That's Greek to me
Understanding the miracle of Chanuka
Rabbi Yosef Levinson

"On account of which miracle did the Sages establish the celebration of Chanuka? As we learnt in a b'raissa: we celebrate Chanuka for eight days starting from the 25th day of Kislev... For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they contaminated all the oil that was there. After the Chashmonaim (Maccabis) defeated them, they searched and found one jug of pure oil with the seal of the Kohen Gadol. It contained enough oil for only one night. A miracle occurred and they lit from it for eight days. The following year the Sages established the holiday of Chanuka as a time of praise and thanksgiving to Hashem."1

It appears from this Gemara that Chanuka was not established to commemorate our physical salvation from oppression as was Purim. Rather it recalls the neis, miracle, of the oil, which enabled the Chashmonaim to perform the mitzva of lighting the menora in the Beis Hamikdash. However, upon examining the halacha, a neis seems unnecessary in this instance. For although all avodas in the Beis Hamikdash should ideally be done b'tahara (in a state of ritual purity),2 when this is not possible, any korbanos tzibbur, public offerings, may be brought b'tuma (in a state of impurity). Korbanos tzibbur comprise any part of the daily service or offerings brought for Shabbos and Yomim Tovim. Lighting the menora is part of the daily service, therefore it may be kindled even in a state of tuma3. Once the supply from the pure jug was exhausted, the Kohanim could have used the impure oil until more pure oil could be prepared. Why then did Hashem intervene with a miracle?

The P'nei Yehoshua4 explains that even though the menora could have been kindled in a state of tuma, Hashem performed a neis to show His love for us. The Greeks had banned mitzva observance and defiled the Beis Hamikdash. They sought to deny our share in the G-d of Israel 5. But after the miraculous victory over the Yevanim, the neis of the menora revealed that the Shechina, the Divine Presence was clearly in our midst 6.

Chazal relate that when the Jewish people were fulfilling Hashem's will, the ner maravi, Western light, would remain miraculously lit for twenty-four hours (However when they sinned, it would extinguish7. When the Chashmonaim risked their lives to serve Hashem, they once again found favour in His eyes as demonstrated through a similar miracle with the menora. Hashem orchestrated events such that the service could be carried out l'chatchila, in the best way possible, as a sign of His love. For if no oil had been available, they would have been exempt from performing the mitzva, and if only impure oil was available, this would suffice. Nevertheless, Hashem ensured that only a pure and perfect service would take place.

We now understand that although the service of the menora could have proceeded without miraculous intervention, the neis of the oil was a necessary part of Hashem's plan to rekindle His relationship with the Jewish People.

This is certainly cause for much joy, however as the Maharal notes8, we only celebrate miracles of salvation. We don't say Hallel on a miracle that enables us to perform a mitzva. (It is for this reason that while we thank Hashem for our deliverance from the hands of the Greeks, in Al Hanissim, we do not mention the miracle of the oil.) So to return to the opening Gemara, which miracle are we celebrating in Chanuka?

The Maharal explains that the main reason Chazal established the holiday of Chanuka was to commemorate our miraculous victory over the Yevanim. This conquest was clearly above nature. As we say in Al Hanissim, Hashem delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few. It was He who vanquished the Yevanim, not the military prowess of the Maccabis.

According to the P'nei Yehoshua mentioned above, we could add that this was also a display of Hashem's affection for the tzadikim of that generation. Hashem wanted to proclaim to one and all that the Chashmonaim had only pure motives and that it was only through their mesiras nefesh (willingness to sacrifice their lives), that they defeated the massive Greek armies. They truly merited this neis on the battlefield. Hashem's devotion to these tzadikim was then demonstrated undeniably to the entire world with the open miracle of the oil.

The Maharal concludes that the neis of the oil did more than just reveal the miraculous nature of the military victory, it was the completion of the victory itself. The Yevanim defiled the Beis Hamikdash and banned the Temple service. Therefore the Chashmonaim were not victorious until they had restored the avoda. The neis of the menora afforded them the opportunity to do just that in the ideal manner, b'tahara.

With this understanding, we can explain what we say in Al Hanissim. The tefila, prayer, for Purim concludes with Haman and his sons' demise. There is no mention of celebration or instituting a festival to commemorate the events. In the case of Chanuka, after praising Hashem for conquering the enemy, we mention that the Chashmonaim cleaned and purified the Temple and lit the menora. It concludes with the commemoration of Chanuka. Why do we recount that they entered the Beis Hamikdash and lit the menora? (It is not to recall the miracle of the oil for there is no mention of this.) We are simply continuing the same theme. Since the Greeks had defiled the Beis Hamikdash, our victory culminates with the restoration of the Temple service. In the same vein, the Greeks outlawed the study of Torah and revoked Torah authority. They could not bear the kedusha, holiness of the Jewish people. Nor could they tolerate the ability of the chachamim, sages to control the calendar and instil the passage of time with kedusha. The defeat of the Greeks revealed to all that the Bnei Yisrael enjoyed a special status in the eyes of Hashem. Not only was Torah authority restored to it's former glory, a new festival, Chanuka was introduced. This was an additional victory over the Yevanim.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm9 asks - what is the meaning of the tefila - bayamim haheim baz'man hazeh - in those days at this time? (This is the formula used in both the bracha, she'asa nissim and in Al Hanissim) The obvious meaning is that we thank Hashem for the miracles He performed so many years ago at this time of year. Still, why do we even have to mention that they occurred bayamim haheim in those days? Surely this is obvious. We do not mention in the tefillos for other Yomim Tovim that we are commemorating events that occurred in days gone by.

The Alter explains that a neis nigleh, an open miracle serves two purposes. One aim is as we explained, to show that Hashem loves the tzadikim for their total emuna, faith in Him. The second purpose is to teach us that everything in this world is miraculous. Every blade of grass that grows, every apple that ripens is a wonder. Our ability to read this article, the ability to hold this booklet in our hands attests to the greatness of Hashem. This is a fundamental concept of emuna10. However being creatures of habit, we take things for granted and fail to see the Hand of Hashem in our daily lives. When we look back at the many open miracles Hashem has performed for us throughout history, we see that it is He who controls nature, that all phenomena are miracles albeit hidden.

We can now understand the words bayamim haheim baz'man hazeh. Hashem made the neis Chanuka as a show of love for the selfless devotion of the Chashmonaim . That is the meaning of bayamim haheim, in those days - the miracle was for them. However the lesson to be gleaned from the neis was not for that generation. The Chashmonaim already understood that everything in the world is a manifestation of Hashem's will. The miracles were meant to inspire the later generations, for us that are baz'man hazeh - the lessons are for us today11.

As we light our menoras and recall the miraculous events that occurred then, we should reflect on the greatness of the Chashmonaim. Let us emulate their mesiras nefesh - their total devotion and belief in Hashem's salvation. And let us take a look around us to see the Yad Hashem in all that transpires. And may Hashem also see fit to perform a miracle for us and bring Mashiach and rebuild the Beis Hamikdash so that we too can fulfil the mitzva of kindling the menora there - baz'man hazeh.


1 Shabbos 21b with Rashi.
2 Yoma 6b. R' Nachman and R' Sheishes disagree as to how far we take this principle. If no pure kohen is readily available, but one could be found with relative ease, R' Nachman rules we do not have to go out of our way and the Korban may still be brought b'tuma while R' Sheishes says in this instance we should use a kohen that is pure, see there.
3 Toras Kohanim 24:3 Rambam Hilchos Temidin 3:10.
4 Shabbos, ibid
5 Bereishis Rabba 2:4.
6 Toras Kohanim, ibid.
7 Yoma 39a.
8 Chidushei Aggados, Shabbos, ibid
9 Chachma U'Mussar 1:59
10 See Ramban Shemos 6:2, 13:15; Vayikra 26:11
11 Furthermore, if the purpose of commemorating the neis of the oil is to instil within us the idea that everything we experience is a miracle performed by Hashem, we may be able to answer the well-known difficulty raised by the Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 670). The Beis Yosef notes that if the Chashmonaim had enough oil for one night, then the miracle lasted only for seven nights. Why then do we celebrate Chanuka for eight nights? Many answers have been offered to this question. Rav Simcha Zissel (Chachma U'Mussar, 1:61) explains that our eight day celebration reminds us that everything is miraculous. The very nature of oil which allows it to be kindled and offer light is a miracle! This is why we can make a bracha on the first night. This is the meaning of baz'man hazeh, this very moment as we kindle the menora.

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