Chanuka as a Holiday of Innovation and Renewal

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l

Adapted by Zeev Frimer

Translated by Kaeren Fish


We tend to perceive the miracle of Chanuka as Israel's return to her former glory. It is the miracle of our nation's success in surviving, both physically and spiritually, and in preserving our national character and remaining true to our values and tradition.

This perception is firmly anchored in one of the central motifs in Chazal's understanding of the events of Chanuka: the motif of purification. Thus, for example, the whole story of the miracle of the oil hinges on the concepts of impurity and purity, and in the "Al Ha-nissim" section that we add to our prayers on Chanuka we likewise stress that the loyal Jews "purified Your sanctuary." The concept of purification, or purity (as opposed to the concept of sanctity – see the Raavad's "Sha'ar Ha-kedusha") is principally a negative concept: it refers not to a positive characteristic, but rather to the absence of impurity. The same applies to the miracle of Chanuka: its main message is the banishment of the impurity, the removal of the idols from the Temple – and together with them, all expressions of the corrupt idolatrous culture, with Israel's return to their former situation and status.

In this sense, we may therefore view Chanuka as a festival of a conservative nature. Its physical aspect is the repair of the Temple, while its spiritual aspect is the return of the nation to its former spiritual status.

However, a closer look at the roots of Chanuka reveals that it symbolizes precisely the opposite: the festival celebrates not a return to what was before, but rather the creation of and entry into a renewed framework. What is the meaning of the term "chanuka"? The Torah includes among those who are dismissed from active military duty in wartime "the person who has built a house but has not yet DEDICATED IT (chanakho)" (Devarim 20:5); i.e., he has not yet begun to use it. (As Rashi explains: "Dedication (chinukh) – this means 'beginning.'") Likewise we find that the sacrifices offered by the princes of the tribes, when the Mishkan was established and a new path opened in the relations between God and the Jewish People, are referred to as the "chanukat ha-mizbe'ach" (dedication of the altar, Bamidbar 7:84). Again, Chazal refer to the "mincha" sacrifice offered by the kohen at the start of his service as the "minchat chinukh" (a "mincha of dedication"), and teach that "All the vessels that Moshe prepared (for use in the Mishkan) are sanctified by anointment and dedicated by use" (Yoma 12b).

This aspect of newness and innovation as revealed in the etymology of the name Chanuka (derived from the root ch-n-kh) has further ramifications on a more substantive level.

We find expression of this in Ramban's drawing of a parallel (Bamidbar 8:1) between the second "dedication" (by the Chashmonaim) and the first (in the desert after the exodus). Thus we may say that something of the character of the first Chanuka (as described in the Torah) also appears in the second Chanuka (of the Second Temple). We may deduce that since the dedication of the Mishkan was a dedication of innovation (i.e., starting something new), so the Chanuka of the Chashmonaim contained a measure of newness and renewed light.

To illustrate the two aspects that we have mentioned, let us examine a parallel event that also represents one of the festivals instituted by the nation of Israel – Purim.

Purim contains a similar duality, although here it is expressed on the physical level. Once the terrible threat of destruction that had hovered over Am Yisrael at the time had passed, the nation returned – apparently – to its original state. But here, too, Chazal saw deeper and revealed something more fundamental in this incident, as we learn from the Gemara (Shabbat 88a):

"'And they stood at the foot of the mountain' (Shemot 19:17)… this teaches that the Holy One held the mountain over them like a cask and said, 'If you accept the Torah – well and good; if you do not – here will be your grave.'

R. Acha bar Yaakov said: From here we have a great protest against the Torah. (Rashi explains: If God would call them to task for not fulfilling what they had accepted upon themselves, their answer would be that they had accepted it under duress.)

Rabba said: Despite this, they again accepted it (the Torah) in the days of Achashverosh (Rashi: out of love because of the miracle that had been performed for them), as it is written, 'The Jews fulfilled and accepted...' (Esther 9:27) – i.e., they fulfilled what they had already previously accepted."

Chazal discover within Purim a re-acceptance of the Torah, with a new dimension of commitment and self-definition as servants of God. The situation is no longer one of coercion, but rather a re-acceptance out of absolute free will, and with a strengthened and remolded fear of heaven. They now accepted the Torah out of love and spiritual strength.

The return to routine that we sense at the end of the Megilla – "And King Achashverosh placed a tax upon the land and the islands of the sea" (Esther 10:1) – relates only to the reign of King Achashverosh; the nation of Israel, on the other hand, "fulfilled and accepted." The questionable spiritual state that prevailed at the start of the Megilla disappears; the nation recovers and strengthens itself voluntarily, with a renewed and refreshed connection, with a new perspective and clear view, the likes of which they had never experienced prior to the encounter with the great danger that had now passed.

What took place on Purim on the physical level is what took place on Chanuka on the spiritual level. They not only succeeded in preserving the existing situation, but also took a renewed, creative step forward. This note of renewal in Chanuka finds expression in three areas.

Firstly, here too – as in the case of Purim – the experience of dealing with danger leaves its mark. The grappling with the worst possible scenario, from a spiritual point of view, brings the nation to a more significant depth and strength in their fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot, and breathes a spirit of newness and freshness into their Divine service.

