Chanuka: A Holiday of Renewing the Covenant (Part II)
In order to get to the root of the matter, we must understand what is unique about Chanuka and Purim, and what turned them into holidays for all generations. At first glance, the answer is simple, for Chazal already raised the question, “What is [the reason of] Chanuka,” and answered as follows:
For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Chanuka, which are eight days on which a eulogy for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean kings prevailed and defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was performed with it and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.
Things, however, are not so simple. For surely many miracles were performed for our forefathers without holidays being instituted in their wake; and many times our ancestors were delivered from danger without festivals being established to remember the rescue. On the contrary, days on which the Jewish people were saved from danger were recorded in Megillat Ta’anit, and on those days eulogies and fasting were forbidden, but nothing more. Were we to discuss the prohibition of eulogies and fasting on Chanuka when the prohibitions of Megillat Ta’anit were in force, the issues would be clear. But when we come to look for the reason that Chanuka was established as a holiday for all generations, we must investigate the matter more thoroughly.
If we examine the matter in light of a comparison with Pesach, the first and foremost of the festivals, we see that the festival of Pesach does not come to commemorate the splitting of the sea, one of the greatest miracles ever performed on behalf of the Jewish people (just as we don’t celebrate the fall of the walls of Jericho or the fall of great stones on the descent to Bet-Choron in the days of Yehoshua, or the like). Rather, the festival of
To clarify the matter, let us examine the four terms of redemption told to Moshe (Shemot 6:6-7):
Therefore say to the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will deliver you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments: and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brings you out from under the burdens of Egypt.
Moshe is informed about two different things: 1) the deliverance of
It seems that the essence of the day is connected to the covenant of “I will take you to Me for a people,” and not to the promises of “I will bring you out” or “I will deliver you.” I find this approach convincing both because of the very centrality of the covenant of
In truth, both of these motifs – deliverance and election – are found in the redemption from Egypt and the festival of Pesach, and it is possible to identify two-fold and parallel features in many of the mitzvot of the day that come to express these two components. Thus, for example, there is room to distinguish in this context between the offering of the paschal sacrifice and its eating, and so too we can identify two fulfillments regarding chametz and matza (see Pesachim 28b, Rabbi Yose ha-Gelili’s position regarding Pesach Mitzrayim, and Tosafot, Pesachim 36b, s.v. mei peirot). Also relevant to this discussion are the two beginnings of the Hagada (Avadim hayinu, Be-ever ha-nahar), and similar phenomena. My primary concern here, however, is Chanuka, and so I shall not expand any further on matters concerning Pesach.
What underlies the entire matter is that the fundamental essence of a holiday involves the connection created between man and God and the phenomenon of man’s standing before God on that day. On a festival, man encounters God and stands before Him, and this closeness between God and man is the foundation of that festival. This principle finds expression both in the manner of celebrating the festival in later generations, and in the selection of days to be celebrated as holidays. Holidays follow from the covenant between man and God that finds expression in the essence of the day. What is most important is not the deliverance or the miracle, but the covenant that underlies them. It is for this reason that Sukkot, which does not commemorate deliverance, but rather reflects
So as not to stray too far in this discussion, I shall suffice with a brief mention of some of the halakhic factors that express this principle. First of all, the connection between the festivals and the sacrifices brought on those days is rooted in this idea. The objective of the festivals is to offer sacrifices and appear before God in the
Second, the High Priest’s standing regarding mourning. According to the simple understanding of the talmudic passage at the beginning of the second chapter of Mo’ed Katan (14b), the High Priest does not observe any mourning practices whatsoever. The Gemara explains this rule as follows: “All year round for the High Priest is like a festival for all other people.” It goes without saying that the joy of the festival that stems from the feeling of gratitude for the exodus from
Regarding Chanuka and Purim as well, the essence of these holidays is not the miracle or the deliverance in themselves, but rather the covenant that accompanies them. What is special about these two holidays is that they both mark covenants made between
Just as it is possible to enter into a covenant, it is also possible to cancel a covenant. The Torah testifies to this possibility at the end of the book of Devarim, and the matter is clarified at the end of the first chapter of Yebamot (17a) regarding the ten tribes. According to the second version of the talmudic discussion there, if in our day a member of the ten tribes betroths a woman, his betrothal is not valid, because those tribes are regarded as having assimilated among the host nations into which they had been exiled. For this reason Shmuel asserts that “they did not move from there until they made them full-fledged idolaters, as it is stated, ‘They have dealt treacherously against the Lord; for they have begotten strange children’ (Hoshea 5:7).” Even though we say that “a Jew, even if he sins, remains a Jew,” this only applies when he maintains the framework of the covenant and sees himself included therein, but if he annuls the covenant, the rule does not apply to him.
