Classical Q&A on Chanukah

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Classical Q&A

1. What does the festival of Chanukah commemorate?[1]

Chanukah commemorates the miracles that occurred during the reign of the Greek-Syrian Empire [The Seleucid Empire] in times of the second Temple. They made decrees against Jews, preventing them from following Torah and Mitzvos. Their money and daughters were used at the Greeks’ discretion. They entered the Heichal of the Temple and defiled its contents. Hashem then had mercy on His people and saved us from their hands. He gave strength to the small army of the Chashmonaim Kohen family to battle and overcome the great Greek-Syrian army. The day of the Syrian army’s final defeat was on the 25th of Kislev.[2] When the Jews entered the Temple they discovered a single flask of pure oil. This oil was enough to last for one day. A miracle occurred, and the oil lasted for eight days, which was the amount of time it took them to retrieve more pure oil. For this reason, the Sages in that generation decreed upon the Jews to annually celebrate eight days of Chanukah beginning from the 25th of Kislev.

The inauguration of the Temple: Some Poskim[3] explain that the festival was established [not due to the miracle of the candles but rather] in celebration of the completion of the Tabernacle in the times of Moses, and the reinaugurated of the altar by the Chashmonaim after its defilement by the Greeks, which took place on the 25th of Kisleiv. See next!

2. The meaning of the name Chanukah:[4]

Several interpretations are offered as to the meaning behind the name Chanukah:

  1. The name Chanukah is a Hebrew abbreviation for “They rested from their enemies on the 25th of Kislev.”
  2. Chanukah means inauguration, implying that at that time, the Temple and altar were reinaugurated after their defilement by the Greeks.[5] According to this explanation, the festival was established in celebration of this inauguration [and not due to the miracle of the candles]. It also hints to the inauguration of the Tabernacle in the times of Moses, as the Mishkan was complete on the 25th of Kisleiv and was not inaugurated until the 1st of Nissan.[6] Hashem therefore repaid the month of Kisleiv by having the reinauguration of the defiled Temple and altar take place on this day.[7] Thus, it is considered as if the original inauguration in the Mishkan occurred on 25th of Kislev and it is this event that we are celebrating.[8] Some[9] suggest it commemorates the inauguration of the Temple in the times of Chagaiy the prophet, during the building of the second Temple.
  3. The name Chanukah stands for the words “ח נרות והלכה כבית הלל”, which means eight candles are lit as rules Beis Hillel.[10]

3. Is Chanukah a Biblical or Rabbinical holiday?

There are opinions[11] who rule that all holidays instituted to commemorate a miracle of G-d, have Biblical status. Accordingly, they rule that the commemoration of Chanukah and Purim are of Biblical origin. Nevertheless, even according to this opinion, the form of how to commemorate the miracle is only Rabbinical, and hence the lighting of the candles and other matters involved in the form of commemoration are Rabbinical according to all.[12] Nevertheless, even these Rabbinical forms of commemoration are of Biblical origin, as the Torah commands one to adhere to the words of the Sages and not swerve from their words.[13]

4. Why is the holiday of  Chanukah not mentioned in the Mishnah:[14]

Some suggest as follows: The Mishnah was written by Rebbe Yehuda Hanassi who was a scion of the house of David. The Chanukah miracle took place with the Chashmonaim which were from the tribe of Levi. Due to that they took over the sovereignty and kingship of Israel after the war, and stole the kingship from the Davidic dynasty. This proved detrimental to Yehuda Hanassi and hence, through Divine spirit, the miracle of Chanukah was not mentioned in the Mishnah.

5. Why in the Diaspora do they not keep nine days of Chanukah?[15]

Being that Chanukah is a merely Rabbinical holiday, therefore, we are not stringent to require the people of the Diaspora to keep an extra day, as is required by the Biblical Holidays of Sukkos, Pesach and Shavuos.

Q&A on the miracle of oil

6. The source of the miracle of the oil:

Without doubt, one of the greatest occurrences in the Chanukah story is the miracle of oil. Interestingly though, the sources of this miracle are scarce in the historical writings that discuss the Chanukah story. While the miracle is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud[16], no mention of it is made in the Jerusalem Talmud or Midrash, and Lehavdil, no mention is made in the secular sources of Josefus and the Maccabees. Likewise, in the dialect of Al Hanisim which is recited in Shemoneh Esrei and Birchas Hamazon throughout the eight days of Chanukah, no mention is made of this miracle. In fact, the Midrash seems to completely overlook this account when describing what occurred when they entered the Temple area.[17] Above, we recorded from Megillas Antiochus the miracle of the oil, which would add a secondary source to that of the Talmud. However, in truth, there exists a variation of versions of Megillas Antiochus, and in some of the original manuscripts, this episode is omitted.[18] Historians have wondered on this matter, and some have suggested that perhaps the miracle of oil was not well known or publicized in the early generations of when the Chanukah story took place, thus explaining its omission from the above historical classics.

7. Why is Chanukah celebrated for eight days if there was enough oil to naturally last for one day?

There are several answers offered to this question:

  1. Some[19] suggest that the flask of oil was distributed into eight vessels for the use of eight days. This would naturally allow the candles to burn for some time each day, although not for the entire day. The fact that each day’s oil lasted a full day, was a miracle that occurred on each one of the eight days.
  2. Others[20] suggest that all the oil was used on the first day, and miraculously some of the oil was left unconsumed in order for the following day’s miracle of lighting to be naturally bound.[21]
  3. Others[22] suggest that all the oil was used on the first day and miraculously only 1/8th of the oil became consumed each day.
  4. Others[23] suggest that all the oil was used on the first day and miraculously the jar refilled with oil each day, by morning.
  5. Others[24] suggest that all the oil was used on the first day and miraculously never became consumed by the fire. [The Rebbe[25] explains this to mean that the oil was consumed and remained at the same time, similar to the miracle in the Temple regarding the Aron, that it did not take up space in the Kodesh Hakadashim. This concept is referred to as Nimna Hanimnaos.]
  6. Others[26] suggest that the fact that they actually found a jar of pure oil is a miracle in it of itself, and that was the miracle of the first day.
  7. Others[27] suggest that the Sages compared the holiday to the holiday of Sukkos which is eight days.
  8. Others[28] suggest that on the 1st day we celebrate the victory against the Greeks from whom we rested from battle on that day, and the miracle of the oil is only relevant to the future seven days.
  9. Others[29] suggest that it corresponds to the eight days of Mila which were abolished during the rule of Antiochus and now became permitted.

8. Why the need for the miracle if they could have used impure oil?[30]

It is permitted for the congregation to light the Menorah using impure oil in a case that the Jewish people are impure.[31] Accordingly, it is not understood why the Jewish people needed a miracle to occur for the oil to last eight days, if they could have simply used impure oil according to Halacha. The explanation is as follows: Hashem made this miracle in order to show the love He has for the Jewish people.[32] The entire idea behind the Chanukah miracle is spirit over body, G-d over deity, Holy over mundane and purity over impurity. Therefore, hashem made a miracle that the pure oil would remain in a miraculous fashion until new pure oil was attained.

9. Why did the candles last for specifically eight days, not more and not less?[33]

Some[34] explain that it took four days to travel to the olive orchard and four days to travel back. Hence, it took them a total of eight days to return to the Temple with pure oil. Others[35] explain that since all the Jewish people were ritually impure, due to contact with the dead throughout the war, therefore, they had to wait seven days to become pure, and then make pure oil. It then took them one day to make the oil for a total of eight days.

10. How did the Priestly seal on the jar of oil prove that the oil did not become impure?[36]

The Halacha is that an earthenware jar which was moved by a gentile, who has the impure status of a Zav, becomes impure. If so, the seal of the Kohen Gadol seemingly did not prove anything as to its status of purity, as the gentiles could have moved it without opening it. Some explain[37], in answer to this question, that the jar was found buried in the earth. Others[38] suggest that the fact it remained in its seal is a proof that the gentiles did not find it, as if they did, they would have surely opened it in search of gold and silver.

11. What use was it to have pure oil if the Menorah itself was impure?[39]

The Chashmonaim made a new Menorah of wood which was pure, in order to light the candles.

12. What use was it to have pure oil if the people who touched it were impure?[40]

Not all the Jewish people were impure, and they had one who remained pure set up and light the oil.

13. Why was the oil kept in a small flask?[41]

It was common in those days for the daily quantity of oil to be distributed into individual jars and have the Kohen’s seal placed on it.

