Although a few Mitzvot surround Chanukah, one is surprisingly absent: the Mitzvah of eating. This is surprising primarily because we are Jewish, with many elements of our lives revolving around food, as well as because Chanukah is probably the most food-filled festival of the entire year. Unofficial meals of the holiday include deep-fried potato pancakes, deep-fried donuts, followed by some more deep-fried potato pancakes…and then dessert (usually deep-fried donuts). Why is there so much food on a holiday without a Mitzvah to eat?
The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (Perek Bet), when discussing Chanukah, mentions that although we are prohibited from fasting and eulogizing, there is no Mitzvah of Simchah and no Mitzvah to eat; rather, the only Mitzvot we are given on Chanukah are to praise G-d (through Hallel and Al HaNisim) and to light the candles. The Tur, in fact, quotes the Maharam MeiRotenberg, who believes that all the meals and food we eat on Chanukah are actually just Reshut. In other words, according to the Maharam MeiRotenberg, we eat because we like to eat, but there is no Mitzvah to do so.
If this is the case, why is it appropriate to eat? On a holiday which celebrates our freedom from Hellenization and the over-emphasis of the physical world, one would think we would try to minimize our indulgences!
The Darkei Moshe quotes the Maharah MiPrague, who somewhat answers this question. The Maharah writes that since these Se’udot are Se’udot Reshut, we should increase Zemirot and Divrei Torah during the meals so that they become Se’udot Mitzvah. While this is a somewhat satisfactory solution, the question still remains: why are we eating in the first place? Shouldn’t we be abstaining from physical pleasures on Chanukah? Additionally, why is Chanukah any different than a regular day regarding Zemirot and Torah? Why doesn’t the Maharah suggest that we always increase Torah and Zemirot so that our meals will be Se’udot Mitzvah?
The classic answer given to the question of why we don’t have a Mitzvah to eat on Chanukah is that we celebrate with physical pleasure (eating, etc.) only when we have been saved from an existential threat; on Chanukah, however, the threat was entirely spiritual and ideological, so we have a Mitzvah to celebrate spiritually, but not one to celebrate physically. If we combine this answer with the opinion of the Maharah MiPrague, we glean a beautiful insight into Chanukah. While the idea of Chanukah is to raise ourselves above Hellenism, this is only part of the task. The idea of Chanukah is not just to elevate ourselves but to elevate the world along with us. In this aspect, the point of Chanukah is not to refrain from eating but to eat like Jews and celebrate like Jews. If we spend eight days gluttonously devouring doughnuts and Latkes, then we have indeed missed the point. If, however, we use our enjoyment to become closer to Hashem and to help us better serve Hashem, than we have succeeded in being Ma’alim both ourselves and the physical word along with us.