Parshat Chanukah / VaYeshev


Rabbi Bernard Fox


“What is Chanukah?  Our Sages taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev Chanukah is observed.  This is for eight days on which it is prohibited to eulogize or fast.  For when the Hellenists entered the Temple they defiled all of the oil. And when the Hashmonaim rose to power and overcame them, they only found one container of oil sealed with the seal of the Kohen Gadol.  It only contained sufficient oil for one day.  But a miracle was performed with this oil and they lit from it for eight nights.  In a different year they established and made these days a festival with Hallel and giving thanks.”  (Tractate Shabbat 21b)


This is the Talmud’s discussion of the source of the Chanukah celebration.  The Talmud explains the miracle of the oil.  The Sages also describe the festival of Chanukah.  However, the comments of the Sages are not easily understood.  The Talmud tells us that the celebration was established as a result of the miracle of the oil.  However, in its description of the celebration the Talmud does not mention the lighting of the Chanukah lights!  We generally regard the lighting of the Chanukiyah – the menorah – as the most fundamental observance of the festival.  Yet, in the above description of Chanukah, the Talmud does not mention this observance.  Furthermore, if we consider the context of the above text, this omission is even more bizarre.  The section of Talmud, in which the above quote is found, is discussing the various laws governing the lighting of the Chanukah lights!


Maimonides, in his Mishne Torah, provides an important hint towards answering these questions.  Maimonides begins his discussion of Chanukah with a review of the historical events underlying the celebration.  He discusses the oppression of the Jewish people by the Hellenist Assyrians.  He then describes the triumph of Bnai Yisrael.  Finally, he discusses the miracle of the oil.  Then Maimonides writes, “And for this reason the Sages of that generation established that these days, beginning with the 25th of Kislev, should be days of happiness and Hallel.  We light candles on these days, at night, at the doors of the homes, on each night of the eight nights, in order to show and reveal the miracle.”[1]


Maimonides always chooses his words very carefully.  Therefore, it is appropriate to consider every nuance of his wording.  The Rav – Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l - makes an important observation based upon this wording.  Maimonides did not write that the Sages established Chanukah as days of happiness, Hallel and lighting candles.  Instead, he wrote that these days were established as days of happiness and Hallel – and that we light candles on these days.  The implication of this wording is that the lighting of the Chanukah lights was not part of the original enactment of the Sages.  Originally, the Sages established Chanukah as a time of happiness and Hallel.  At some latter point the practice of lighting candles was established.


This provides a partial answer to our questions.  The Talmud is explaining the original enactment of Chanukah.  The initial response of the Sages to the miracles of the victory and oil was to establish a celebration of Hallel and thanks. It did not include a requirement to light the Chanukah lights.  This was a latter development.  However, we a left with a new question.  Why was the lighting of the Chanukiyah not included in the original enactment.  Furthermore, why was this practice latter added?


The Rav suggests that the lighting of the Chanukah lights was established after the destruction of the Bait HaMikdash.  Prior to this time, the Menorah of the Mikdash existed and the practice of lighting the Chanukah lights did not exist.


Why was this practice established only after the destruction of the Temple?  Nachmanides explains, in his commentary on the Chumash, that the Chanukah lights recall the Menorah of the Temple.[2]  The Rav explains that any practice designed to recall the Temple cannot coexist with the Bait HaMikdash.  Such practices only become meaningful after the destruction of the Temple.[3]




“For this reason the Sages of that generation established that these eight days.... should be days of rejoicing and Hallel.  And we light on them candles, at night, at the doors of the homes each night ... to demonstrate and reveal the miracle.”  (Mishne Torah, Laws of Megilah and Chanukah, 3:3)

Maimonides explains that the celebration of Chanukah is observed through rejoicing, the recitation of the Hallel prayer and the lighting of candles.  There is no requirement of indulging in elaborate meals.  In this respect Chanukah differs from Purim.  On Purim, the holiday meal is central to the celebration.  In fact, many of the Purim obligations including sending gifts to friends and to the poor are related to the holiday meal!  Why is Chanukah different?


Mishne Berurah quotes the response of Levush to this question.  He comments that the distinction between Chanukah and Purim can be explained through understanding the circumstances of each celebration.  Purim commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from Haman.  Haman attempted to annihilate Bnei Yisrael.  The salvation of Purim was from this physical destruction.