Both Chanuka and Purim are historical meeting points, when the people of
While it is true that Yechezkel fought these phenomena already in the first generation following the destruction, they only became stronger and deeper in the Persian society of Achashverosh’s kingdom. In addition to the exile itself and the Jewish people’s leaving their land, a new factor came into play – contact with the cosmopolitan society of the Persian capital in Shushan. Megillat Esther depicts Persian society as an open and modern society, in the heart of a vast empire, where Jews are welcomed as citizens enjoying equal rights. Consequently, a school of thought spread among the people claiming that the Torah had been suited to their circumstances in the old country, a traditional society led by priests and prophets, when Israel lived alone surrounded by a cruel and pagan society. But in the modern, liberal and technologically advanced country to which they had arrived and where they currently were living, there was no longer any need or place for the Torah that sets
The significance of Mordechai and Esther’s endeavors lies in the renewal and reestablishment of the covenant in the face of these arguments. The elderly Mordechai, himself a Jerusalemite who was exiled from his homeland to Babylonia by Nevuchadnetzar, and the young Esther, born in the new country and rooted in the local culture while still clinging to the Torah, join together to establish the continued relevance and validity of the covenant in all places and in all times. With their well-known statement, “They once again accepted it [=the Torah] during the days of Achashverosh” (Shabbat 88a), Chazal taught us that the verse, “the Jews ordained and took upon them” (Esther 9:27) relates to the making of a new covenant regarding the entire Torah, and not only to the establishment of the days of Purim. If we ask ourselves, how could Chazal suggest that the verse is dealing with a renewal of the Sinaitic covenant, when it is explicitly stated in Scripture that the acceptance in question related to the days of Purim, my answer is that the entire significance of Purim lies in the renewal of the covenant.
We see, then, that we mark two things that happened on Purim: 1) the miracle by which we were saved from Haman’s plan to eradicate the Jews, and 2) the renewal of the covenant in the face of the spiritual danger of assimilation in a foreign land.
When we come to Chanuka, the situation is very similar. If on Purim the first encounter with exile challenged the covenant of Sinai as being irrelevant to
We see, then, that Chanuka commemorates two things: the miracle of the war in which the mighty were delivered into the hands of the weak; and the renewal of the covenant in the sense of “they once again accepted it during the days of Matityahu.” In light of this assertion, we can now answer the questions raised above: why did Chazal establish Chanuka as a festival for all generations, and in what way was the miracle of Chanuka different than all the other miracles? The answer is that Chanuka’s significance lies not in the miracle in itself, but in the fact that the miracle served as a sign of the renewal of the covenant. The festival of Chanuka is a festival commemorating a covenant, rather than a miracle.
In order to understand the role of the miracle in the covenant, we must pay attention to the fact that the covenant in the days of Mordechai and Matityahu differed from the covenant at Sinai in an important manner, namely, the initiative to enter into a covenant. The covenant of Sinai, like the redemption from
Chazal went even further and highlighted the top-down nature of the covenant in a famous midrash (Shabbat 88a) that says that the covenant of Sinai was forced upon
In Shushan and in Modi’in, on the other hand, the covenant was rooted in “an awakening from below” on the part of
It should be added that the Rishonim disagree whether or not Megillat Ta’anit is still in force today with respect to Chanuka and Purim. It would appear that they disagree about the following: Do we celebrate Chanuka and Purim today only as days of covenant, without the dimension of gratitude for the miracle? For it can be argued that the period following the destruction of the Temple opened a new era, everything that preceded it becoming a matter of history, and we no longer commemorate the miracles that happened earlier. Or perhaps both dimensions still obtain, and they are days of feasting and rejoicing over the deliverance, in addition to their being festivals owing to the covenant.
To be continued.
 See Yerushalmi Pesachim (4:1, beginning), Tosafot (Pesachim 50a, s.v. makom) and Rishonim ad loc., Ta’anit (12a) regarding the sons of Sanav the son of Binyamin, Rabbenu Gershom on Ta’anit (17a, s.v. anshei mishmar mit’anin), and Turei Even, Megilla (22a, s.v. ve-li nir’eh, ve-khi teima).
 See “U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham,” note 19, s.v. gam and s.v. ikar.
 It should be noted that some Rishonim appear to have understood that such a person’s betrothal is not valid because of the authority granted to the rabbis to annul betrothals, and not because by strict law he is treated like a non-Jew. See Rashba (ibid. 22a, s.v. mi she-yesh), Ritva (s.v. mi she-yesh), Meiri (16b, s.v. u-mi-kan; 22a, s.v. ve-Ge’onei). See also Keren Ora (17a, s.v. ika; and 22a, s.v. ha-Rashba), and my revered father’s article, “Brother Daniel and the Jewish Fraternity,” Judaism 12 (Summer 1963), pp. 260-280 [reprinted in Leaves of Faith, vol. 2 (
It is not my purpose here to delineate the precise boundaries of the covenant (and perhaps this cannot be done). In general terms, we can say that there exists a two-fold covenant between
 See Sifrei on Bamidbar 15:41.
 See Tosafot (Ta’anit 18a, s.v. rav), Ba’al ha-Ma’or, Ra’avad, and Ramban’s Milchamot Ha-Shem (end of the first chapter of Megilla; 4a in Alfasi), Ritva (Ta’anit 10a, s.v. tanya nami hakhi yechidim; pp. 42-29 in the Mossad Ha-Rav Kook edition), Ran on