Rava’s Chanukah Revolution by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Last week, we presented a reason for why Chanukah’s significance seems to have been implicitly diminished in the Mishnah and even the Gemara until it was “rescued” by the Rambam (last week’s article is archived at www.koltorah.org).  We suggested that Chazal did not want to encourage a repeat of the Bar Kochba revolt with its disastrous consequences.  We noted how the Rambam seems to make an extraordinary effort to promote the prestige of this holiday.  

We did not, however, present a Talmudic precedent for the Rambam’s promotion of Chanukah.  This week we shall suggest that Rava’s statements as recorded on Shabbat 23b serve as a precedent for the Rambam’s departure from the Tannaitic approach to Chanukah.  A careful analysis of this Sugya (unit of Talmudic discussion) appears to indicate that the Amoraic sage Rava had initiated the departure from the late Tannaitic and early Amoraic downplaying of Chanukah.  I specifically thank my current (5766) Y9 Shiur at the Torah Academy of Bergen County for their contributions and joint development of our understanding of this fascinating Sugya.  

Shabbat 23b

The Sugya begins with Rava presenting two Halachot that he assumes are obvious (“Peshitah”).  The first is that if one is faced with the choice of being able to light only Ner Shabbat (Shabbat lights) or Ner Chanukah (Chanukah lights), one should light Ner Shabbat.  A poor individual or a soldier in Tzahal on active duty might actually face such a dilemma.  Rava explains that since Shabbat candles are kindled in order to promote Shalom Bayit (domestic harmony), they enjoy priority over Ner Chanukah.  Indeed, the Rambam (Hilchot Chanukah 4:14) adds, “Shalom is of such great importance in that the entire Torah was given in order to promote Shalom in the world, as it is written, ‘all its ways are pleasant and its paths are peaceful’ (Mishlei 3:17).” 

 We should clarify, though, that although Shalom Bayit is of great importance, it does not justify violating any of the Torah’s commands.  Shalom Bayit considerations only justify relying on a viable lenient opinion.  For example, one may not eat something that might not be kosher in order to preserve Shalom Bayit.  The Halacha grants Shalom Bayit a vote but not a veto regarding adherence to Halachic norms.  

The second Halacha that Rava presents is that if one is able to purchase either Shabbat lights or wine for Kiddush, he should purchase the Shabbat lights since their purpose is to insure Shalom Bayit.  This ruling, though, is not as obvious as it might seem.  Lighting Shabbat candles constitutes a rabbinic obligation according to most Rishonim (see Rambam Hilchot Shabbat 5:1), whereas reciting Kiddush is a Torah obligation (see Pesachim 106a and Rambam Hilchot Shabbat 29:1).  It would seem that the Torah obligation should enjoy priority over the rabbinic obligation.  The resolution to this difficulty seems to be that the wine for Kiddush is actually only a rabbinic requirement according to most Rishonim (see Rambam Hilchot Shabbat 29:6, Rabbeinu Tam cited in Tosafot Nazir 4a s.v.  Mai, and Mishnah Berura 271:2) and as such does not enjoy priority over Shabbat lights.  

Rava proceeds to present a question that he is at first unable to resolve.  He queries whether Chanukah lights or wine for Kiddush enjoys precedence for one who is able to fulfill only one of these two Mitzvot.  On the one hand, he notes that Kiddush should enjoy priority since it is practiced more frequently than Chanukah lights.  A Halachic principle that is applied in many situations is “Tadir UShe’eino Tadir, Tadir Kodeim,” that when faced with a choice of which Mitzvah to fulfill first, one should choose the more frequently fulfilled Mitzvah (Megillah 29a and numerous other places in the Gemara).  Examples of this principle abound; we shall suffice with the example of the practice that men first put on their Tallit before they don their Tefillin, because the Tallit is worn more often than Tefillin.  

On the other hand, Rava notes that Chanukah lights might enjoy priority since their purpose is to publicize the miracle of Chanukah (Pirsumei Nissa).  Rava subsequently concludes that Chanukah lights enjoy priority due to the paramount importance of Pirsumei Nissa.  


 Most interestingly, Tosafot (ad.  loc.  s.v.  Hadar) present a practical application of Rava’s principle to a problem that we shall be facing this year (5766) when Rosh Chodesh Teiveit falls on Shabbat Chanukah.  We must choose whether to read the Haftarah for Rosh Chodesh or the Haftarah for Chanuka.  The “Tadir UShe’eino Tadir” principle would seem to indicate that the Haftarah for Rosh Chodesh should be recited.  On the other hand, the need for Pirsumei Nissa suggests that the Haftarah for Chanukah be chosen.  Tosafot assert that based on our Gemara, the Haftarah for Chanukah should be chosen, as we see that the importance of Pirsumei Nissa of Chanukah outweighs the value of Tadir.

