In his Hilchot Chanukah (3:3), Rambam records that the Chachamim (Sages) established the holiday of Chanukah as eight days, starting from the 25th of Kisleiv, of happiness and thanksgiving, during which we light the Menorah “LeHarot ULeGalot HaNeis,” “to show and reveal the miracle.” Later (4:12), Rambam writes of the Mitzvah of lighting Neirot Chanukah (the Chanukah candles), “Chavivah Hi Ad Me’od,” “it is exceptionally beloved.” He continues to say that one must do Pirsumei Nissa, publicize Hashem’s miracle, and thank Him for the miracles He performed on Am Yisrael’s behalf.
Rambam’s explanation behooves several questions. Why does Rambam highlight “LeHarot ULeGalot HaNeis” as the crux of Neirot Chanukah? What is the difference between LeHarot and LeGalot?
Rambam does not say a Mitzvah is “Chavivah” when writing about other cases of Pirsumei Nissa, such as reading Megillat Ester on Purim and drinking four cups of wine on Pesach. How is Neir Chanukah different from other Mitzvot of Pirsumei Nissa and deserving of the term “Chavivah”?
Obviously there is something special about Neir Chanukah, since if Pirsumei Nissa’s purpose were just to thank Hashem, it would not be different than what we do everyday during davening! What is unique about Neirot Chanukah and how do we characterize this special dimension?
The Mitzvah of Neirot Chanukah is not defined as “Zeicher LeMikdash,” established to commemorate Temple practices. Nevertheless, Neirot Chanukah carry their own special Kedushah, evident from the words we say every night of Chanukah, “HaNeirot HaLalu Kodesh Heim,” “these candles are sacred.” From where is this Kedushah derived if not from the Beit HaMikdash?
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains all these questions based on a statement of the Gemara (Shabbat 22b). It writes that the Beit HaMikdash’s Menorah, expressly its Neir Tamid (perpetually lit center candle) was an undyingly glowing reminder that Hashem’s Shechinah (divine presence) resides among Bnei Yisrael. Ramban, in his commentary to Parashat BeHaalotecha, writes that the Chanukiyah replaces the Menorah BeZman HaZeh (nowadays). We can thus see that their goals are the same: to physically show that Hashem’s Shechinah is among the Jews, even in our generation.
The fulcrum of the disagreement between the Greeks and Jews was if Bnei Yisrael is a nation chosen from among other nations. This issue has been the source of anti-Semitism from Greeks, Romans, Christians, and Muslims. The Greeks posited that God did not cull the Jews from among other peoples; however, the Menorah averred this claim’s speciousness, as it exhibited that Hashem still remained with the Jews.
Thus, we can understand the Chanukah candles in a different light. The candles do not only remind us of the miracle, but reveal Hashem’s Shechinah. When one lights Neirot Chanukah nowadays, he shows that Hashem still resides among Bnei Yisrael. Rambam thus emphasizes that Neirot Chanukah are meant LeHarot ULeGalot HaNeis. LeHarot is to show something perceptible; LeGalot is to reveal something hitherto unknown. To illustrate the two different definitions, one can draw a parable to touring a house. LeHarot is showing extant aspects of an existing house; LeGalot is showing an empty field, how a house formerly stood upon it, who lived in the house, how it was burnt down, and other details that are not readily apparent. Neirot Chanukah have two functions. One is LeHarot HaNeis, to show others the well-known miracle by lighting in a public place. The other is LeGalot HaNeis – to reveal Chanukah’s not readily apparent essence, to reveal why we fought the Greeks, to reveal why we are still lighting commemorative candles today, to reveal to the entire world that Jews are unique and chosen by God, and to reveal that He resides with us – by kindling Chanukah candles.
Hashem shows Himself through Neir Chanukah as he did through the Neir Tamid in the Beit HaMikdash. Through Neir Chanukah, we demonstrate that Hashem resides in every Jew. That fact is the pivot upon which the Torah is based. Thus, Rambam uses the special language of “Chavivah” to show us that Neir Chanukah is beloved because it epitomizes the Torah’s essence.
As they show the bond between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael, Neirot Chanukah are independently holy. We, says the Rav, should approach them with reverence, as Moshe approached the Senneh (the Burning Bush).
Unlike during other persecutions, where Jews were clearly persecuted, during Galut Yavan, the Greek exile, Jews were not overtly victimized. Yet before the Maccabee victory, Judaism was in dire straits. Millions of Jews were fully assimilated, usually willingly, into Greek culture, whose openness to proselytes was an anomaly among the era’s world cultures. Shocked and lured by prosperity and inclusiveness, Jews rampantly assimilated into Greek culture at record, uncontrolled, astonishing rates. The Gemara laments that Jews disregarded even basic Mitzvot, like observing Shabbat and refraining from Melachah. The biggest problem the Jews faced was intermarriage, caused by the unchecked assimilation. The Beit HaMikdash was defiled and violated, but the Jews did not retaliate due to the unbearable, seductive burden of Galut Yavan. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were dying; but, unlike in other persecutions, these Jews were dying spiritually. No fundamental Mitzvot, no usable Beit HaMikdash, pernicious intermarriage rates, and unbridled assimilation always compose a fatal recipe for the Jewish nation. But the Chanukah victory changed our nation’s spirit. We stopped assimilating and intermarrying, cleaved to Torah and Mitzvot, and rededicated the Beit HaMikdash.
Many claim that we are now in Galut Yavan, as Judaism is suffering spiritually, not physically. Before the “Modern Era,” Jews clung to their religion and to each other because they were all we had. Society was less than amiable to Jews. Nowadays, however, we are free from violent persecution and the deleterious intermarriage and assimilation rates plaguing Jews are at historic highs, reminiscent of the Greeks’ spiritual attacks. There is no Beit HaMikdash, and, unfortunately, the vast majority of Jews do not observe Mitzvot because of indifference or lack of exposure. The parallels between our current exile and the Greek exile are mortifying.
Querulous many say there is no foreseeable end to this Greek exile, for our Jewish nation is incorrigibly divided. Chanukah, however, shows otherwise. In the first Galut Yavan, the Jews were saved by retaking control of Israel, reestablishing their Jewish identity, and showing that God’s presence resides among Bnei Yisrael. We should learn from the first Galut Yavan, show our identity to the world, and reveal that God, albeit concealed, resides with Am Yisrael. For centuries, publicly lighting Neirot Chanukah would endanger one’s life; fortunately, we live in a time which allows us to proudly and conspicuously light Neirot Chanukah without fear. When we light the Chanukah candles, therefore, we should assert our unique identity to the world.
It is thus paradoxical that Chanukah, the holiday when Jews are most conspicuously Jewish, is the holiday unfortunately adulterated with non-Jewish themes. Sadly, Chanukah has somewhat morphed into a modulated version of another major holiday in December. When we kindle the sacrosanct Neirot Chanukah this year, perhaps we ought to turn the light inward: LeHarot, to show ourselves the previous rescue from Galut Yavan, which will be repeated only after we realize the imperative LeGalot, to reveal to ourselves and appreciate our unique identity as Jews, a people God chose from among all other nations.