The Significance of Chanuka According to the Maharal

  • Harav Yehuda Amital





This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Drs. Irving and Roberta Strauchler
in memory of Jonas Strauchler z”l



The Significance of Chanuka According to the Maharal


Based on a shiur by Harav Yehuda Amital zt"l


Translated by Rav Michael Hattin





            In his work "Ner Mitzva," which purports to deal with Chanuka, the Maharal actually discusses this holiday very little.  Rather, the significance of the book lies in the broad perspective which it affords us concerning the holiday, elucidating themes which remain meaningful to us today.  The background of his analysis is the midrash regarding the four empires which ruled over the Jewish people (patterned after the vision of the four beasts in the Book of Daniel): Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome.


            At the heart of this discussion lies the question of the inner meaning of the miracle of Chanuka.  The straightforward answer recounts the persecution of the Jewish people at the hands of their Greek overlords, the desecration of the Temple, and God's miraculous intervention.  Nevertheless, the essential question remains: in what way did the Jewish people become more enriched as a result of this trial and salvation?


            A similar question exists with respect to the exodus from Egypt, from whence God took us out with signs and wonders.  It is true that God caused us to descend to Egypt because of our transgressions, but this explanation is certainly insufficient.  The sojourn in Egypt, the struggle to be free, and the redemption from there are recalled as essential experiences which shaped and formed the Jewish nation.  The Jewish people become a unified whole as a result of having passed through the proverbial crucible of suffering.  If, however, we relate to the exodus from Egypt as simply a tale of suffering and redemption, we shall not have understood its profundity.


            For this very reason, our sages explained in various midrashim the additional dimension which accrued to the Jewish people as a result of the exodus.  The Maharal discusses this same dimension, namely the spiritual enrichment of the Jewish nation, with respect to the salvation brought about by the Maccabees.  The struggle with Greece has a particular meaning for us which is expressed in the midrashic reading of the verse (Bereishit 9:27): "Yaft Elokim li-Yefet" - may God beautify Yefet (Greece), "ve-yishkon be-ohalei Shem" - and cause that beauty to rest among the Jews.


            Every person contains hidden strengths and weaknesses.  All of us pass years of our lives in routine and habit, which are punctuated by periods of challenge.  During such testing times, many of one's latent abilities are revealed.  When a person faces the danger of death, for instance, hidden reserves of strength come to the fore.  Insights and leadership talents are suddenly revealed which are not at all expressed during normal life.  There are those who find God precisely at times of struggle, and during trials of faith.  This applies to the individual as well as to the nation.  One may witness exceptional spiritual strength and courage during the course of a battle waged against persecution and the imposition of alien values and ideas.  When salvation does not occur at the end, however, there is a genuine danger that those spiritual gains will be ephemeral.  Human beings need time to translate sudden insights and unexpected abilities into well-paved paths of living, and the repose of salvation affords us this opportunity. 


            By relating to salvation in this light, we begin to understand how the messianic redemption can only come about after the Jewish people undergo a series of preparatory steps.


            The battles of Chanuka are not only great historical events but also important markers in the process of the building of the Jewish nation.  They represent additional stages in the realization of our national destiny.  According to the Maharal's reading, the building of the Jewish people does not imply the relegation of other nations to the periphery of history, but on the contrary reflects the striving of all of humanity to eventually realize its latent spiritual potential.


            This explains the Maharal's fundamental thesis in Ner Mitzva.  The world was initially created lacking completion, and must therefore undergo a process to bring it to wholeness.  The deficiency of the world finds expression in human history, in the development of four great empires each of which presents a worldview irreconcilable with the notion of God's oneness.  A midrash which the Maharal mentions at the beginning of his work amplifies this theme:


"'The world was formless and void, and darkness covered the deep waters; and God's spirit hovered over the waters' (Bereishit 1:2).  Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explained that the verse refers to the four empires: 'The world was formless' is a reference to Babylonia... 'Void' refers to Media... 'Darkness' refers to Greece, who darkened the vision of the Jewish people with their decrees... 'The deep waters' refers to Rome, whose eventual downfall is as inscrutable as the deep... 'God's hovering spirit' refers to the spirit of the Messiah." (Bereishit Rabba 2:5)


            Thus, the world is initially incomplete and becomes whole only at the time of the King Messiah.  Between these two points in time is a lengthy historical process which brings eventual completion to the world.  This process, however, involves conflicts between the four empires and the Jewish People.  Each one of the four presents a culture, a set of values and a worldview which is antithetical to the desired state of completion.  However, out of the struggle between these ideas and the Jewish People, the completed state can emerge.


            Thus, the events of Chanuka represent the advancement of the process of completion stemming from the confrontation between Israel and Greece.  The Greek empire bequeathed values which transformed humanity, indicating the great spiritual vitality which they possessed.  However, their spiritual underpinnings were incomplete, and only through confrontation with the Jewish People could they be integrated into their proper place in the service of God.  With the removal of imperfection from the world, as represented by the downfall of the four empires and their flawed spiritual legacy, the world will finally achieve its unity and completion.




            In order to understand the miracle of the cruse of oil, we must consider the historical period in which the events occurred.  In particular, we must examine the four empires which the Maharal (following Chazal) saw as focal points for historical development. 


Babylonia, the first of the four, represents the power of ruling and the unbridled desire to extend one's rule over all.  It is dominion for its own sake.  Persia expresses the pursuit of materialism and worldly desire.  Greece, in contrast to the first two, represents an intellectual and rational approach in which ideas overpower and conquer.  Rome is the conglomeration of the other three, and therefore the struggle with the legacy of that empire is the most difficult.


            According to the Maharal, the Greek empire, which fought with its wisdom and ideas, was an outgrowth of Jewish influences.  Much of Greek wisdom originated in Judaism and that is why the struggle against Greek cultural domination was particularly difficult.  During the Babylonian and Persian periods, Judaism was still insular and had not yet begun to shed its light among the nations of the world.  Its struggles with these empires were thus conducted against something external.  Later, though, Judaism began to fulfill its purpose of radiating its teachings throughout the world, and the Greek empire grew out of this backdrop.  This is why the struggle against Greece exacted many casualties: many were swayed by the attractions of Hellenism precisely because its philosophy was predicated upon some genuinely enlightened ideas.  Many Jews felt that Greek culture was in fact superior to our own and therefore the ideal of spreading the light of Torah was abandoned.


            This is the unique meaning of the Chanuka miracle.  The emphasis on the single cruse of oil that was sealed by the High Priest represents the remaining pure ideas which were not tainted by Hellenistic thought, and were thus the source of the eventual light which illumined the darkness of the world.  A miracle was wrought and the laws of nature were suspended in order to demonstrate that the Jewish approach was both necessary and would eventually triumph.  The halakha states that we must light the menora publicly until the marketplace empties of people ("ad she-tikhleh regel min ha-shuk").  Homiletically, we may interpret that to mean that the light must be kindled until "hergel," namely spiritual rote and the malaise which it breeds, are expelled from the world and the holy light of God's teaching takes its place.  This light stems from an inner source which must be nurtured and then can radiate outwards.


            At a time of persecution, the halakha maintains, it is sufficient to place the lights on one's table inside the home.  Rabbi Zadok of Lublin explained this to mean that at a time of danger when the light cannot brighten the darkness of the world, it must at least brighten the interior of the soul.  When the internal spiritual light is kindled and nurtured, it will eventually radiate outwards so that all will realize "that out of Zion shall teaching go forth, and the word of God from Jerusalem."