Chanuka: Restoration and Innovation
Based on a sicha by Harav
Translated by Kaeren Fish
We tend to perceive the
miracle of Chanuka as the restoration of past glory: the success of the Jewish
nation in surviving – both physically and spiritually; in preserving its
character, and in maintaining its values and its tradition.
This perception is well
grounded in one of the central motifs in Chazal’s understanding of the
events of Chanuka: the motif of purity.
Thus, for example, the whole story of the single cruse of oil centers
around the concepts of impurity and purity, and in the “al ha-nissim”
addition to the Amida prayer and to Birkat Ha-mazon, we similarly
emphasize that the Hasmoneans “purified Your Temple.”
The concept of “purity”
(as opposed to the concept of “holiness” – see Ra’avad’s “Sha’ar Ha-Kedusha”)
is primarily a negative one: it is the absence of impurity. The miracle of Chanuka follows the
same model: it consists essentially of destroying impurity, removing the idol
from the Temple, and restoring
Israel to its original state and status.
In this sense, Chanuka
may be viewed as a festival with a conservative message – whether the physical
rehabilitation of the Temple, or the
spiritual restoration the nation’s religious situation.
examination of the name “Chanuka” and its root (ch-n-k) reveal that its
essence is exactly the opposite: it represents not a return or restoration of a
previous state, but rather the creation of a new framework and its
implementation. For example, among
those who are exempt from serving in the army to wage war, the Torah lists “the
man who has built a new house but has not yet consecrated it (ve-lo chanakho)”
(Devarim 20:5) – i.e., he has not yet begun to live in it (as Rashi
explains – “chinukh is an expression of beginning”). The same idea is to be found in the
sacrifices offered by the princes of the tribes.
When the Mishkan is established, ushering in a new stage and
direction in the relationship between God and Israel, the sacrifices of the princes are referred to as
the “chanukat ha-mizbeach” (consecration of the altar) (Bamidbar
7:84). Chazal use the term in
a similar way when they refer to the sacrifice offered by a kohen when he
commences his term of service as a “minchat chinukh” (offering of
This note of newness
and renewal, as arising from the etymology of the name “Chanuka,” goes deeper. An example is to be found in Ramban’s
answer (at the beginning of parashat Beha’alotekha) to Chazal’s
famous question: “Why is the parasha about the menora situated
immediately after the consecration of the princes?” He writes:
However, the intention of this narrative is to point to an allusion from this
parasha to the consecration by lights which took place in the
through Aharon and his sons – meaning, the Hasmonean, the Kohen Gadol, and his
sons. I have found reference to this
(allusion) in Megillat Setarim, by Rabbeinu Nissim, who mentions this legend and
says: “I have seen in the Midrash… The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe:
‘Speak to Aharon and say to him’ – There will be another chanuka
(consecration), with the kindling of lights, where I shall bring about for
Israel, through your sons, miracles and deliverance and a chanuka that
will be named after you – and that is the Chanuka of the Hasmoneans.”
And it is for this reason that this parasha (Aharon’s kindling of the
menora) appears immediately after the consecration of the altar (through the
sacrifices of the princes).
Ramban highlights the
parallel between the second Chanuka and the first. This tells us that something of the
character of the original consecration (as described in the Torah) is also
manifest in the second consecration (Chanuka - at the time of the
Temple). In other words, just as the
consecration of the Mishkan was a “Chanuka” of inauguration, of newness,
so the re-dedication by the Hasmoneans likewise includes a note of newness and
of new light.
To illustrate the two
aspects that we have discussed, let us examine a similar event from another
festival instituted by the Sages – Purim.
Once the terrible threat of annihilation had passed, the Jewish nation
seemingly returned to its original situation.
However, here too Chazal detect a deeper message in what had
happened. As the Gemara teaches (Shabbat
“And they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Shemot 19:17)… This teaches
that the Holy One, blessed be He, held the mountain over them like a cask and
said to them: If you accept the Torah, well and good; if not, there you will
die. Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov said:
This represents a great defense as to the Torah (Rashi: that if God would summon
them to judgment – “Why have you not observed that which you took upon
yourselves?” – they would be able to answer that they accepted it under duress).
