, but for the first time in centuries, the Jewish nation was once again sovereign and able to determine its own destiny. The historic significance of this victory cannot be overstressed. It is quite likely that without the successful armed revolt led by Matithyahu and his sons, we would have disappeared as a people more than 2,000 years ago.

The Miracle of Hanukkah and Hallel

It is this miraculous salvation and victory to which the Talmudh refers when it asks: "Why do we recite Hallel on Hanukkah?" The Talmudh replies: "Because of the nes [miracle]. If so, why is Hallel not recited on Purim in commemoration of the nes? Hallel is not recited for a nes that takes place outside the Land [seeing that we remain in Exile, it is only a partial salvation]." ('Arakhin 10b)

The question is: What miracle of Purim? No supernatural event is recorded in the Book of Esther; one occurrence follows another and cause leads to effect in a seemingly unremarkable fashion. In point of fact, the Book of Esther is the only book of the Tanakh in which the name of HaShem does not even appear. What, then, is the miracle of Purim to which the Talmudh refers?

It is a common misconception that the Hebrew term nes necessarily refers to a supernatural event. The truth is that the very same word also means "flag", "banner" or "standard". "And HaShem said to Moses: 'Make a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard [nes]; and it shall be that anyone who was bitten, when he sees it, shall live.'" (Bemidhbar / Numbers 21:8) And in Tehilim (Psalms) we read: "You have given a banner [nes] to them that fear You." (60:6)

Something that stands out from its surroundings, an object or an event of which people take particular notice, is a nes - be it a banner or flag designed to attract attention, or a supernatural miracle that stands apart as an extraordinary occurrence.

The victory of the Jewish People against a great empire, against all odds and logic, is the outstanding and singular event to which the Talmudh refers. This is confirmed by the text of Al HaNissim ('For the Miracles'), which we add to our prayers during Hanukkah; the miracle of the oil is left unmentioned.

As opposed to the miracle of our salvation and victory, which we recall by reciting Hallel, the miracle of the oil is commemorated by the lighting of the candles (see the Babylonian Talmudh, Shabbath 21b, and Maharsha, ad loc). The miracle of the oil was a relatively minor event, and would not have warranted decreeing a new holiday in and of itself. Coming, however, on the heels of such history-shaping events - which made it possible once again for the Jewish People to live in accordance with HaShem's Torah in the Land of their Fathers - the miracle of the oil underscored the fact that all the events of Hanukkah stem from the same Divine source (Ner Misswah, Maharal of Prague, p.22).

When viewed through the eyes of Torah - whereby all events and happenings are forever in the Hands of HaShem, God of Israel - the 'miracles' of Purim and Hanukkah, the prevailing of the Jews over their enemies with the hidden Hand of HaShem helping those who help themselves, are miracles indeed.

With the clarity afforded by an authentic Torah perspective, HaShem's workings within the apparently 'normal' events of this world are truly the greatest miracle of all.



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