Have you ever wondered where the nameחנוכה – Chanukah comes from and what it means? The Sages who instituted Chanukah as a holiday created the name and it is a combination of two words: חנו כ”ה , which means they camped or rested (from war) –כ”ה 25 – on the 25th day of the month of Kislev.
This raises an interesting question. Why did the Sages set the name to celebrate the day that the war ended instead of a name that would celebrate the victory over their enemies? In choosing this name, the Sages sought to stress that the reason for the war in the first place was not to gain superiority over the conquering Greeks. It was so they would be left alone to perform the commandments, the mitzvot, without interference. The Greeks had forbidden the Jews from keeping the Shabbat, doing ritual circumcision, learning Torah, and sanctifying the new moon, and all the Jews wanted was to be left alone to once again fulfill their mitzvot.
This explains why the Maccabees went to war in the first place. It is commonly thought that the Maccabees were trained in combat and thus were able to defeat the mighty Greek armies. The reality is that 12 Maccabees were all the holy and righteous sons of Mattityahu the high priest. The name Maccabee derives from the first letter of four words of a verse in the Torah )Exodus 15:11(:מי כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִם יְדֹוָד Who is like You among the heavenly powers Hashem!
This was their fighting motto. “We realize that we are powerless against the mighty Greek armies. It is You Hashem Who is mighty and who brings us victory.”
What were they thinking? Did the twelve of them think they stood a chance against the tens of thousands of trained Greek warriors? They would be going to their certain deaths!
Maimonides writes in the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah (5:1)
א) כל בית ישראל מצווין על קדוש השם הגדול הזה, שנאמר ונקדשתי בתוך בני ישראל, ומוזהרין שלא לחללו, שנאמר ולא תחללו את שם קדשי. כיצד? כשיעמוד עובד כוכבים ויאנוס את ישראל לעבור על אחת מכל מצות האמורות בתורה או יהרגנו, יעבור ואל יהרג, שנאמר במצות אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם: וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם. ואם מת ולא עבר הרי זה מתחייב בנפשו
1) Every Jewish person is commanded to sanctify Hashem’s Holy Name as it says (Leviticus 22:32) “And I will be sanctified from among the Jewish nation.” We are as well warned against desecrating it, as it says (ibid) “Do not desecrate My Holy Name.” How is that? When a gentile forces a Jewish person to transgress any of the commandments of the Torah or to forfeit his life, he should transgress and not give up his life.
ב) במה דברים אמורים? בשאר מצות, חוץ מעבודת כוכבים וגלוי עריות ושפיכת דמים. אבל שלש עבירות אלו, אם יאמר לו עבור על אחת מהן או תהרג– יהרג ואל יעבור
2) This applies to all the commandments except the following three – idol worship, adultery and murder. In these three cases if he is given the ultimatum of transgressing or losing his life, he must give up his life.
ג) וכל הדברים האלו שלא בשעת הגזרה; אבל בשעת הגזרה, והוא שיעמוד מלך רשע כנבוכדנצר וחביריו ויגזור גזרה על ישראל לבטל דתם או מצוה מן המצות, יהרג ואל יעבור אפילו על אחת משאר מצות בין נאנס בתוך עשרה בין נאנס בינו לבין עובדי כוכבים
3) These rules are applicable when there is no decree against keeping the Torah. But if an evil king like Nevuchadnetzar and his cohorts would arise and decree that the Jewish people are not permitted to keep any one of the mitzvot in the Torah, a Jew should give his life and not transgress any of the mitzvot.
This was the situation in Israel under Greek dominion at the time of the Chanukah story. Since the goal of the Greeks was to stop the Jewish people from keeping the Torah, they were obligated to give their lives to keep any of the mitzvot, i.e., Milah, Shabbat, or even Rosh Chodesh.
