The Rambam’s Rescue of the Holiday of Chanukah by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


In honor of Chanukah, we will devote the next two issues to Chanukah-related topics and shall return afterwards, IY”H and B”N, to our presentation about why smoking is forbidden.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik writes in his essay entitled Raayanot Al HaTefillah that the Rambam “rescued” or restored the Mitzvah of Tefillah to insure its proper distinction as a Biblical obligation.  In this essay, we seek to demonstrate that in a somewhat similar vein, the Rambam may be described as having rescued or restored the observance of Chanukah to its rightful place.  

I am indebted to the TABC’s 5765 “Y9” Gemara Shiur for their many contributions to this analysis of this topic.  In addition, I wish to thank the people to which that I delivered a Shiur on this topic in West Orange, New Jersey on the Shabbat before the wedding of my brother-in-law Rabbi Etan Tokayer to my sister-in-law Esther (formerly Najar).  The group included some prominent educators such as Rabbi Etan as well as Rabbi Jeffrey Saks and Rabbi Marc Smilowitz, and I wish to acknowledge the ideas that this group contributed to this essay.  

Chanukah in the Mishnah and Gemara

The Mishnah pays scant attention to the holiday of Chanukah.  The author of the Mishnah, Rabi Yehuda HaNassi devotes a full Masechet (tractate) to every holiday except Chanukah.  He does acknowledge its existence in passing in two places.  It is mentioned in Masechet Bikkurim (1:6) as the latest opportunity to bring Bikkurim (for an interesting explanation of the connection between Chanukah and Bikkurim, see Rav Yoel Bin Nun’s essay in Megadim 12:49-97).  It is mentioned a second time in passing in Masechet Bava Kamma (6:6), where a Mishnah discusses a case in which flax carried by a camel catches fire from Chanukah candles placed in front of a store.

We see that Rabi Yehuda Hannassi recognizes Chanukah’s existence but seems to have deliberately sought to downplay its significance.  This point is highlighted by contrasting it with how Rabi Yehuda Hannassi dealt with Purim.  I once heard from Rav Hershel Schachter that there is not really sufficient material regarding Purim to fill an entire Masechet.  Therefore, Rabi Yehuda Hanassi “padded” Masechet Megillah with important but tangential material in order to dignify Purim by devoting a complete Masechet to the holiday.

 It is for this reason, explains Rav Schachter, that Masechet Megillah includes discussions of the Halachot regarding Torah reading and Beit Kenesset as well as the series of “Ein Bein” Mishnayot in the first chapter (Mishnayot five-eleven) that have little or no relevance to Purim.  The fact that Rabi Yehuda Hanassi chose not to devote an entire Masechet to Chanukah or even a chapter regarding Chanukah is striking evidence of Rabi Yehuda’s intention to minimize this holiday.  Indeed, there is no systematic discussion of the Halachot of Chanukah in the Mishnah.  In addition, Rabbi Saks noted that there is precious little extra-Mishnaic Tannaitic material (such as Braitot or Toseftot) devoted to a discussion of Chanukah.  It seems that the other Tannaim shared Rabi Yehuda Hanassi’s agenda of minimizing the holiday of Chanukah.  

The Gemara does not elaborate on Chanukah, but at least includes a somewhat systematic discussion of its Halachot in Masechet Shabbat (21b-24a) in the chapter that discusses the Halachot regarding Shabbat candles.  However, the fact that the Gemara raises such basic questions regarding Chanukah, such as why we celebrate Chanukah at all (Shabbat 21b, as explained by Rashi s.v. Mai) and whether we recite Mussaf on Chanukah, seems to point to the fact that the Tannaim paid scant attention to this holiday.

