"What is the real meaning of Chanuka? – The rabbis taught [in Megillat Ta'anit]: On the 25th of Kislev begin the eight days of Chanukah… when the Greeks entered the sanctuary, they desecrated all the oil there. When the Hasmonean monarchy overpowered them and defeated them, they found a single jar of undefiled oil, still sealed with the High Priest's seal. It contained only enough oil [to light the menorah] for a single day, but, miraculously, they lit the [menorah] from it for eight days" (Shabbat 21b).

It is this miracle of the one-day supply of oil burning for eight days that most instinctively springs to mind as a reason for celebrating Chanuka. But in fact, this is only one of three facets of the festival. The Rambam, in the Mishneh Torah, emphasizes other aspects: "During the Second Temple , the kings of Greece enacted harsh decrees against Israel , revoking their religious laws and banning Torah and mitzvot… They burst their way in to the Holy Temple , and defiled its sanctity… Israel suffered terribly because of them…until the G-d of our fathers had compassion on them and redeemed them from their hand and rescued them. The Hasmonean high priests overpowered them and killed them; they saved Israel from their hand, and raised up a king from the priests, and the Jewish Monarchy was restored for more than 200 years… And Israel overpowered their enemies and destroyed them on the 25th of Kislev" (Laws of Chanuka 3:122). In these terse words the Rambam laconically summarizes decades of oppression, culminating in twenty five years of guerilla warfare against the mightiest superpower in the world at the time. Only after these two reasons for rejoicing - the military victory and the restoration of the Temple service - does the Rambam proceed to mention the miracle of the cruse of oil. And significantly, the Al Hanissim prayer mentions only the miraculous military victory and restoration of the Temple service, and barely even alludes to the miracle of the oil.

To understand the scope of the miracle of this military victory, we have to understand the sheer might of the Syrian-Greek Empire. Seleucid soldiers ruled from Greece to India . Hellenistic cultural influence dominated ideologies from Spain to Persia . No power in the world - not even Rome - yet dared to challenge Greece . And in Modi'in, an obscure village and a Seleucid province, a single family started a revolution. Twenty five men against this vast superpower. That they dared even begin was a miracle. That other Jews joined them was inconceivable. For them to win was impossible. And yet, win they did - and it is that victory, that impossible, miraculous victory that we celebrate.

And it was self-evident to the Maccabees - and, apparently, to the nation as a whole in those days - that the purpose of Jewish national independence was to rededicate the Temple , to restore its service. Without the restoration of the Temple , the entire war had no purpose; it was the restoration of the Temple that defined the victory of Torah over Hellenism. After all, the Temple was liberated near the beginning of the Maccabean revolt in 3597 (163 BCE). The war continued for a further twenty four years, until the final military victory, when Hellenistic rule was vanquished and the Sanhedrin appointed Mattityahu's sole surviving son, Shimon as Nassi. But it is the liberation and restoration of the Temple , not the political or physical victory, that we celebrate.

The miracle of the oil, which has become so central in our collective consciousness, serves to emphasize this: The physical size of an army, or of a jar of oil, is not what defines its potential. Its inherent holiness, its purity, its undefiled status, are what define its potential.

It was the Hasmoneans' holy goals and Torah-based ideology, not their numbers, which ensured the victory over the Greek idolaters. Likewise, it was what each side represented - purity versus desecration, God versus idolatry - that made the victory eternally significant. This is why the Hasmoneans are described as having "overpowered and defeated" the Greeks on the day that they liberated the Temple, even though the fighting would continue for almost a quarter of a century more: It was the Temple, and control over it, that represented all that both sides were fighting for.

It is interesting to note an anomaly in the Mishneh Torah. The sequence of the festivals through the year is Pesach, Shavuot, The Ninth of Av, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, Chanuka, and finally Purim; and, indeed, it is this logistical order that the Arba'a Turim, the Shulchan Aruch, the Kitzur Shulcha Aruch, and most other works follow. The Rambam, however, makes just one minor change: he puts the laws of Purim before Chanuka, such that the third book of the Mishneh Torah, Zmanim ("Festivals"), concludes with the laws of Chanuka.

This was surely a deliberate decision of the Rambam's, and we can learn an important lesson from what he writes. The Rambam concludes each of the fourteen books of the Mishneh Torah with a halachic insight that also serves as a homily, an overall lesson for life, as well as applying to the specific halachic topic under discussion. And the "flourish" with which the Rambam concludes the halachot of Chanuka, and thereby the entire book of festivals is: "If someone [is so poor that he] has to choose between either a candle to light up his house and a Chanuka candle, or else a candle to light up his house and wine for Shabbat morning Kiddush, the candle to light up his house takes precedence, for the sake of peace in the home. After all, even the Name [of G-d] can be erased for the sake of making peace and marital harmony between husband and wife [see Numbers 5:11-31, in particular verse 23, and the commentaries thereon]. So great is peace, that the entire Torah was given to make peace in the world, as it says: `Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its pathways are peace (Proverbs 3:17)'".

Apparently, the Rambam deliberately changed the sequence of the festivals in order to put this homily at the conclusion of the laws of Chanuka. Let there be no mistake: The Rambam makes it clear that Chanuka celebrates victory over evil, the destruction of evildoers, and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple . That is what brings peace to the world. Not compromising with evil, not accommodating enemies, not allowing the site of the Holy Temple to be desecrated and defiled, but the physical and ideological annihilation of Israel 's enemies, and the subsequent purification and rededication of the Temple Mount , will bring peace to Israel and to all mankind.


No comments: