Skip to main content

Chanuka: A Holiday of Renewing the Covenant (2)

Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein




            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 Pesach marks the election of Israel that took place on the fifteenth of Nisan.

            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 Israel from the yoke and bondage of Egypt; 2) God’s election of Israel and taking them as His people. We are dealing here with two different promises that relate to two distinct issues that could easily have been separated. Israel could have become the chosen people even without being taken out of Egypt, and conversely, it would have been possible to redeem Israel without their redemption being accompanied by their election as God’s people. Therefore, when we come to discuss the festival of Pesach, we must examine which of the two motifs underlies each of the mitzvot of the day.

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 Egypt and on the basis of an analysis of the relevant biblical texts. Israel left Egypt on the morning of the fifteenth of Nisan, and their final exodus and redemption from the afflictions of Egypt were only completed on the twenty-first of Nisan, when Pharaoh and his army drowned in the sea and Israel set forward to the wilderness of Shur. In contrast, the election of Israel and the establishment of the covenant between the nation and God took place on the night of the fifteenth. The blood of the paschal offering that was placed on the door posts and lintels, i.e., the blood of the covenant between Israel and God, preceded the exodus from Egypt the next day, and the mitzvot of Pesach had been given even earlier. We see, then, that the mitzvot of Pesach follow not from the exodus from Egypt but from the establishment of the covenant.

            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 Israel’s connection and closeness to God, was sanctified as a festival, whereas other days, in which the Jewish people were saved from afflictions, were not declared as holidays for future generations. In any event, even if deliverance from adversity is one of the factors that obligate a holiday, the commemoration of the miracle in itself is insufficient reason to declare a festival.

            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 Temple courtyard, and there is even a special kiyyum of offering free-will sacrifices on a festival (as is evident in Vayikra 23:37-38 and Bamidbar 29:39). What is more, the day on which a person offers sacrifices is for him a festival owing to the very fact that he offered sacrifices on that day, thus creating a situation of standing before God.[1] On the one hand, then, a day on which a person offers sacrifices is a festival, and, on the other hand, on a festival one must offer sacrifices. The truth is that these are two sides of the same coin, in that both a festival and a sacrifice bring man to the state of standing before God. Therefore, if a person is standing before God because of the sanctity of the day, this should find expression in a sacrifice, and if a sacrifice brings him to stand before God, this in itself turns the day into a festival, because the person is standing before God.

            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 Egypt has no relevance to the High Priest the rest of the year. Rather, the High Priest is similar to a festival in the sense that he stands before God all year long, and thus his status throughout the year is like that of the Jewish people on a festival.[2]




            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 Israel and their Father in heaven. The main thing is not the miracle, but rather the covenant. Both on Chanuka and on Purim a covenant was made between Israel and God, and this is what underlies the celebration of these days. On both occasions the need arose to establish a new covenant, owing to a challenge that was directed at the original covenant of Sinai.

            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.[3]

            Both Chanuka and Purim are historical meeting points, when the people of Israel encountered new and unfamiliar circumstances that brought them to question the continued relevance of the covenant of Sinai. In the wake of the destruction of the Temple and Israel’s exile to Babylonia, a school of thought developed among the people that saw the covenant as having been dissolved. The primary cause was the very fact of exile and the widespread feeling among the members of that generation that God had cancelled His covenant with Israel and therefore sent them into exile, like a servant sold by his master.[4] There is also room to suggest that among certain sectors of the population the idolatrous idea took root that the God of Israel is god of the land, but not god of the world, and therefore the covenant was cancelled when Israel left the land.

            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 Israel apart from the other nations. From now on, so they assumed, there would be no room for the Torah that no longer suits their new circumstances. It seemed to them that the new situation dictated assimilation and cultural acclimation, along with an abandonment of the covenant of Sinai.

            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 Israel’s new circumstances, on Chanuka a similar challenge resulted from Israel’s coming into contact for the first time with general learning and wisdom. The encounter with Greek-Hellenistic civilization was Israel’s first real contact with a highly developed humanistic culture created by man. Once again, a school of thought arose that advocated the adoption of the achievements of Greek culture while giving up the Sinaitic covenant. As in Shushan, the assimilationists did not necessarily argue against the importance of the Torah when it was given, but rather raised doubts about the need to preserve it now that they have become exposed to general wisdom. We can present their argument as follows: As long as Israel was surrounded by inferior, pagan nations (“barbarians,” as referred to by the Greeks), the Torah could be regarded as culturally and morally advanced in relation to the ancient nations. Indeed, the Torah had ensured that Israel did not behave in the manner of the abominations of the Canaanites and Egyptians, but rather lived a more refined and cultivated life. All this was valid when Israel was faced with the alternatives of the Torah or Canaanite culture, before the people of Israel came into contact with Greek wisdom and advanced Hellenistic civilization. When, however, Hellenistic influence began to penetrate the country, and Israel was exposed to Greek culture and philosophy, there was no longer any need for the Torah and its connection to the God of Israel. Thus, there arose a group of Hellenizers who challenged the covenant and saw it as null and void following Israel’s encounter with general wisdom. It was in this context that Matityahu and his sons arose, as did Mordechai and Esther in their day, to renew and reestablish the covenant of Sinai and to reaffirm its significance in the new cultural circumstances.

            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 Egypt, began when the Lord turned to Israel to take them as His people and to be their God. God initiated and Israel responded (Shemot 19:5-8).

            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 Israel at Mount Sinai. According to this midrash, God held the mountain over them like a cask so that they would agree to the covenant.

            In Shushan and in Modi’in, on the other hand, the covenant was rooted in “an awakening from below” on the part of Israel, rather than “an awakening from above” on the part of God. Since it was the people who had desired to abrogate the covenant, the repair had to come from them as well. Esther’s cry – “Go and gather” – and that of Matityahu – “Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come to me” – and the people’s response by way of prayer and war constitute the renewal and reaffirmation of the covenant. The miracle served as a heavenly sign that God was pleased with their actions and was ready to join in a covenant with them. The miracle was the conduit through which God expressed His willingness to enter into a covenant with them. Therefore, the establishment of a festival on Chanuka commemorates the covenant.

            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.[5] 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.


[1] 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).

[2] See “U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham,” note 19, s.v. gam and s.v. ikar.

[3] 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 (Jersey City, 2004), pp. 57-84].

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 Israel and God – the covenant of the patriarchs and the covenant of Sinai. The first expresses the national identity of the people of Israel as the seed of Avraham, whereas the second is the covenant of the Torah between God and Israel as keepers of the Torah and bearers of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. Thus, a Jew who sins is still a Jew and he remains within the framework of the covenant, because even though his sin distances him from the covenant of Sinai, he is still a Jew owing to the covenant of the patriarchs. If, however, even his national identity disappears, nothing remains and he is no longer a Jew. I expanded on these ideas in my article, “Be-Inyan Gerut ve-Hamara” (as yet unpublished), offering halakhic illustrations. All this must be examined in light of the discussions among the Rishonim concerning the betrothal, levirate bond and inheritance of an apostate. See also my revered father’s article cited above, pp. 265-268.

[4] See Sifrei on Bamidbar 15:41.

[5] 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 Rif (Ta’anit 18a; 6b-7a in Alfasi, from s.v. u-le-inyan until the mishna) and others. As for normative law, the Bach and the Shulchan Arukh disagree on the matter; the Shulchan Arukh rules that the laws of Megillat Ta’anit do not apply today on Chanuka and Purim, whereas the Bach maintains that they do (Orach Chayyim 686:1; and see Magen Avraham and Vilna Gaon, ad loc.).

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!