Chanukah in the Mishneh Torah

In stark contrast, the Rambam devotes an entire section of his Mishneh Torah to the Halachot regarding Chanukah.  By doing so, the Rambam places the holiday of Chanukah on par with other holidays such as Purim.  In fact, the Rambam seems to greatly emphasize that Chanukah is a holiday just as Purim is a holiday.  He couples Hilchot Chanukah with Hilchot Megillah and he compares various aspects of Chanukah to Purim (Hilchot Chanukah 3:3-5).  He writes that we may not eulogize or fast on Chanukah just as we may not do so on Purim, and that lighting Neirot Chanukah is a rabbinically ordained Mitzvah just like reading the Megillah.

Parenthetically, I should note that I heard a differing explanation in the name of Rav Soloveitchik for the Rambam’s repeated references in Hilchot Chanukah to Purim.  He explains that Purim established a precedent for Chazal to create a new holiday celebrating the salvation of our nation from its enemies.  For an explanation for why Chazal hesitated to establish a new holiday, see Megillah 14a.    

The Rambam also seems to “pad” Hilchot Chanukah in order to insure that it can occupy an entire section in his Mishneh Torah.  The Rambam includes a full description of the miracle of Chanukah even though he does not include even a minimal description of the miracle of Purim in Hilchot Megillah (for an alternative explanation for this phenomenon, see Rav Soloveitchik’s thoughts cited in Harerei Kedem 1:271).  He also includes a full discussion of the Halachot of Hallel in Hilchot Chanukah, despite the fact that it would seem to have been more appropriate to include in Hilchot Tefillah (again we should note that there are other explanations; Rav Soloveitchik explains that the Rambam included the laws of Hallel in Hilchot Chanukah to teach that Hallel is the essence of the holiday of Chanukah).  

Rav Soloveitchik (cited in Harerei Kedem 1:272) explains that the Rambam even includes a basis for making a Seudah on Chanukah, as the Rambam describes this holiday as a time for Simcha (Hilchot Chanukah 3:3).  Indeed, the Taz (Orach Chaim 670:4) cites the Maharshal who writes, “It is a Mitzvah to rejoice on Chanukah, as the Rambam indicates that these are days of celebration.”  It is in fact our custom to make a Seudat Chanukah despite the fact that there is no explicit Talmudic source for such a practice and despite the fact that some Acharonim (see the Levush’s introduction to Hilchot Chanukah) believe it is entirely unnecessary.  The Seudat Chanukah is another manner in which we dignify the holiday of Chanukah.

The Rambam, in uncharacteristic style for his Mishneh Torah, waxes eloquently about the importance of Ner Chanukah (Hilchot Chanukah 4:12).  He writes, “The Mitzvah of Ner Chanukah is exceedingly beloved and one must scrupulously observe this Mitzvah in order to publicize the miracle and increase praise and expression of gratitude to Hashem for the miracles that He has performed for us.”  

Moreover, this eloquent advocacy for the observation of Chanukah is followed by an extraordinary Halacha presented by the Rambam that has no explicit Talmudic source.  The Rambam states that if one does not have sufficient funds to purchase Ner Chanukah, he should borrow money or even sell some of his clothes in order to procure the money to buy Neirot Chanukah.  The Maggid Mishneh comments that there is no explicit Talmudic source for this assertion, but the Rambam drew an analogy between Neirot Chanukah and the Arba Kosot for Pesach.  The Rambam reasoned, writes the Maggid Mishneh, that just as the Halacha requires a poor person to sell his clothes in order to purchase wine for the Arba Kosot (Pesachim 99b and see Rashbam s.v. VeAfilu), so too one must sell his clothes to purchase Neirot Chanukah, as the purpose of both Mitzvot is to publicize miracles that Hashem has performed for us.  

Thus, in a dramatic fashion, the Rambam demonstrates for us the importance of observing the holiday of Chanukah.  The Rambam (Hilchot Chanukah 4:14) even seems to apologize for ruling that if one can fulfill either Neirot Shabbat or Neirot Chanukah, he should choose Neirot Shabbat.  It is possible that the Rambam feels compelled to offer a lengthy explanation for his ruling in order to avoid degrading the holiday of Chanukah.  

We should note that the Rambam seems to be following the precedent of the Amoraim who discuss Chanukah in more detail than do the Tannaim, and he merely advances the process one step further.  We shall, IY”H and B”N, discuss this matter further next week.  