Although most Rishonim agree with Tosafot (see Encyclopedia Talmudit 10:16: footnote 305), a minority of Rishonim disagree (see the Encyclopedia Talmudit ad.  loc.  footnote 309).  They argue that the dilemma regarding Haftarot is not analogous to Rava’s dilemma regarding Chanukah lights and wine for Kiddush.  In the situation described by Rava the two competing values enjoy equal stature in that they both constitute Rabbinic obligations.  In the case of the Haftarot, Rosh Chodesh and Chanukah are not of equal importance since Rosh Chodesh is mentioned explicitly in the Torah whereas Chanukah is not (see Shabbat 24a where this distinction between Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh is drawn).

Moreover, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Kovetz Chiddushei Torah pp.  47-65) demonstrates the Biblical significance of our declaration that the day is Rosh Chodesh.  Thus, it would appear that the reading of the Haftarah for Rosh Chodesh is of Biblical importance.  In addition, the Gemara’s conclusion on Megillah 29b regarding Torah reading on Rosh Chodesh-Chanukah seems to support the minority opinion.  The fact that when Rosh Chodesh falls on a weekday we devote the first three of the four Aliyot to Rosh Chodesh appears to demonstrate that Rosh Chodesh enjoys priority over Chanukah.  The language of the Gemara also seems to strongly support this contention.

    This matter was debated somewhat vigorously during the era of the Rishonim (see Encyclopedia Talmudit ad.  loc.).  Despite the cogency of the argument in favor of Rosh Chodesh, the Halacha follows the opinion of Tosafot that the Haftarah of Chanukah is read (Shulchan Aruch 684:3).  Perhaps an implicit reason for this (besides the reasons stated explicitly in the Rishonim) is the need for the Rishonim to emphasize the importance of Chanukah in light of its being downplayed in the time of the Tannaim, as we discussed last week.  Interestingly, though, we read the Torah portion for Rosh Chodesh before we read the Torah portion for Chanukah when Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat Chanukah.  Tosafot feel compelled to offer no less than three reasons for this phenomenon.  

Analysis of Rava – A Revolutionary Ruling

    My Talmidim posed two questions on Rava’s resolution of his quandary regarding Chanukah lights and Kiddush wine.  First, considering that Pirsumei Nissa is of paramount importance, it should have been obvious that Chanukah lights enjoy priority over Kiddush wine just as Rava stated that it is obvious that the value of Shalom Bayit causes Ner Shabbat to be preferred over Kiddush wine.  

The Talmidim noted that Kiddush is directed only to Jews, whereas Ner Chanukah is directed to both Jews and non-Jews, as indicated in the Al HaNissim prayer which states, “And you made a great name for yourself in your world.” (See Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s ideas regarding this issue cited in Harerei Kedem 1:275:276.)  A possible reason for this is that Pirsumei Nissa publicizes a most central idea – that Hashem created the world and remains involved in its functioning (see the Ramban’s emphasis of this point in the context of the miracles involved in Yetziat Mitzraim, in his comments at the conclusion of Parashat Bo).  Moreover, the message of Kiddush, that Hashem created the world, can be expressed even without wine.  Wine merely enhances and dignifies the message (see Tehillim 116:13, “Kos Yeshuot Essa UVsheim Hashem Ekra”).  

The second problem is that Rava did not present any additional source or reasoning when he concluded that Chanukah lights are preferred due to Pirsumei Nissa.  His resolution appears somewhat arbitrary; he does not tell us why he concludes that Pirsumei Nissa outweighs the value of “Tadir.”  

 An answer to these problems might be that it was obvious from the outset that the value of Pirsumei Nissa outweighs the value of wine for Kiddush.  Nonetheless, Rava was hesitant to openly state this since the Tannaim sought to downplay Chanukah so as to discourage a repeat of the great revolt against the Romans in 66 C.E.  and the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 C.E.  It is possible, though, that Rava (who lived in the mid fourth century) felt that it was time to restore the prestige of Chanukah since approximately two centuries had passed without any revolutionary attempt to reestablish Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael.  As any competent leader does, however, Rava introduced this idea slowly.  He first raised the possibility of asserting the importance of Chanukah.  After floating the idea and seeing that it was well-received, he felt that the time was ripe to begin to explicitly dignify the holiday of Chanukah after centuries of implicitly downplaying its significance.


 We have suggested that the later Tannaim and early Amoraim sought to implicitly downplay the significance of Chanukah in order not to spur a repeat of revolts against the Roman authorities.  Chazal were keenly aware of the disastrous results of the rebellions that took place against the Babylonians which led to the destruction of Bayit Rishon, which left little or no Jews in Eretz Yisrael for a few decades in the sixth century B.C.E.  However, it seems that Rava saw that it was time to reverse this trend and to dignify the celebration of Chanukah.  It seems that the Rambam read this cue and developed it to the fullest extent, as we discussed in last week’s essay.  Another cue for the Rambam might be the fact that we find the Amoraim mentioning a Bracha to be recited upon seeing Chanukah lights, which expresses a special appreciation of the Mitzva of Chanukah, as explained by Tosafot (Sukkah 46a s.v.  HaRo’eh; also see Yaakov Rubin’s article in this issue of Kol Torah).

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