By Shlomo Riskin
“For the candle is the commandment and the Torah is light.” [Prov. 6:23]
As we prepare for the festival of Chanukah – which commences at the conclusion of the Sabbath – it behooves us to revisit the significance of the lights of the chanukkiah, as well as the praises of the Al Hanissim and Hallel prayers that mark our eight-day celebration.
Based on the text of the prayer of Al Hanissim (lit. “for the miracles”), which appears in the thanksgiving blessing of the Amidah and the Grace after Meals throughout the festival, it would appear that the essential miracle of Chanukah is the military victory of a ragtag militia of Judeans over a vastly larger fighting force, the army of the Greco-Syrian Kingdom.
However, another source, first found in the late Tannaitic work Megillat Taanit and cited by the Babylonian Talmud [Shabbat 21b], emphasizes an altogether different miracle only hinted at in the Al Hanissim prayer. According to this source, which barely even mentions the military victory, the main miracle was a single cruse of oil sufficient for one day lasting for eight days.
Faced with this apparent dispute within our own tradition, which, then, is the primary miracle of the holiday? If both, why did the Almighty have to perform the second miracle of the cruse of oil at all? The military victory would have been sufficient to restore Israeli sovereignty, and the Maccabees could have waited eight days to secure new oil before lighting the menorah! Moreover, it would have been halakhically permissible to use ritually defiled oil if no other oil was available.
In order to understand the significance of each miracle, we must review a famous dispute concerning the proper manner of kindling the chanukkiah: Beit Shammai maintains that we are to begin with eight lights on the first evening and descend to one on the last evening, while Beit Hillel argues that we begin with one and ascend to eight.
Rabbi Yosef Zevin, z”l, 20th-century sage of Jerusalem, suggests that the basis for the disagreement is what we are kindling: ur (fire) or ohr (light). According to Beit Shammai, the main struggle and miraculous victory was against an implacable enemy who wished to destroy us. We thus had to counter fire with fire (“You shall destroy with fire the evil within you”, as the Torah states numerous times). It is the way of fire to begin with a great blaze and then diminish as it devours whatever is in its midst (hence, eight to one). This is akin to the military battle in which the victorious Judeans triumph and trounce those who would destroy ethical monotheism.
According to Beit Hillel, however, the main struggle—and miraculous victory—was the victory over the false ideology of Greco-Pagan Hellenism. The battle of ideas is won with better ideas, in this case, the light of Torah knowledge: “For the candle is the commandment and the Torah is light.” Since knowledge is cumulative, developing as text is joined to text, so, too, ideas are built upon ideas, and hence, the progression from one light to eight, an ideological and spiritual victory of Mount Sinai over Mount Olympus.
We can understand the essence of the miracles that we celebrate by considering the fact the Maccabees were fighting against not one, but two destructive enemies. On the one hand, they were battling the Greco-Syrian military forces that were physically threatening Judean independence and freedom in our homeland. And on the other hand, they were combatting the Greco-Syrian ideology that was spiritually threatening the Torah’s message of commitment to a God of peace, compassionate righteousness and moral justice.
The Al Hanissim prayer and our Hallel praise emphasize the military victory that brought us independence; the kindling of the Menorah (in accordance with Beit Hillel) emphasizes the ideological, spiritual victory of a religiously committed Judea against the pagan-secular Hellenism that had dominated the entire civilized world at that time. Both victories and each miracle were crucial in order for Israel’s legacy not only to survive but to prevail.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.