The Maccabees knew that their days were numbered. It wouldn’t be long before they would have to give up their lives rather than forego mitzvah performance. They realized that if they didn’t fight against the Greeks and break their stranglehold over them, soon there would be nobody left to keep the mitzvot. With no option other than to fight the Greek armies, they would do what they had to do and pray to Hashem to help them. Because they were pure and sincere in their efforts to save the Torah and the Jewish people, Hashem responded to their prayers, and they miraculously defeated armies far stronger and greater than they.
This is what we speak about in the special prayer על הניסים – Al Hanissim -added to the Birkat Hamazon and the Amida, to be said during Chanukah.
וְאַתָּה בְּרַחֲמֶיךָ הָרַבִּים עָמַדְתָּ לָהֶם בְּעֵת צָרָתָם. רַבְתָּ אֶת רִיבָם. דַנְתָּ אֶת דִּינָם. נָקַמְתָּ אֶת נִקְמָתָם. מָסַרְתָּ גִבּוֹרִים בְּיַד חַלָּשִׁים. וְרַבִּים בְּיַד מְעַטִּים
And You, in Your infinite mercy, stood for them in their time of trouble, You fought their wars for them, You judged their judgements, You took revenge for them, You gave the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few.
With the defeat completed on the 25th of the month of Kislev, the joy did not stem from the military victory of an army trained for war that had vanquished its enemy. The victory was a miracle, and no one on our side ever expected to win. The rejoicing centered around the miracle that Hashem had brought and that, from now on, the Jewish people would be permitted to keep the commandments again without risking their lives.
The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat (21b) explains why the Sages instituted the holiday of Chanukah.
מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן בכ”ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה
For which miracle did the Sages establish the holiday of Chanukah? (The miracle of the victory, or the miracle of the lights) The Sages taught: On the 25th day of Kislev, the eight- day holiday of Chanukah begins, and one is not allowed to eulogize or fast on these days. For when the Greeks entered the sanctuary, they defiled all of the oil, and when the House of the Chashmonaim was victorious, they searched and could find only one bottle of oil which they found in the seal of the High Priest. There was only enough in it to light for one night, but a miracle occurred and they lit from it for 8 days. The next year they established it as a holiday with praise and thanksgiving to Hashem.
How come the Sages established the holiday because of the miracle of the candles and not the miracle of the war?
There is a very famous question about Chanukah posed by Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575) in his commentary Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 670:1) on the Tur.
Because the one undefiled bottle of oil that they found had enough oil for one night, its burning the first night was not a miracle. The miracle started the second night and continued for the next seven nights until pure oil could be produced. So why is the holiday eight days when the miracle was really for only seven?
A book titled נר למאה – Ner leMeah contains 100 answers to this one question! By now there are probably many more. I will share some of the most popular answers.
- The first day, the 25th of Kislev, was established to commemorate the miracle of the war. The remaining seven days commemorate the miracle of the oil. According to this answer, the miracle of the war was noted, although not explicitly.
- That they found the one bottle of pure oil in itself was a miracle. Therefore, one day is to commemorate that miracle.
- They divided the oil into eight different portions, one for each day, expecting it to last only a few hours. Miraculously, it lasted all night, but the miracle was evident even the very first night.
- The oil in the menorah was never consumed by the candles. After the candles had been lit all night, in the morning the cups were still full. Once again, the miracle was evident even on the first night.
- After filling up all the bowls of the menorah with oil, the jar was still full.
- The Greeks denied the existence of anything that could not be observed, sensed with one of the five senses, measured, or experimented with. The Greeks believed only in nature and sought to uproot any belief in an omnipotent invisible god active in the world. They had succeeded in luring many Jewish people to their way of thinking. According to the Greek way of thought, there is no possibility for a miracle to occur. The forces of nature answer to nobody and must obey their own inherent and intrinsic laws.
The miracle of the oil showed that Hashem controls even the common phenomenon of oil burning. This lesson covers all the laws of nature and puts them squarely under Hashem’s control. The Ramban – Nachmanides, calls nature “Hashem’s most constant miracle.” Because we see it all the time, we get used to it and think nothing of it. But the reality is that every time the sun comes up in the morning, it is an act of Hashem. The miracle of the oil successfully dispelled the incorrect Greek philosophy and claimed back many detractors.
