Chanukah - The Essence

Didactic adaptation by Chaim Weinreb Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora

What is Hanukkah?

In Bereita Shabbat (p. 21B), the Gemara asks "What is Hanukkah"? It replies: "When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil in the Temple... A miracle occurred there and they kindled [light] for eight days because of it..."

The Gemara, however, makes no mention of the miracle of the victory of the few over the many; this is mentioned in another source: the "Al Hanissim" prayer:

AL HANISSIM

Key:
The miracle

Victory over the Greeks
Purification of the Temple
Candle lighting

We thank You also for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds and acts of salvation, wrought by You, as well as for the wars which You waged for our fathers in days of old, at this season.
In the days of the Hasmonean, Matityahu son of Yohanan, the High Priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous power of Greece rose up against Your people Israel to make them forgetful of Your Law, and to force them to transgress the statutes of Your will, then did You in your abundant mercy rise up for them in the time of their trouble; You pleaded their cause,
You judged their suit, You avenged their wrong, You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the arrogant into the hands of those that occupied themselves with Your Law: for Yourself You made a great and holy name in Your world, and for Your people Israel You worked a great deliverance and redemption as at this day.
And thereupon Your children came into the oracle of Your house, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary,
kindled lights in Your holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Hanukkah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your great name.

The prayer makes no mention of the miracle of the cruse of oil. It stresses that the miracle was the victory over the Greeks and the cleansing of the Temple, which was commemorated by the lighting of candles.

In that case - what IS the essence of Hanukkah?

The MAHARAL of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Levay ben Bezalel [1525-1609], teaches: "The main reason that the days of Hanukkah were instituted was to celebrate the victory over the Greeks. However, so that it would not seem that the victory was due only to might and heroism, rather than to Divine Providence, the miracle was denoted by the lighting of the Menorah, to show that it was ALL by a miracle, the war as well ..."


Pirsum Haness - Publicizing the Miracle

Hanukiyah at windowWe light the Hanukkah candles in the doorways of homes or in a window in order to publicise the miracle.

  • Do we find Pirsum Haness in any other festival?
  • Why precisely on Hanukkah?
  • Is this related to the nature of the miracle of the cruse of oil?

Discussion:

  • What is the best time of day to publicise? In the morning when people are going out to work? All day? Towards evening when people are coming home from work?
  • Fire and candles have the quality of spreading light. How does this relate to publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah?

Activity:

Prepare an advertisement on the Hanukkah miracle.
What will you write in this advertisement?


Mitzvot and Customs

Sort the following into mitzvot or customs (what are your criteria?)

dreidel Festive meals, dairy foods, dreidel games and other games, lighting candles, eating fried foods, Torah-Reading, the al-hanissim prayer.

sufganiahFind the relation between the mitzvot and customs and the nature of the festival.


The Nature of the Festival

Hanukkah is a festival instituted by the Sages.

"...A year later they designated these days as Yamim Tovim on which praise and thanksgiving were to be uttered" (Shabbat, 21).

Discussion:

  • In what circumstances do people continue talking about an event in their lives in subsequent years?
  • What is the nature of Hanukkah?
    • Is it a historic festival?
    • A national festival?
    • A family festival?
    • A religious festival?
  • How do you celebrate Hanukkah at home?

Hanukkah is celebrated in memory of the victory of Judaism over Hellenism. This conflict between cultures - Judaism on the one hand and Western culture on the other - is a contemporary one we all face as we celebrate our historic victory against Grecian civilization in ancient times.

Materials from this section are available in full from the Education Department and can be ordered from the Bookshop via e-mail bookshop@jafi.org.

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15 Jun 2005 / 8 Sivan 5765 0