Why Do the Tannaim Minimize Chaukah?

An explanation that is often advanced why Chanukah is minimized in the Mishnah is that Rabi Yehuda Hanassi was a descendant of David HaMelech (see Shabbat 33b) and he was upset that the Hasmoneans usurped the Meluchah (kingship) from the descendants of David HaMelech.  Indeed, the Ramban (Bereishit 49:10) strongly criticizes the Hasmoneans (who were Kohanim) for assuming political power instead of someone from the tribe of Yehuda.  Even during the tumultuous times described in Sefer Melachim Bet (Kings II), when political assassinations were unfortunately quite common and the spiritual level of the masses was relatively low, they always insured (and sometimes even made extraordinary efforts) that the son of the deposed king was named as the successor in order to preserve the Davidic line.  

Moreover, it seems that we accepted Zerubavel as our leader during the early days of Bayit Sheini (the Second Temple) because he was a great grandson of Yechania (Yehoyachin, a king of Davidic descent), as stated in Divrei HaYamim I (3:16-19).  Rav Yoel Bin Nun speculates that the descendants of Zerubavel did not continue to serve as the governors of Judea because the Persian government feared that this would spark a Jewish desire for independence and sovereignty.  Accordingly, when the Hasmoneans finally restored Jewish sovereignty over parts of Eretz Yisrael, a descendant of Zerubavel or some other descendant of David HaMelech should have been appointed as king.  The appointment of Kohanim as the political leader was the first time that Jews voluntarily chose to break the Davidic line.  

Therefore, Rabi Yehuda Hanassi decided to leave the Halachot of Chanukah in the domain of Torah SheBe’al Peh (oral law) as an implicit criticism of the Hasmoneans and as a lesson for generations that when Jewish sovereignty is fully restored, a descendant of Beit David should be appointed as king (see Yeshayahu 11:1 and the Rambam Hilchot Melachim chapter eleven).  The Rambam, in turn, may have feared that leaving Chanukah’s Halachot in the realm of Torah SheBeAl Peh would cause them to be forgotten entirely, due to the instability of Jewish life of the time (see the Rambam’s introduction to the Mishneh Torah).  

Another possibility for the almost complete omission of Chanukah from the Mishnah is the proximity of the writing of the Mishnah (c. 200 C.E.) to the Bar Kochba revolt (135-138 C.E.).  The against-all-odds victory of the Hasmoneans against the Syrian-Greeks served as an inspiration for those who wished to revolt against the Roman Empire’s control of Eretz Yisrael.  Moreover, Chanukah was established in part to celebrate the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael (see the Rambam Hilchot Chanukah 3:1).  Perhaps the Tannaim, who in general were not supportive of the Bar Kochba revolt as stated in the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4:5), wished to cool some of the passion for revolt by relegating the Halachot of Chanukah for the Torah SheBeAl Peh.  Indeed, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Devarim 8:10) explains that a message of the fourth Berachah of Birkat HaMazon, which was established after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt (Berachot 48b), was to avoid repeating the Bar Kochba revolt.  The Rambam, however, either feared that Chanukah would be forgotten or realized that by his time (he wrote the Mishneh Torah in the 1180’s) the passion for revolt had cooled.  The Rambam had to express great enthusiasm for Chanukah to avoid our concluding from the Mishnah that Chanukah is not an important holiday.  


Rabi Yehuda Hanassi and the other Tannaim felt it important to reserve discussion of Chanukah to the Torah SheBeAl Peh.  We may speculate as to the reasons for this phenomenon and the lessons that we derive from it, particularly today in a time when Jewish sovereignty has been restored to parts of Eretz Yisrael with some international approval.  The Rambam, in turn, rescued the holiday of Chanukah, which would likely have been forgotten had he not so enthusiastically celebrated it in writing. 

Next week we shall, IY”H and B”N, we shall discuss the Rambam’s source in the Gemara for stressing the importance of Chanukah.

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