Chanuka: Lessons behind Halachot
It is a known idea that Jewish holidays are not just a commemoration of the past, but rather a reliving of the same spiritual energies that were available then. Based on this idea, the commentaries point out that on some level, everything that happened in the world during each holiday happens on a smaller scale every year to every individual. For example, on Pesach the Jewish people were freed from slavery. Similarly, every year on Pesach there is special help from Above for each individual to free himself from the clutches of his personal yetzer hara. Based on this idea, how should we understand the special energy of the holiday of Chanuka as it relates to the individual?
Let’s begin by analyzing one of the many differences between the miracles of Chanuka and Purim. On Purim, the Jewish People responded to their decree of annihilation with fasting and teshuva. As a response to the Jewish People’s sincere actions, Hashem miraculously saved them from the wicked Haman. However, in the story of Chanuka it was just the Chashmonaim who decided to rebel against the Greeks — many Jews had already assimilated into Greek culture, without any thoughts of teshuva. Nevertheless, even though many didn’t deserve it, Hashem saved them from spiritual annihilation through the miracle of Chanuka. Based on this, the Bnei Yissaschar explains the symbolism behind the custom of playing with a dreidel on Chanuka and shaking the gragger on Purim. The gragger has its handle on the bottom representing the teshuva of the Jewish People from down here, which triggered the miracle. The dreidel, though, has its handle on top, representing the undeserved miracle that was triggered by Hashem’s kindness from Above (Ta’amei Haminhagim, Chanuka 859). Evidently, on Chanuka there is an outpouring of kindness from Hashem, even to the less deserving.
We can see this idea hinted to on a personal level in the halachot of Chanuka. The Gemarasays: Wicks and oils that the Rabbis forbade to be used for lighting the Shabbat lamp may nevertheless be used to light the Chanuka lamp. On a simple level, this is because on Shabbat we are afraid that someone may tilt a lamp whose wick is not burning well to make it burn better, and thereby transgress Shabbat. Therefore, we only use oils and wicks that produce the best light. The Chanuka lights, on the other hand, are lit exclusively for the mitzvah — and once they are lit, the mitzvah is done, even on erev Shabbat, dismissing the fear that one will come to tilt the flame.
On a deeper level Chazal point out that the wick, oil and fire symbolize a person and the three levels of his soul, which are the nefesh, ruach, and neshama (Tikunei Zohar, tikun 21). As the verse says, the lamp of Hashem is the soul of man (Mishlei 20:27). A thorough explanation of this concept is beyond the scope of this work, but, put simply, just as the quality of the light produced from a wick and oil depends on the quality of the wick and oil themselves, the revelation of a person’s higher level of soul, neshama, depends on the spiritual quality of his nefesh and ruach. The more a person refines his nefesh and ruach through performance of mitzvahs and Torah learning, the stronger his neshama can shine through. Based on this, we can decode the above-mentioned halacha as follows: While on Shabbat only refined souls can be lit, on Chanuka all types of souls can be lit. How is this so?
The Gemara says, “Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the World to Come” (Berachot 57b). Just like a person who doesn’t prepare food for Shabbat will have nothing to eat on Shabbat, one who doesn’t do mitzvahs to prepare for the World to Come will have nothing to enjoy in the World to Come (see Gemara Avoda Zara 3a). But it is not only the physical preparation that is used symbolically for the World to Come; the commentaries tell us that one who has a spiritually inactive week will not have a spiritually uplifting Shabbat that week, regardless of any physical preparation. Shabbat, in this sense, is a taste of the World to Come that is destined, based on the spiritual work one did that week.
We see this dual preparation in the halachot of preparing for Shabbat as well. In fact, the physical preparations for Shabbat hint to spiritual preparations one needs to make before leaving this world. One of the preparations that a
person is required to make before Shabbat is to wash his body. Just like one cleans himself from physical dirt when washing oneself, teshuva spiritually cleans one’s neshama from the impression left behind through sinning. Another way we prepare for Shabbat is by wearing special Shabbat clothing. On a spiritual level, clothing represent a person’s mitzvahs that will clothe his soul in the World to Come, and before Shabbat one is expected to inspect his mitzvahs and see if they will be fitting to adorn him in the World to Come (see Shevet Mussar, chapter 35). Essentially, the only way one can truly feel the holiness of Shabbat, which is a semblance of the World to Come, is with proper preparation.
Chanuka, on the other hand, is a holiday that even the unrefined soul can connect with. At this time, Hashem comes down, so to speak, to even the less deserving souls, as He came down to save the less deserving Jews during the Chanuka story. Therefore, Chanuka has no specific rules regarding preparations before the holiday, unlike Shabbat. Thus, the simple neshama that did not merit reaching the lofty heights demanded in order to fully appreciate Shabbat, can still taste some of the holiness of Chanuka.
One can still ask: Even if Hashem is more accessible at this time, how does a soul that is not connected to its source feel a special connection to Chanuka? Let’s analyze the miracle of the Chanuka story. The Greeks came and defiled the oils in the Beit Hamikdash. However, they left one jar of oil untouched. They could not defile that. That jar represents the part inside every one of us that is too holy to ever be defiled — all it needs is just one spark to be ignited. Every year on Chanuka there is special help from Above to tap into this part of our soul and receive undeserving help from Above to grow and rise higher and higher, even in the parts of our service that we usually struggle with. May we merit making the most of this special time! (Based on M’Or Eiynayim, Sefat Emet, Chidushei HaRim, B’nei Yissaschar, Netivot Shalom)