Rabba said: Nevertheless, the generation in the days of Achashverosh accepted it
anew (Rashi: out of love, in light of the miracle that had been performed for
them), as it is written, “They Jews upheld and accepted” (Esther 9:27) –
they upheld that which they had previously accepted.
In the miracle of
Purim, Chazal detected a re-acceptance of the Torah, with a new dimension
of commitment and of self-definition as servants of God. Their acceptance was no longer a
coerced, but rather an acceptance of Torah out of absolutely free choice, with
new resolve, and with a new dimension of fear of Heaven. This was no longer a “great defense”
or “great excuse” concerning the Torah, but rather “the generation accepted it
in the days of Achashverosh”: out of love and spiritual empowerment.
The reestablishment of
routine that seems to be reflected in the conclusion of the Megilla – “King
Achasheverosh placed a tax upon the land and the islands of the sea” (Esther
10:1) – speaks only of Achashverosh’s administration; Kenesset Yisrael,
meanwhile, have “upheld and accepted” the covenant. The dubious religious standards
evident at the beginning of the Megilla have disappeared. Am Yisrael has undergone a
voluntary awakening and strengthening, with a renewed and fresh connection to
God, a new perspective and a clear vision the likes of which were unknown to
them prior to their encounter with the terrible danger which has now passed.
What happened on Purim
on the physical level, happened on Chanuka on the spiritual level. This was not just success in
preserving the existing situation, but something more – a new and creative step
This sense of renewal
finds expression in three spheres.
First, here too – as in
the case of Purim – the experience of facing existential danger left its mark. The possibility of spiritual conquest
and destruction brought the Jewish nation to greater depth and intensity in
their observance of Torah, lending their Divine service a spirit of renewal and
However, there was more
than an expansion and deepening of what already existed. There was also a real addition and
innovation in the sphere of rabbinically-ordained commandments. While the existential foundation of
praise and thanks to God certainly does exist within the Written Law, Chazal
created their own new entity on Chanuka: a new commandment, with all of the
attending details and specifications.
This in itself entails
two innovations. One is the actual
phenomenon of the creation of a rabbinically-ordained positive commandment; the
other is the reinforcement and emphasis of the authority of Chazal in
general – representing the basis for other festivals and other commandments. It is apparently no coincidence that
the subject of Chanuka candles is where we find the Talmudic wrestling with the
idea of reciting the words “and He has commanded us” in the “she-hechiyanu”
blessing with regard to commandments ordained not by the Torah but by the
Where did He command us [concerning such commandments]?... From [the words], “You shall not
turn” [from the sages’ commands] (Devarim 17:11)! (Shabbat 23a)
This aspect of
innovation, with respect to rabbinically-ordained commandments, bears
significance that transcends by far both the actual introduction of a new
commandment and the reinforcement of rabbinical authority. This represents a new dimension to
the system of commandments as a whole.
This new dimension
finds expression in Chanuka in a third sphere.
The Rambam, at the beginning of his Laws of Chanuka (chapter 3), writes:
…Until the God of our fathers had compassion for them and delivered them from
the hands [of the Greek kings], and saved them.
And the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, grew mighty and they killed them,
and they delivered Israel from their
hands, and established a king from among the kohanim, and the
Israelite monarchy was restored for more than two hundred years, until the destruction of the
The Rambam views one of
the achievements of Chanuka as being manifest on the political level. His formulation implies that prior to
the Hasmonean victory the Israelite monarchy was practically non-existent, and
that at that time Am Yisrael received a boost to their political
Thus, the miracle of
Chanuka catalyzed a most significant growth spurt, on an unprecedented scale,
within Judaism – in terms of development of the Oral Law, in terms of rabbinic
exegesis, and in term of legislation.
In this sense, what we publicize on Chanuka is not just the miracle that
happened, but also the far-reaching growth that it brought in its wake.
(This sicha was delivered at the yeshiva’s mesibat
Chanuka, 5760 .)