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)

The Talmud explains that the celebration of Chanukah recalls the miracle of the oil. The Hashmonaim defeated the Assyrians and reoccupied the Bait HaMikdash. They wished to rekindle the Menorah ­ the candelabra ­ of the Temple. They required ritually pure oil. The Assyrians had defiled the oil in the Temple. The Hashmonaim found only a small container of oil that remained fit. It held sufficient oil to fuel the Menorah for a single night. They would require eight days to procure additional oil. A miracle occurred and the small container of oil provided sufficient fuel for all eight nights. The Talmud explains that the days on which this miracle occurred were established as a holiday. The festival is celebrated through reciting Hallel and offering thanks to Hashem. How do we offer thanks? We add the prayer of Al HaNissim to the Birkat HaMazon and the Amidah. It is clear, from the discussion in the Talmud that, the miracle of the Menorah is the central event commemorated by Chanukah. We would expect that Al HaNissim would thank the Almighty for this miracle. However, a review of Al HaNissim reveals that the miracle of the Menorah is not even mentioned. Instead, the prayer deals exclusively with the salvation of the Jewish people from their enemies. The Talmud indicates that this prayer is a fundamental aspect of the celebration of Chanukah. Why does this prayer not mention the central miracle? Furthermore, the comments of the Talmud are difficult to understand. It is true that the burning of the oil for eight nights was a miracle. However, far greater miracles are recorded in T'NaCH. These more impressive wonders are not commemorated through any celebration. For example, Yehoshua split the Jordan, he stopped the sun in its passage through the sky, and he brought down the walls of Yericho with a shofar blast. None of these awesome wonders are commemorated through their own celebration. The miracle of the oil is quite modest compared to these other events. Why is this miracle commemorated with its own holiday and not these other wonders?

Chanukah is one of two holidays established by the Sages of the Talmud. Prior to creating the celebration of Chanukah, the Sages instituted Purim. Maimonides discusses the reason the Sages established Purim. He explains that the Torah assures us that the Almighty will never forsake His people. In times of suffering Hashem will redeem us. The events of Purim provide testimony to the truth of this promise. In discussing Chanukah, Maimonides mentions the miracle of the oil. However, he also stresses our salvation, through Hashem, from our enemies. It seems that Maimonides is explaining an important concept. The celebrations of Purim and Chanukah share a common theme. The Almighty will never allow the Jewish people to be destroyed. Both celebrations reinforce this covenant. Both recall episodes from our history. In each incident Bnai Yisrael's existence was in peril. The Almighty intervened to save us. Both reinforce the reality of the Torah's promise. We can now begin to answer our questions.

Every miracle is not the occasion for the establishment of a holiday. The celebrations of Purim and Chanukah do not commemorate miracles. They testify to the truth of the Almighty's promise that He will never abandon His people. Other miracles, of greater magnitude are not commemorated by holidays. This is because these miracles did not involve the salvation of the Jewish people. We can now understand the Al HaNissim prayer. This prayer captures the essential theme of Chanukah. It discusses the rescue of the Jewish people from their oppressors. This prayer is also recited on Purim. This is appropriate. Purim also communicates the same theme of salvation. We must still explain the comments of the Talmud. The Talmud relates the celebration of Chanukah to the miracle of the Menorah. Maimonides also acknowledges the fundamental role of this miracle. This miracle would not seem to be an appropriate reason for creating a holiday!

Let us return to Purim. How do we know that the Almighty was the cause of our salvation? Perhaps events just unfolded, by chance, in a manner that saved the Jews from Haman! The answer is found in Megilat Esther. The Megilah reveals Hashem's manipulation of events. It provides us with insight into the events. Based on the Megilah, we know that our salvation was through the Almighty. This revelation was fundamental to the creation of Purim. Only a rescue clearly engineered by Hashem confirms the promise of the Torah. Two criteria must be met to establish a holiday. There must be redemption from certain destruction. This rescue must clearly be through the Almighty's intervention. The events of Purim meet these criteria.

We can now appreciate the fundamental role of the miracle of the oil. Victory in battle is not a sufficient foundation for the creation of Chanukah. The Almighty must reveal Himself as the cause of the triumph and salvation. This revelation took place through the miracle of the oil. With this miracle, Hashem indicated His influence and role in the events of Chanukah. Just as the Almighty had performed the miracle of the oil, so too He had been the force behind the salvation. We can now understand the comments of the Talmud. True, Chanukah celebrates our salvation. However, the celebration could not have been established without the miracle of the Menorah. This miracle indicated that the salvation was through the intervention of the Almighty. Only on the basis of this revelation could the celebration of Chanukah be created.


