These lights that we light on Chanukah, why do we light them? For which historic happening that happened in those days did our Rabbis fix the “Festival of Lights”?
This is what Chazal taught in the gemora Shabbos 21b, “What is Chanukah?” - Rashi explained that the question means for which miracle was it fixed? - Our Rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev are the days of Chanukah. Because when the idol-worshippers entered the sanctuary, they contaminated all the oil that was in the sanctuary, and when the House of the Chashmonoim prevailed, they searched and they only found one flask of oil...and it only contained enough oil to light for one day. But a miracle occurred with it, and they lit from it for eight days. The following year they fixed these days as festival days, with recitation of Hallel and thanksgiving.
But look at this astonishing fact! - In the book of the Maccabees, which was written specifically concerning the days of the Chashmonoim, their wars and their mighty feats, their self-sacrifice for the holiness of the Torah and the Beis Hamikdosh, the salvations and wonders that were done through them, the purification of the Beis Hamikdosh from the abominations of the Greeks, the festive celebration of the re-inauguration of the altar and the command of Yehudah the Maccabee to his people to celebrate these days of Chanukah every year - everything is enumerated in great detail - except for the miracle of the flask of oil, the main miracle according to the tradition of Chazal. About this the writers were silent!
The well known researchers, whose heresies precede their research, jumped on this silence like a great treasure, thinking that they had found material sufficient to enable them to speak insolently against Chazal, to prove their tradition to be fraudulent. But they did not consider the fact that the early books of the Maccabees are not considered by us to be the least bit authenticated, and have not gained any repute by men of truth, and so what power do they have to refute the words of Chazal, who are recognised and accepted as the Princes of Holiness and Men of Truth, with the full meaning of the word. About such a matter it is stated in Yirmeyohu 2,13 “Myself they have abandoned, the source of living waters, to dig for themselves broken cisterns”. But such is the fierce, boiling hatred they have for all that is accepted and holy in the Jewish nation.
Also, in the previous generation our enlightened brethren relied themselves on the matter of the ‘flask of oil’ to deny all miracles totally. They received what was due to them from the hand of the Orthodox scholars, who proved with solid, clear proofs that all their words were illusionary, without any source or basis whatsoever in history or logic.
However, for us, the matter is still a great puzzle, because also in Megillas Taanis (a record of days designated as celebratory) which is accepted by us as an authentic book, and is mentioned many times in the Mishnah and gemora, there in Chapter 9 is brought the miracle of the flask of oil, word for word like the gemora Shabbos that we have mentioned. But afterwards it asks there “What was the reason for lighting the lights? Because in the days of the rule of the Greeks, the Chashmonoim brought into the sanctuary seven iron spits in their hands, and covered them with wood (or zinc according to some texts), and used them as the menorah.”
The contradiction between the beginning and the end of this Baraisa stands out tremendously - if a miracle occurred with the flask of oil, as it stated in the beginning, how can it then ask “what is the reason for lighting the lights?” Also, the text of Al Hanissim which we include in our prayers, which mentions the miracles, the mighty deeds and the victories, but leaves out the miracle of the flask of oil, arouses great bewilderment.
The explanation of the matter to my mind, is as follows:
First we have to know two essential things. One is that according to the rules of the Torah the fixing of festive days with Hallel and thanksgiving, and the dedication of a specific mitzvah to exemplify and publicise the miracles that were done for our people in those days, are only fixed and established for miracles which occur in opposition to the laws of nature. However, salvations and wonders which are clothed in the garments of nature, despite the fact that there can be seen in them the Hand of Hashem who is protecting his people, nevertheless, these wonderful events do not acquire a place for themselves in the festive calendar, nor are specific mitzvos dedicated for them.
As an example, the victory of Devorah the prophetess and Barak, son of Avinoam over Sisera and his mighty army with its 900 iron chariots; the victory of Gideon and his 300 soldiers over “Midian, Amalek and all the people of the East, encamped in the valley, as numerous as a swarm of locusts”, with the power of the shofar blasts and the cry of “the sword for Hashem and for Gideon!” - these events did not leave their mark as a festive day in the life of our nation.
Secondly, the people of Yisrael, who are by nature a ‘stiff necked people’, are not inclined to be excited and emotional, and it is difficult to bring faith and belief into the hearts of its population, to believe in miracles and wonders that happened somewhere, secretly, in a place where not many people were present. Who do we have greater than Moshe Rabbeinu, and even he did not succeed to bring the population of Yisrael into the covenant of faith except after publicising many miracles in the presence of 600,000. Only then it was said,“And they believed in Hashem and in Moshe His servant”. As the Rambam explains: “Yisroel did not believe in Moshe Rabbeinu because of the signs that he did, because one who believes through signs has doubts in his heart, because it is possible that they were done through trickery or sorcery…And with what did they believe in him? When they stood at Mount Sinai, and saw with their very own eyes and heard with their own ears, the fire and the sounds and the lightening. And Moshe approached the darkness, and The Voice spoke to him, and they heard!”. They also believed in all the other miracles that Moshe Rabbeinu did which were done with the same level of publicity, like the splitting of the Red Sea, the manna, and others. (See also Yoma 21a).
