What Is Chanukah?

Everyone loves Chanukah – the secular, the religious and, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, even the communists.

He cites an amusing episode in: The Everlasting Chanukah (pg. 125) found in the Days of Deliverance volume.

“That same Hanukkah, I happened upon another curiosity…I chanced upon a copy of the Moscow newspaper Der Emes (Truth), the newspaper of the yestvektsiya, the Jewish  department of the notorious NKVD (the strong arm of the Soviet Union Secret Police). The newspaper also had an article on Hanukkah and the Hasmoneans. With every means at its disposal, the article argued that Hanukkah was actually a communist holiday, and the Jewish bourgeoisie and clerical world had no right to celebrate Hanukkah. Judah the Maccabee was the first Yesvekstsiya member.”

But, what is Chanukah? As the Talmud asks, “Mai Chanukah”? What is the nature of the day?

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein begins with a well known understanding of the holiday

“We tend to perceive the miracle of Chanukah 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 the “al ha-nissim” addition to the Amida prayer and to Birkat Ha-mazon, where we emphasize that the Hasmoneans “purified Your Temple.”

The miracle of Chanukah [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. This approach understands Chanukah as a holiday of restoration.

But, Rabbi Lichtenstein then offers us a warning not to misunderstand Chanukkah.

“However, closer examination of the name “Chanuka” and its root (ch-n-k) reveal that its essence is…the creation of a new framework and its implementation.  “ This approach is rooted in the etymology of the word Hanukkah – which means to be newly consecrated or dedicated.

One of the powerful moments of advance noted by Rabbi Lichtenstein is that:  “Chazal created their own new entity on Chanuka: a new commandment, with all of the attending details and specifications.”

The creation of a new holiday cannot be viewed  as an act of restoration. It is a moment of innovation.

The words of the Rambam are straightforward in this regard.

ג. ומפני זה התקינו חכמים שבאותו הדור שיהיו שמונת ימים האלו שתחלתן כ”ה בכסליו ימי שמחה והלל…

Accordingly, the Sages of that generation ordained that these eight days, which begin from the twenty-fifth of Kislev, should be commemorated to be days of happiness and praise [of God].

…Lighting the candles on these days is a Rabbinic mitzvah, like the reading of the Megillah.” (Laws of Chanukah 3:3)

Perhaps Chanukah can offer a new paradigm as to how to go about contending with some of the issues that are occupying the Modern Orthodox community these days.  

Chanukah reminds us that not every question can be answered by precedent or by a call to what was.

I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi (Aseh L’Cha Rav Vol. 7: # 43, pg. 229) regarding the vexing questions of returning terrorists in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldiers. Rabbi HaLevi notes that halachik literature contains no discussion that addresses the modern realities of kidnapped Israeli soldiers (despite sections on the Talmud that others use to deal with the issue). Therefore, Rabbi Halevi calls for “chiddush Hilchati” – “a halchik innovation”, in keeping with the spirit of existing sources.

For some this is a frightening suggestion. It was not for the Rabbis at the time of the Chanukah story, as they, in a post prophetic time (see pg. 171-176 in Days of Deliverance for more on this), declared a new holiday, complete with obligatory mitzvot and blessings containing God’s name.

This appracoh did freighten Rav Lichtenstein either as he concludes: “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.”

With this understanding,  Chanukah becomes the time  during which we should ponder what our future looks like – what new frameworks of Jewish life should be implemented and how, like the Rabbis of old, can we absorb new realities into our Jewish world view.

On a personal level, we should also be asking ourselves about new construction in our religious life. What can we add in the realm of Prayer, Torah study and Chessed.

Let us not waste Chanukah – the holiday of addition – by letting it go by without the introduction of some enlargement of our religious life.


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