A Radical Difference between Chanukah and Purim

Dear Friends,


Within our Sacred Scriptures is the Book of Esther, and it tells the amazing story of how we were saved from the plan of Haman to annihilate us. After this deliverance from genocide, the leading sages of our nation, together with the last of the biblical prophets, established the annual holiday of Purim; moreover, they also decided that we are obligated to have a feast on this joyous day. In a later generation, when the leading sages established the annual holiday of Chanukah, they did not obligate us to have a feast. For example, the Talmud states that as a result of the miracle of the small vial of oil in the Temple giving light for eight days, the sages established Chanukah as days for the chanting of special psalms and for thanksgiving, but there is no mention of any obligation to have a feast during Chanukah (Shabbos 21b).


The holiday of Purim has an emphasis on physical forms of celebration, such as eating, drinking, and giving gifts of food to others, while Chanukah has an emphasis on spiritual forms of celebration, such as the lighting of the Chanukah Menorah, and the chanting of special psalms and prayers of thanksgiving. How are we to understand this difference between the two holidays?  I found a fascinating answer in the Mishnah Berurah, a great work on “halacha” – the detailed steps of our spiritual path. The author of the Mishnah Berurah, the Chofetz Chaim, cites the explanation of the halachic authority known as Levush regarding the difference in the way these two holidays are celebrated, and the following is a summary of his explanation:


The Festival of Purim celebrates the deliverance of our nation from physical annihilation; thus, the celebration takes a physical form. By contrast, the Syrian Greeks did not seek the physical annihilation of our people, but our spiritual obliteration, as King Antiochus demanded that we reject the Torah and its path of mitzvos. The ancient Chanukah prayer therefore states: “The wicked Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of Your Will.”


Appropriately, the celebration of our deliverance from this attempt to destroy us spiritually expresses itself in spiritual ways – the lighting of the Chanukah Menorah, and the chanting of special psalms and prayers of thanksgiving. (Orach Chaim 670:2, Mishnah Berurah 6)


It is written, “Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23), and as we have begun to discuss in this series, the Torah is the light-giving soul of our people and our land. The Syrian Greeks attempted to extinguish the light of our soul, and on Chanukah we celebrate the renewal of this light.


May we be blessed with a renewing and strengthening Chanukah.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)


Related Teachings and Comments:


1. The story of Purim reminds us of the following historical reality: There are nations or groups that seek our physical destruction, as they feel threatened by the “body” of Israel – the physical existence of our people. The story of Chanukah reminds us of another historical reality: There are nations or groups that seek to destroy our spiritual identity though conversion to their religion or through adopting their secular ideology, as they feel threatened by the “soul” of Israel – the teachings and mitzvos of the Torah.


The celebration of Purim reminds us that the “body” of Israel is eternal, and the celebration of Chanukah reminds us that the “soul” of Israel is eternal. In this spirit, Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, proclaimed to our people, “I have loved you with an eternal love” (Jeremiah 31:2).


2. The sacred feast of Purim, which includes the drinking of wine, reminds us that our physical pleasures are to be dedicated to a higher and altruistic purpose. We therefore discuss words of Torah and sing joyous spiritual songs during the Purim feast. We also invite guests to the Purim feast, including those who would not have a Purim feast on their own. In general, the mitzvos of Purim lead us away from selfish indulgence. For example, there is a mitzvah on Purim to give gifts of money or food to those in need, and there is also a mitzvah on Purim to send gifts of food to friends, neighbors, and/or strangers.


3. Although the Talmud does not mention an obligatory Chanukah feast, there is a custom to have special meals during Chanukah which focus on songs and praises to Hashem, as well as words of Torah. For information on the status of this custom, see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 670:2 with the comments of the Rama, and the added explanations of the Mishnah Berurah with the Biur Halacha.


A brief discussion of this custom, which includes a summary of the comments of Levush regarding the difference between the Purim and Chanukah celebrations, can be found in the ArtScroll book “Chanukah, on pages 112,113.

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