Now the matter is clarified. After the great victory of Yehudah the Maccabee against the many and strong Greek troops and over the multitude of Hellenists, and after the purification of the sanctuary, the rebuilding of the altar, the miracle of the flask of oil and the celebration of the re-inauguration for eight days, Yehudah the Maccabee and his Beis Din, the Great Beis Din that was called at that time “the Beis Din of the Chashmonoim” (see Avodah Zorah 36), they wanted to make a remembrance of these salvations and wonders, and to establish these days of Chanukah as a festival for the generations with Hallel and thanksgiving.
However, on this point there was a confusing problem; on what to substantiate and base this festival? For which remembrance to establish it? If to commemorate the great victory of the few against the many, and the weak against the strong - this would not be in accordance with the rules of the Torah, because a festival with Hallel and thanksgiving can only be fixed for a completely unnatural miracle, as mentioned above. If to commemorate the miracle of the flask of oil that only contained enough oil to light for one day, but by a miracle they managed to light from it for eight days, - this is an ‘inside miracle’, a miracle which occurred only in the sanctuary, in the presence of a handful of Kohanim whose day of service it was, or whose week it was, in a place where it is totally forbidden for non-Kohanim to enter. If in earlier, very righteous generations little importance and value were given to ‘inside’ miracles like these, all the more so in that generation where there were numerous Hellenists. Certainly the general population would not believe in this miracle; they would have no regard for it and would not celebrate any festival in order to remember it.
After great deliberation, Yehudah the Maccabee and his Beis Din came to a decision: they would establish this festival of Chanukah with Hallel and thanksgiving and candle lighting, but without giving a reason and substantiation for establishing this new festival, similar to other decrees and safeguards that were sometimes issued without explanation. Like the gemora Avodah Zorah 30 says, “When they made a decree in Eretz Yisrael they did not reveal the reason for twelve months, perhaps somebody might disagree with the reason, and the people would come to make light of the decree”, and thus undermine the decree.
With this the Beis Din of the Chashmonoim have satisfied everybody. Because those who knew the Torah, who were expert in its laws and knew that a festival with Hallel and thanksgiving is only established for a non-natural miracle, they would trust the testimony of the Kohanim in the Beis Hamikdosh, amongst whom were certainly some of the great Beis Din. They would not doubt even for a moment the miracle of the flask of oil. The general populace, in the absence of an explicit reason, would think that the festival was established as a remembrance of the salvations and victories, and the lighting of candles is to remember the renewed lighting of the menorah in the Beis Hamikdosh. Let them think what they will, as long as they observe the festival with all the its commandments, according to Halachah.
This corresponds to the text of Al Hanissim. There, also, everything is mentioned in a vague style - the wars, the victories, together with the purification of the sanctuary and the lighting of the candles, which is based on the miracle of the flask of oil. But this miracle is not mentioned explicitly, because this prayer is for everybody, and therefore they intentionally concealed this reason of the ‘inside’ miracle because of ignoramuses.
This is also the explanation of the words of the Megillas Taanis. Initially, the writer informs us of the main miracle of the flask of oil. Afterwards, he asks “Why did they see fit to make Chanukah eight days, when the inauguration that Moshe made in the wilderness was only seven days?” The question is not only about the festival established for the generations, but also about Yehudah the Maccabee and his Beis Din's instituting the celebration of the rededication of the altar for eight days as a festival already at the conclusion of the war, as related in the Book of the Chashmonoim 1.1, even though all this was before the miracle of the flask of oil. He answers that it was because they were involved eight days with the building of the altar and the repair of the sacred vessels.
He further asks in Megillas Taanis “Why did they see fit to light the lights?”. This question does not concern those who established the festival, but rather it concerns the general populace of Yisrael. Because according to what we explained earlier, the miracle of the flask of oil had not been made known to them. So therefore, why did they light the lights? Presumably the festival with Hallel and thanksgiving they accepted upon themselves because of the victory in the war, but what connection does this have to kindling lights, whose reason was hidden from the general population. About this comes the answer: “In the days of the rule of the Greeks, the sons of the Chashmonoim entered the sanctuary with seven spits of iron in their hands, and they lit with them the menorah”, and as a remembrance of the spits and the renewal of the kindling of the lights of the menorah, the people accepted upon themselves the mitzvah of kindling lights.
Therefore, we are no longer amazed at the authors of the Books of the Maccabees for not mentioning the miracle of the flask of oil, because those who established the festival of Chanukah deliberately concealed it. Accordingly, they could not explain and publicise it in their books.
And according to our words, how well we now understand the question of the Baraisa “What is Chanukah?”, which Rashi explained means “for which miracle did they establish it?”. Rashi appears to be very difficult, because surely until the time of the arrangement of the Baraisa already for many decades the festival of Chanukah had spread throughout Yisrael, and the mitzvah of kindling the lights to publicise the miracle had been accepted. It follows, therefore, that the miracle was well known to every man and woman from their action in observing the festival (the candle lighting) without having to formally learn it, so what is this question “for what miracle did they establish it?”
However, according to our understanding, the question is appropriate, because in the early period after the establishment of the festival of Chanukah, our Rabbis hid the miracle of the flask of oil from the public at large, and accordingly they thought that the miracle was to remember the deliverance of the mighty into the hand of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few. But at the time of the Baraisa, when the festival had already spread throughout all Klal Yisrael, and they were no longer worried about people treating the decree lightly - then they publicised the miracle of the flask of oil.
This is what is meant by the question “what is Chanukah?” - to tell the people about the miracle of the flask of oil, and that this is the main reason why Chanukah was established.
The matter is now fully clear.