But there is more here than just the new verve that was added to the existing situation; there is also a tangible addition on the level of rabbinically-ordained mitzvot. It is true, of course, that the existential principle of praise and thanks to God, as expressed in the mitzvot of Chanuka, exists in the Torah. But in Chanuka, Chazal also created something of their own: an actual mitzva, with all its stipulations and details.

This, in fact, entailed two innovations. One, as we mentioned, was the creation of a specific "mitzva de-rabbanan," expressing a general principle to be found in the Torah. The other is the strengthening and emphasizing of the power and authority of Chazal in general – authority that is also the basis for practices related to other festivals and other mitzvot. It is not for naught that specifically in the context of the discussion of Chanuka lights we find a debate as to the appropriateness of the word "ve-tzivanu" (Who has commanded us…) in the blessing recited when performing a mitzva of rabbinical origin.

"Where did He command us [concerning this rabbinic mitzva]?... From [the command], 'You shall not turn from it [i.e. from the instruction given by the Sages of the time]…' (Devarim 17:11)." (Shabbat 23a)

The significance of this aspect of innovation in rabbinically ordained mitzvot goes far beyond the actual innovation of new mitzvot and the enhancement of the authority of Chazal. It involves the addition of a new dimension to the system of mitzvot as a whole. The Gemara (Avoda Zara 35a) teaches as follows:

"What is meant by, 'Your caresses are better than wine' (Shir Ha-shirim 1:2)?... The nation of Israel declares before the Holy One: Master of the Universe! The words of Ybeloved ones (i.e. the Sages) are sweeter to me than the wine of Torah!"

How can the words of the Sages be sweeter than the wine of Torah? The Maggid Mishneh writes, at the end of his Hilkhot Shekhenim:

"The substance of the law of the abutting field is that our pure Torah was given to improve man's traits and to set rules for his worldly conduct. In commanding, 'You shall be holy,' the intention is, as Chazal taught, 'Sanctify yourself in what is permitted to you' – a person should not be immersed in his worldly desires. Likewise, the Torah teaches, 'And you shall do what is straight and what is good' – the intention is that one should behave in a good and straight way in one's relations with other people. It would not be appropriate in such cases to command details (of the law), since the mitzvot of the Torah apply at all times and under all circumstances ... and man's traits and behavior change depending on the time and on the personality involved. Therefore our Sages, of blessed memory, wrote some useful details."

The advantage that the Maggid Mishneh finds in the rabbinically ordained mitzvot lies in Chazal's ability to provide a formal aspect to values that the Torah defines only in principle. The Torah was given for all generations, and therefore it could not set down details for general values, such as "You shall be holy," or "You shall do what is straight and what is good" – for if it did, these values would thereby only be limited and diminished. The Sages of each generation, on the other hand, have the ability to define and mold the principles given in the Torah in such a way as to adapt them to their generation and to the constantly changing reality. This flexibility in balancing the values in principle against the formal aspect is their advantage over the "wine of Torah."

There is the possibility of a different understanding: the advantage of the words of the Sages may lie not only in their ability to focus the general content and direction provided in the Torah, but also in the very fact that they are "the words of Your beloved ones." An area of commitment that is created by man himself is deserving of special love; it also creates a special sense of commitment. Moreover, it enhances and increases the aspiration for a life of creativity and fulfillment in Divine service that springs from feelings of love an active participation in God's holy Torah. These "words of Your beloved ones" are expressed in all their power in the mitzvot of Chanuka, whose source is solely rabbinic.

A new dimension finds expression in Chanuka in a third area as well. The Rambam, at the beginning of his Hilkhot Chanuka (chapter 3), writes:

"… until the God of their fathers had mercy upon them and delivered them from their (the Greeks') hand and saved them. And the children of the Chashmonaim, the great priests, prevailed over them and killed them, and they saved Israel from their hand and established a king from among the kohanim, and THE KINGDOM OF ISRAEL WAS RESTORED for more than two hundred years, until the destruction of the Second Temple."

The Rambam sees one of the great achievements of Chanuka as being on the political plane. Between the lines of what he writes we understand that Jewish sovereignty did not really exist prior to this victory. At this time the nation of Israel was recharged with a new degree of political independence.

The miracle of Chanuka created within Judaism a great wave of energy, on a scale previously unknown – in terms of development of the Oral Law, in terms of exegesis, and in terms of legislation. In this sense, we publicize not only the miracle itself, but also the great movement forward that came in its wake.

(This sicha was delivered on Chanuka 5760 [1999].)



To receive special holiday packages, write to:


[email protected]

With the message:


Subscribe yhe-holiday



This shiur is provided courtesy of the Virtual Beit Midrash, the premier source of online courses on Torah and Judaism - 14 different courses on all levels, for all backgrounds.

Make Jewish learning part of your week on a regular basis - enroll in the
Virtual Beit Midrash



(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion1997 All rights reserved to Yeshivat Har Etzion

Yeshivat Har Etzion
Alon Shvut, Israel, 90433
[email protected]