"How many candles does one light? On the first night, one lights one candle. Thenceforth, one adds one candle each night so that on the last night there will be eight candles. And if there are many household members, they should not light more than this number. Some say each household member should light." (Shulchan Aruch Orech Chayim 671:2)

The Talmud explains that the commandment to light the Chanukah lights can be fulfilled on three levels. The basic level requires that each night a single candle is lit for the entire household. The preferred method is to light a number of candles corresponding to the number of members of the household. This number of candles is lit every night. The optimal method is to light a number of candles corresponding to the night of the festival. The first night one candle is lit. The second night two candles are lit. One candle is added each night until, on the last night, eight are lit. An illustration will demonstrate these various levels. Consider a household composed of a father, mother and two children. The basic level of performance requires that this household light a single candle each night of Chanukah. This number never increases. The preferred method requires four candles to be lit each night. This number corresponds to the size of the household. The number remains constant throughout the festival. Applying our illustrative case to the optimal level presents a difficulty. The Shulchan Aruch maintains that our family will light a single candle the first night. An additional candle is added each night, until a total of eight is reached. Rav Moshe Isserlis, in his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch, disagrees. He maintains that the household must still light a number of candles corresponding with the number of its members. Therefore, the first night four candles are lit. This number represents the four members of the family. On subsequent nights one candles is added to each of the four. Following this plan, on the second night eight candles are lit ­ two candles for each family member. On the third night twelve candles are lit. On the eighth night thirty-two candles are lit. Superficially, the position of Ramah ­ Rav Moshe Isserlis ­ is more logical. The preferred method of lighting requires a candle be lit for each member of the household. The optimal level requires that the number of candles correspond with the night of the festival. Ramah assumes that these two methods should be combined. Performance of the commandment at the optimal level should not preclude the inclusion of the preferred method. Therefore, each night, the number of candles corresponds with both the number of members of the household and the night of the festival. This makes sense!

Shulchan Aruch insists that once the optimal level is selected the preferred method must be abandoned. At the optimal level, the number of candles can only correspond to the number of nights. Any reference to the number of household members must be abandoned. What is Shulchan Aruch's reasoning? The source of the dispute between Shulchan Aruch and Ramah is found in the early commentators on the Talmud. Shulchan Aruch's position is expressed by the Tosefot. They explain that when performing the mitzvah at the optimal level, the preferred method must be abandoned. Their conclusion is based on a practical consideration. The candles can only represent a single numerical value. It is simply not possible to simultaneously represent the number of family members and the day of the festival. Therefore, when performing the mitzvah on the optimal level any reference to the number of family members must be abandoned. If reference to the number of household members remains included at the optimal level, complete confusion results. Consider a simple example. The second night a household lights two candles. This could represent a single individual lighting on the second night. This could also represent a family of two and one candle is lit for each member. In order to avoid this confusion, all reference to the number of household members is omitted. Now, there is no longer any confusion. The number only represents the night of the festival.

Ramah adopts the opinion of Maimonides. He does not seem concerned with the issues raised by Tosefot. According to Ramah, how can a single number of candles represent two numbers? How can it represent both the number of household members and the night of the festival? Ramah suggests a simple solution to this problem. He requires each household member be represented by a separate set of candles. The separation between the sets removes any confusion. On the second night a family of four does not merely light eight candles. It lights four separate sets of two candles. The number of sets represents the number of family members. The number of candles in each set, corresponds with the night of the festival. This discussion suggests an interesting insight. Shulchan Aruch and Ramah dispute the requirements of the optimal method of performance. However, the basis of their disagreement is their interpretation of the preferred method. Shulchan Aruch understands the preferred method to require lighting a single set of candles. This set corresponds to the number of household members. The optimal method cannot be superimposed on the preferred method. Only one set of candles is lit. It cannot represent two numbers ­ the members of the family and the night of the festival. Ramah maintains that the preferred method requires lighting multiple sets of candles. Each family member is represented by a separate set. This allows fulfillment of the optimal requirement without abandoning this preferred method. Each separate set can be expanded to represent the night of the festival. There is no cause for confusion. The number of sets represents the number of family members. The number of candles in each set represents the night.

Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Shabbat 21b.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Introduction.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chanukah 3:1-3.
Mesechet Shabbat 21b. Tosefot, Mesechet Shabbat 21b.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chanukah 4:1-2.
Rav Moshe Isserles, Comments on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 671:2
Rav Israel Chait, Chanukah Shiurim 1974.