April 18, 2024
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Chanukah parties with family and friends are one of the highlights of this special time of year. Though an appropriate way to celebrate, the Shulchan Aruch paskens that these parties are not obligatory because — as opposed to Purim — Chanukah was not established in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 670:2) as “feasting and joy.”

Why was Chanukah instituted this way? Why is the celebratory feast central to Purim, but not to Chanukah?

The Levush (ibid.) suggests that Purim commemorates our salvation from the physical threat of annihilation and so we celebrate it in a physical way. By contrast, Chanukah only commemorates a spiritual threat. The Greeks did not seek to annihilate us, but rather to assimilate us. Because our lives were not in danger, Chanukah is commemorated spiritually, through the neirot (lights), but not with physical feasting.

The Taz (Orach Chayim 670:3) rejects the Levush in very strong terms: “This is not correct.” The Taz felt that the Levush minimized the significance of the Grecian threat by presenting it as “merely” spiritual. He cites Chazal who say: “Gadol hamachtio yotei min hahargo — causing another to sin is worse than killing him.”

The root of this teaching is the midrash’s explanation of the Torah’s harsh treatment of the nations of Ammon and Moav. Sefer Devarim (23:4) prohibits marrying converts from these nations — even 10 generations after their conversion! The Torah even commands us to ignore their needs and welfare (ibid. 23:7). The Midrash Tanchuma on parshat Pinchas (3) explains these verses as referring to a time of war. While we offer peace to other enemies before declaring war, we make no such offer to Ammon or Moav.

By contrast, the following verses exhort Am Yisrael to welcome converts from the nations of Edom and Egypt whom we are permitted to marry after only three generations. Why do we welcome the converts of Egypt, a nation that enslaved us and killed our children, but not the people of Ammon and Moav?

The Midrash Tanchuma (ibid.) explains that while the Egyptians attacked us physically; Ammon and Moav did something even worse — conspiring with Bilaam to ensnare our ancestors in sin with Moabite women. Luring another to sin is worse than killing them because killing only removes the victim from this world, while sin removes one from the next world as well.

For this reason, the Taz objects to the implication that a spiritual threat is less significant than a physical one. Chanukah commemorates salvation from a spiritual threat — a greater salvation than that of Purim!

The midrash and the Taz remind us to live our lives in this world in a way that enhances our life in the next one for “this world is merely an entryway into the next one.” (Masechet Avot 4:17)

For this reason, the mishna teaches that if someone is forced to choose between saving the life of his father (when one’s father did not teach him Torah) or his rebbe, he should prioritize his rebbe. His father brought him into this world, but his rebbe brings him into the next one.

While most enemies of the Jewish people have sought to destroy us, the Greeks tried to change our identity and the nature of our religious conviction. The Chanukah victory was not merely a military victory of the few over the many, but a reassertion of and commitment to our unadulterated Jewish identity.

Chanukah commemoration throughout the generations emboldened our ancestors to resist the temptation to assimilate into the surrounding culture. It inspires us to remain a distinct people committed to our Torah and traditions.

We can appreciate how Chanukah symbolizes our preservation of our traditions — in the face of attempts to erase us — from a story told by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (“Chanukah in Our Time”):

“Back in 1991, I lit Chanukah candles with Mikhail Gorbachev, who had, until earlier that year, been President of the Soviet Union. For 70 years, the practice of Judaism had been effectively banned in communist Russia.

It was one of the two great assaults on our people and faith in the 20th century.

The Germans sought to kill Jews; the Russians tried to kill Judaism. Under Stalin the assault became brutal. Then in 1967, after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, many Soviet Jews sought to leave Russia and go to Israel. Not only was permission refused, but often the Jews concerned lost their jobs and were imprisoned. Around the world Jews campaigned for the prisoners, Refuseniks they were called, to be released and allowed to leave.

Eventually, Mikhail Gorbachev realized that the whole Soviet system was unworkable. Communism had brought not freedom and equality, but repression, a police state, and a new hierarchy of power. In the end, it collapsed, and Jews regained the freedom to practice Judaism and to go to Israel.

That day, in 1991, after we had lit candles together, Mr. Gorbachev asked me — through his interpreter — what we had just done. I told him that 22 centuries ago, in Israel, after the public practice of Judaism had been banned, Jews fought for and won their freedom — and these lights were the symbol of that victory.

And I continued: ‘70 years ago, Jews suffered the same loss of freedom in Russia, and you have now helped them to regain it. So, you have become part of the Chanukah story.’ And as the interpreter translated those words into Russian, Mikhail Gorbachev blushed.

The Chanukah story still lives, still inspires — telling not just us, but the world that though tyranny exists, freedom — with God’s help — will always win the final battle.”

In recent generations, sustaining our unique identity has become more difficult. In many countries, we were freed from the ghettos and offered acceptance within the broader society. Most Jews have taken advantage of the opportunity and assimilated in one form or another. Though we are still attacked and killed because of our ethnicity, we lose far more people to assimilation and intermarriage.

Assimilation and even intermarriage threaten Jews in Israel, as well. Though we live as a free nation in our own land, modern media and the internet constantly expose us to the world’s culture and mores. Chanukah reminds us that what we learn from the world around us must not steer us away from our Torah and traditions.

May this Chanukah inspire us with pride in our unique spiritual identity, and strengthen our commitment to our eternal heritage. Chanukah Sameach!


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

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