By: Dovid Samuels
One of the most constant themes at any Jewish celebration is undoubtedly food. On Shabbos, we are obligated to eat three meals, with all sorts of delicacies and delights. On Yom Tov we also eat festive meals, as we would eat the korban Chagiga (the festival offering) in Temple times. Weddings, bris milas, all Jewish events and celebrations are unquestionably accompanied by a generous representation of food. But, unlike every other festival where there is an actual requirement to eat, Chanukah finds itself conspicuously side-lined on the gastronomic front. Pesach has its matzah, maror, and wine; Sukkos has its bread in the sukkah; Purim has an entire feast. Besides for a few traditional latkes and sufganiot (doughnuts), Chanukah is found wanting in the food department. So why is Chanukah different?
The Shulchan Aruch actually rules that the meals we eat during Chanukah are optional, and don’t have the status of a “mitzvah meal” – a seudas mitzvah. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, aka the Rema (whose glosses, which were interwoven into the text of the Shulchan Aruch and give the Ashkenazi approach), adds that some say there is a “slight” mitzvah to have festive meals, and therefore we should sing songs of praise at the meal, which turns them into “mitzvah meals”. This ruling is strange. Not only do we see that the nature of eating on Chanukah is different to all other chagim, but that by simply singing zemiros and songs of praise to Hashem at the meals we can convert the meal into a seudas mitzvah. The rest of the year, however, we don’t find that just by singing songs at the meal we can turn them into mitzvah meals. So again, we ask: why is Chanukah different?To explain the anomaly, we have to first answer one of the most famous and also most answered questions surrounding this chag. Rabbi Yosef Karo, aka the Beis Yosef, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, asks: When the Chashmonaim found the jar of oil, it contained enough oil for only one day. Hashem performed a miracle and made it last for a full eight days until more pure oil could be obtained. Hence we celebrate eight days of Chanukah. But, if there was enough oil for one day, then that means that there were only really seven days of the miracle. Only seven days were “extra”. Seemingly, the Beis Yosef points out, we should only really be celebrating the last seven days, as the first day was not really miraculous. Over the generations this question has been dealt with at length and hundreds, if not thousands of answers have been given.
To begin with, there is an important concept taught in the Talmud. Our Sages discuss a certain book that was compiled in which all of the distresses that have befallen the Jewish nation are documented, along with the details of our salvation from them. The purpose was to provide us with the ability to treat these days of salvation as Yomim Tovim (which has certain halachic ramifications, like not being allowed to fast on those days). The Sages ask, “Who wrote this book?”, to which the answer was Chananyah Ben Chizkiyah and his colleagues, who “held the times of anguish dear”. The commentators point out that by not saying that they “held the miracles dear”, it seems clear that it was actually the times of distress and anguish themselves that they held dear, and it is those days that we should remember and celebrate. What needs explaining is why we hold the sufferings dear, and not the actual rescue from those sufferings. To explain, there is an amazing understanding taught to us by Rabbi Yonoson Eibeschutz.
Our Sages ask another question: When King David was fleeing for his life from his son, Avsholom, he composed a Psalm which starts: “A joyous song of David as he fled from his son Avsholom…” Shouldn’t it rather say “a mournful song”? After all, he was being chased by his own son with intent to kill! To this they answer that when Hashem said He would bring tragedy on his house, King David grew extremely upset. He said, “Perhaps I will be chased by a slave or someone of ill repute who will show no mercy on me!” However, when he saw that it was his own son, he rejoiced, and proclaimed, “A joyous song to David!” But this is puzzling. Surely the sight of his own son pursuing him with a violence and determination far greater than any slave’s would be more of a reason for sorrow, not joy!