14. How many candles are lit in total throughout the days of Chanukah and what is its significance?[42]

In total, we light thirty-six candles throughout all eight days of Chanukah. This corresponds to the thirty-six hours in which the Or Haganuz shone during the time of Adam Harishon.[43] Alternatively, it corresponds to the thirty-six Tractates of Gemara that the Yevanim desired to abolish with their Kelipa that was represented by the thirty six cards introduced in those times.[44]

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[1] M”B 670:1 taken from Rambam

[2]When was the war won and consequently the Menorah lit? According to most Rishonim [Meiri Shabbos 21b] the war was won by the Chashmonaim on the 24th of Kisleiv, and the Menorah was lit on the night of the 25th and then again, the next day, on the day of the 25th. However, according to the Rambam [Hilchos Chanukah 3:2] the war was only won in the midst of the 25th and thus the first lighting was done on the afternoon of the 25th which was the eve of the 26th. [See Peri Chadash 670; M”B 670:1 writes the war was won on the 25th; Rebbe in Shaareiy Moadim Chanukah p. 39 ]

[3] Rashi Megillah 30b; Shibulei Haleket 174; Mordechai; Or Zarua 2:321; Darkei Moshe 670; Maharsha Shabbos 21b; Megillas Taanis 9; Elya Raba 670:17; See Kaf Hachaim 670:12; See Likkutei Sichos 20:632 [printed in Shulchan Menachem 3:260]

[4] M”B 670:1; Kaf Hachaim 670:2

[5] Rashi Megillah 30b; Shibulei Haleket 174; Mordechai; Or Zarua 2:321; Darkei Moshe 670; Maharsha Shabbos 21b; Megillas Taanis 9; See Likkutei Sichos 20:632 [printed in Shulchan Menachem 3:260]

[6] Yalkut Shimoni Melachim Remez 184; Midrash Tanuchuma Behaaloscha; The Midrash states that the work of the Mishkan in the times of Moshe was completed on the 25th of Kislev. Nevertheless, its inauguration was delayed until Nissan, which is the month that Yitzchak was born. Hashem promised to give retribution on the 25th of Kislev which lost the first inauguration. Thus, Hashem arranged that the Chanukah victory end on the 25th of Kislev. [Midrash Tanuchuma Behaaloscha]

[7] Midrash Tanuchuma Behaaloscha; Maharsha ibid

[8] Elya Raba 670:17; See Kaf Hachaim 670:12

[9] Mor Uketzia 670; See Likkutei Sichos ibid

[10] Abudarham; Shulchan Gavoa 670:3; Kaf Hachaim ibid

[11] Chasam Sofer Yoreh Deah 233; According to all, Lighting the candles is one of the seven Rabbinical commands.

[12] However, if one passes the Holiday without performing any form of commemoration of the miracle, then he has transgressed a Biblical command according to this opinion. [ibid]

[13] Shabbos 23a; Admur 158:16

[14] Taamei Haminhagim 847 in name of Chasam Sofer

[15] Abudarham brought in Taamei Haminhagim 864

[16] Shabbos 21a

[17] See Pesikta Rabasi Parsha 2 “When they entered the Temple they found eight metal torches, and placed them [into a Menorah] and lit them.”

[18] See Megillas Antiochus Hamevueres [Fried] p. 7

[19] 1st answer in Beis Yosef 670

[20] Taz 670:1, brought in Hashlamas Rav Nechemiah 670

[21] As blessing can only befall onto an already existing item. Hence, there must have been some oil miraculously left over from the previous night. [ibid]

[22] Peri Chadash 670:1; brought in Hashlamas Rav Nechemiah 670

[23] 3rd answer in Beis Yosef 670

[24] 2nd answer in Beis Yosef 670

[25] Likkutei Sichos 15 p. 183 [Shaareiy Moadim p. 128]

[26] Haeshkol

[27] Rokeich brought in Bnei Yisaschar

[28] Meiri Shabbos 21a; Peri Chadash 670:1; Chayeh Adam brought in Taamei Haminhagim 843;

[29] Birkeiy Yosef in name of Shiultei Giborim

[30] See Likkutei Sichos 1:81; Shaar Hamoadim Chanukah p. 137, 158

[31] Pesachim 80a

[32] Chacham Tzevi 87; Pnei Yehoshua Shabbos ibid

[33] Taamei Haminhagim 860-861

[34] Ran Shabbos ibid, brought in Beis Yosef 670:1; Rokeiach

[35] Beis Yosef 670:1

[36] Beis Yosef 670; Kaf Hachaim 670:1

[37] Tosafus Shabbos 21a, brought in Beis Yosef ibid

[38] Ran 9b, brought in Beis Yosef ibid

[39] Avoda Zara 43a; Kaf Hachaim 670:1

[40] Maharsha Shabbos ibid; Kaf Hachaim 670:1

[41] Machazik Bracha 670 KU”A 2; Kaf Hachaim 670:1

[42] Taamei Haminhagim 849

[43] Rokeiach Chanukah

[44] Bnei Yisaschar Chanukah

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