Chanuka: From Clouds to Candles
Of all the different festivals mandated by the Torah and by Rabbinic fiat, there are only two holidays which last for exactly eight days: The Festival of Succot and Chanuka. This simple fact implies that there is a special connection between the essences of these two holidays. Some even explain that Chanuka was originally instituted as a substitute for the Festival of Succot, because in the year of the Maccabean victory the Jews were unable to celebrate Succot. Regardless, the shared number of days which these holidays last certainly alludes to a shared principle behind both of them.
Let us begin by searching for the deeper meaning behind the holiday of Succot. There are several different commandments associated with the holiday of Succot, including taking the palm branch and the citron, dwelling in a succah, special happiness, reading the Torah once every seven years, pouring special water libations, circling the Altar with aravot, and more. Why, then, does the succah element lend its name to the holiday, while none of the other elements of the holiday are expressed in the name “Succot”? Why do we not call the holiday Chag Ha’Etrog in homage to the commandment of the citron, or Chag Ha’Simcha in recognition of the special commandment to rejoice?
Moreover, the Talmud (Succah 11b) teaches that the commandment to dwell in a Succah on the holiday of Succot serves as a reminder of the Clouds of Glory within which the Jews were engulfed while they traveled through wilderness after the Exodus. Why does the Torah specifically call for a special holiday to commemorate the miracle of these Clouds of Glory, but not for any of the other miracles which
To answer this last question, Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef of Trani (1505-1585), known by his acronym as Mabit, offers a fascinating insight. The manna and rock-water were indeed great miracles which
We may now turn our attention to the holiday of Chanuka. The Talmud (Shabbat 21a) asks, “What is Chanuka?” and proceeds to answer this question with a Tannaic teaching about how the Rabbis instituted the holiday of Chanuka to remember how the candles of the Menorah miraculously lasted for eight days. After the Maccabees successfully fought for their independence from the Seleucid Greeks, they went to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in order to rededicate it, and sought to light the Menorah. Yet, they could not find any undefiled jars of oil with which to light the candles. After much searching, they finally found one untouched jar, which had only enough oil to light the candles for one day. They lit the candles, and, miraculously, the candles stayed alight for eight days.
In this, the Talmud tellingly glosses over what would seem to be the main impetus for instituting the holiday of Chanuka: the military victory over the Greeks. A small rag-tag militia led by a family of kohanim was able to defeat one of the most prominent kingdoms of the time. This monumental triumph (described in the “Al Ha’Nissim” prayer) could only have been a miracle. Then why does the Talmud choose to focus on the lesser miracle of the candle which lasted eight days, instead of on the greater miracle of the Maccabean victory?
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1979) provides a penetrating answer. The miracle of the Maccabean victory over the Greeks was integral to the survival of the Jewish People. Without it, the Jews would have succumbed to the brand of Hellenism espoused by the Greeks and likely would have eventually been subsumed by the paganism of their Greek overlords. The victory of the Maccabeans and the establishment of Hasmonean rule was truly a historical landmark. However, the miracle of the Menorah was even more special. In the miracle of the Menorah,
Rabbi Shmuelevitz offers a parable to illustrate this concept: Imagine that a family loses a precious gem which they had in their possession. They spend days searching and searching for the gem — but to no avail. Finally, after some time, one of the children finds the missing stone to the great joy of his parents. When the child will present the gem to his father, not only will the father rejoice in the jewel’s reappearance, but he will also give his young child a special “kiss”. Of course, that kiss pales in comparison to the value of the precious stone, but, in truth, some things are priceless. The extra kiss shows the child how much his father loves him.
In the same way, the Maccabean military victory over the Greeks alone is indeed a reason to celebrate, but the special “kiss” which we received from Above, is an even greater reason to celebrate. The miracle of the Menorah is that special kiss.
Just as the holiday of Succot is named after the technically-unneeded miracle, so is the holiday of Chanuka named after the technically superfluous miracle. When the Talmud asks, “What is Chanukah?” — the answer is that “the kiss is Chanuka”. Nothing else. All other aspects of the holiday, like the miracle of the military victory, pale in comparison to the kiss. In this way, the essence of Chanuka echoes the essence of Succot. Both holidays celebrate the extra-special miracles which