The Sages established the holiday of Chanukah on the miracle of the oil because it could not be explained through natural causes. Once it was clearly established that Hashem is behind nature, this idea could be extended to other areas as well, like the war. Without the miracle of the candles, people would have explained the victory in natural terms, such as “The Maccabees were extremely powerful people and their might alone did it.” “They were much better trained than the Greek armies.”
There is a deeper understanding of the piece of Talmud quoted above that I heard from one of my teachers, Rabbi Chaim Kreiswirth זצ”ל .
A strong philosophical debate was taking place between the Greeks and the Jews. The Greeks claimed we live in a WISIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) world. Spirituality and holiness are the figment of man’s imagination, while wisdom is something “real” that we determine through investigation and research. The Jews, on the other hand, assert that holiness and spirituality are the reality and that wisdom is something that we learned from the Creator, Hashem.
The Greek philosophy and approach to science attracted many of the Jews in the time of the Second Temple. It seemed rigorous. You can prove its truth by experiments. Man can fly to the moon. We can cure illnesses. How could anybody argue with science? The reasoning is powerful, and it caused a lot of Jews to abandon the Torah perspective on life and become Greeks. Of course none of this contradicts the reality of Hashem, it just uses and explores the amazing world Hashem created.
In Jewish thought, “oil” is often a metaphor for the Jewish soul. A verse in Proverbs (20:27) states: כז) נֵר יְדֹוָד נִשְׁמַת אָדָם Hashem’s candle is man’s soul. Hence, when the Talmud tells us that that “the Greeks defiled all the oil,” it is also informing us that they contaminated the souls of the Jewish people, successfully influencing their worldview and swaying their perception of reality to the Greek way of thinking. The only oil left pure was one small bottle found in the seal of the High Priest. Only a small group of souls remained untainted by the Greek philosophy and were still pure Torah souls, still having the “seal of the High Priest” on them, that is, they still had the approval of the greatest Torah Jews, Moshe and the Elders. This handful of holy people were not sure themselves that they were still pure and unaffected by the Greek philosophy. If their souls had been tainted and affected, the Torah that emanated from them would also, by definition, be sullied and adulterated. This would doom the future of the Torah because only pure Torah is eternal. The oil miraculously burning for the eight days indicated to the Sages that they were still pure and that their Torah would continue to light the Jewish nation in the future. We are witnesses to this in that we have the privilege of learning the same Holy Torah that they endangered their lives to save.
The miracle of the flames of that menorah in the Temple, lasting many times longer than their natural ability, also symbolizes the Jewish nation. That we are alive and thriving today after so many attempts to erase its every last member from the face of the earth, reveals a miracle of the greatest proportions. Rabbi Yaakov Emden in the preface to his Siddur exclaims that the miracle of the existence of the Jewish people till today, is a miracle greater than all of the miracles that Hashem performed in Egypt. No logical explanation can account for it.
The eternity of the Jewish people also has this caveat, that we remain loyal to the Torah with no adulteration. Similar to the Jews in the times of the Greeks, we must be vigilant to keep the Torah pure of the prevalent ideas and philosophies that threaten to infiltrate, contaminate and weaken our perfect Torah.
A friend of mine who lives in Brooklyn, NY, once told me the following story that happened to him.
His neighbor across the street, a very religious Catholic, would annually display on his front lawn his many Xmas decorations. My friend noticed that, every year, his dear neighbor would add a new item to the display. It was kind of comical, because, as you may know, front lawns in Brooklyn are about 8’ by 8’. So, to cram something new in every year was quite a feat. One day, as my friend was passing his neighbor on the sidewalk, his neighbor turned to him and said.
“You know, with everything I put on my front lawn, I still can’t beat that one little candle you put in your window!”
That one little candle carries with it so much depth. It carries thousands of years of history of a people persecuted, tortured, and murdered, and is yet still burning strong and lighting up the world. This is something that we should think about as we light our Chanukah candles this and every year.