Chanukah recalls a different form of deliverance. The villains of the Chanukah episode were Assyrians, committed to Hellenistic culture.  Their primary aim was not to cause physical harm to the Jewish people.  Instead, their intention was to wipe out observance of the Torah.  This would encourage assimilation into the Hellenistic culture.  The salvation of Chanukah was essentially of a spiritual nature.  Therefore, it is fitting that the Chanukah celebration emphasizes the spiritual character of the redemption.  To create this emphasis the celebration is overwhelmingly spiritual in character.  There is no requirement of an elaborate holiday meal.  Instead, the Hallel prayer is recited.  A section of praise – Al HaNissim  – is added to the Amidah and Birkat HaMazon.  Candles are lit to recall the miracle of the re-establishment of service in the Temple.[4] 




“How many candles should one light?  On the first night one should light one flame.  From that point onward, he should add one flame each night until the last night on which there will be eight flames.”  (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 671:2)

Shulchan Aruch describes the procedure for lighting the Chanukah candles.  The first night one candle is lit.  An additional candle is added each night.  Finally, on the eighth night eight candles are lit.


This law is derived directly from the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat.  The Talmud explains that the obligation of lighting the Chanukah lights can be fulfilled on three levels. On the basic level, it is sufficient to light a single candle for the entire household, regardless of the night.  In other words, one candle is lit the first night.  A single candle is lit the last night.  At the next level, the mitzvah is enhanced.  The number of candles lit each night corresponds with the number of members in the household.  A household of four would light four Chanukah candles each night.  The optimum performance of the mitzvah requires that the number of candles correspond with the night.  This is the level described by Shulchan Aruch.  The first night one candle is lit.  By the eighth night, eight candles are kindled.[5]


A comparison of Shulchan Aruch to the Talmud suggests an obvious question.  According to the Talmud, there are three levels of performance for the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights.  Shulchan Aruch does not mention the two lower levers.  Only the optimum method is described in Shulchan Aruch.  Why are the two lower levels deleted?


The discussion in the Talmud also presents a difficult problem.  The Talmud is describing a basic performance of the mitzvah and enhancements of the performance.  The Talmud in Tractate Baba Kamma discusses the issue of enhancements of mitzvot.  It discusses the amount one should spend in order to enhance a mitzvah.  The conclusion is that one should only spend up to one third of the value of the basic mitzvah.[6]  An example will illustrate this rule.  Assume a person wishes to buy a mezuzah.  A kasher – fit – mezuzah can be purchased for twenty dollars.  However, the purchaser wishes to buy a better mezuzah.  How much should the buyer spend for a finer mezuzah?  According to the rule in the Talmud, the maximum the person should spend is $26.60.


This rule obviously contradicts the discussion in Tractate Shabbat.  The basic mitzvah of Chanukah only requires the lighting of a single candle each night.  The enhanced and optimum levels require far more than a one third increase in expenditure.  For example, by the last night the optimum method of lighting requires kindling eight lights.  The basic level would only require a single light.


These two questions seem to indicate that there is a basic difference between the enhancements of the Chanukah lights and the enhancement of other mitzvot.  Let us consider the general concept of enhancement.  In most cases a mitzvah is performed in its entirety without the enhancement.  In our example of the mezuzah, the mitzvah is performed perfectly with the twenty-dollar mezuzah.  However, there is a separate obligation to enhance one’s performance of all mitzvot.  This is the obligation one fulfills through purchasing the better mezuzah.  In regard to this obligation to enhance all mitzvot, the Talmud establishes a spending ceiling.


Shulchan Aruch does not mention the subsidiary levels of performance of the mitzvah of Chanukah. This indicates that, according to Shulchan Aruch, we are obligated in the optimum method.  The implication of this statement is clear.  Enhancement of the mitzvah is not merely required because of the general obligation to enhance all mitzvot. Instead, enhancement is an essential component of the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights.  This mitzvah is only performed properly when the optimum method is used.  In other words, one who lights a single candle, rather than eight, on the last night has not merely failed to fulfill a general obligation to enhance all mitzvot.  The performance of the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights is incomplete.


It follows that the spending ceiling for enhancements does not apply to the Chanukah lights.  That limit is applied to the general obligation to enhance all mitzvot.  It does not apply to the Chanukah lights.  Here, enhancement is not an extraneous obligation. Enhancement is fundamental and required for the proper performance of the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights.


We can also understand the Shulchan Aruch’s reason for deleting any mention of the subsidiary levels of the mitzvah. The Shulchan Aruch posits that the Talmud is not suggesting that we use the most basic method or even the enhanced method of lighting.  We are obligated to use the optimum method. However, the Talmud is required to define the subsidiary methods of performing the mitzvah.  Optimum is a relative concept.  For a performance to be defined as optimum, other lower levels of performance must exist.  The creation of an optimum performance requires, by definition, the creation of lower levels of performance.  The Talmud establishes these lower levels of performance in order to provide a basis and meaning for the optimum level.  The Talmud does not intend for these levels to be used.


[1]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chanukah 1:3.

[2]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 8:2.

[3]  Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, “Notes on Rambam’s Hilchot Chanukah,” Mesora, Adar 5757, pp. 17-18.

[4] Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan, Mishne Berurah, 670:6.

[5]   Mesechet Shabbat 21b.

[6]   Mesechet Baba Kamma 9a.