To this, Rabbi Eibeschutz explains a deep understanding in the ways Hashem conducts Himself when meting out punishment. One way is to bring punishment on a person with the intention of purifying him from his sins so that he can experience bliss in the World to Come. The other way is via Hashem removing His providence from a person, letting him be led by his “mazal” and the natural order. This second way is devastating for a person, as it exposes the person to tribulation and suffering, but does not serve to purify him from his sins. These sins will still have to be atoned for in the World to Come. So, when King David heard that he was going to be punished by Hashem, he was concerned for the possibility that Hashem was withdrawing His focus from him and leaving him to the natural order, left to be hunted by slaves and criminals. But when he saw that his punishment was coming in a completely unnatural way, in the form of his own flesh and blood pursuing him to the death, he understood that this was a punishment with Hashem’s full providence, and thus was there to cleanse him of his sins. This was his joy; this was his mizmor, his joyous song.
With this explanation, we can understand why our Sages “held dear” the sufferings of the Jewish people. Our history is full of tremendous pain and anguish, but also miraculous salvation. Our story is a constant reminder that we have not simply been left to nature, with Hashem’s care and concern being taken away from us. On the contrary, our remarkable story is alive with events and wars which are far beyond the realm of ‘natural’. Our sufferings are clearly a message from Hashem to prompt us to be better, to cleanse us of our sins, and to preserve our reward in the next world. But it would be premature to celebrate these sufferings in the midst of the suffering, for only after the miraculous rescue can we be sure that such events were with the special providence of Hashem. So we celebrate on the day of salvation, not on the day of suffering, even though it is really the suffering we should be celebrating.
Now, we can return to Chanukah. As we have said above from the Beis Yosef, there wasn’t actually a miracle with the oil on the first day of Chanukah. But as we have learned, we also have an obligation to celebrate and thank Hashem in retrospect for our collective suffering. However, it just wouldn’t make sense to celebrate until after our miraculous rescue. This would be on the first day of Chanukah. But we are settling for second best if we only celebrate the day after the suffering. What if we could celebrate the suffering and the salvation at the same time?
With a beautiful understanding from Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, we will discover what makes Chanukah truly special. A question is often asked: we hear stories about many great and pious men who risk and even give up their lives so as not to transgress a mitzvah. We know that the Torah says: “And you shall live with them [the mitzvos]”, teaching us that we should not perform mitzvos that will cause our death. However, for some saintly people, their life exists only in the performance and fulfilment of the mitzvos. For these men the verse can be understood differently: And you shall live in the mitzvos. For these special people, it would be a fate worse than death to transgress a mitzvah, so the Torah gives them permission to give up their physical life to preserve their spiritual one. There is no doubt that the holy Kohanim during the Chanukah miracle were such men. When they saw that they were not able to fulfil the mitzvah of lighting the menorah with pure oil, they were shattered! Despite their miraculous victory over the Greeks, their sole desire was to serve Hashem in the best way possible, and this they were unable to do. They found one jar, but this was enough for only one day, doing little to assuage their sadness. This first day of Chanukah was an awesome day. It was a day of salvation, but because of the holy Kohanim and their superhuman desire for perfection in serving Hashem, it was also a day of suffering – on a spiritual level. As explained above, we should ideally celebrate on the day of suffering, but we need to wait for the rescue. But this day was the best possible day to proclaim a Yom Tov as it held both: a salvation from the Greeks, coupled with the distress of not being able to serve Hashem fully. As a result of this desire, which we celebrate on the first day, we were rewarded with seven subsequent days of miracles and thus the ability to light the menorah in the most perfect fashion.
Back to the food. We have learned that there are two types of people: those whose physical existence takes precedence over their spiritual, and those whose spiritual existence takes precedence over their physical. On Purim, we were facing physical extinction, and as a sign of celebration, we feast. On Chanukah, however, we weren’t facing physical extinction, but spiritual. For those whose bodies take precedence over their souls, we do not celebrate by feasting, as our bodies were not threatened by the Greeks. But for those whose souls take precedence, they should feast, as their eating is a purely spiritual experience. For the lay person we rule that our meals on Chanukah are not a mitzvah, as evident in the Shulchan Aruch, but if we sing joyous songs to Hashem, tuning ourselves in to the desire for spirituality over physicality and, if just for a moment, recognising that our spiritual life – our real life – is only found within the pure service of Hashem, then we can transform our meals into mitzvos too.