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Rambam’s Hilchot Hanukka: A Masterpiece of Hashkafah Blended Into Halachah

December 14, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha, Holidays

Rambam’s Hilchot Hanukka: A Masterpiece of Hashkafah Blended Into Halachah

By Gidon Rothstein *

I have long been fascinated by the first chapter of Rambam’s presentation of the laws of Hanukka.  As a first oddity of the presentation, I note that Rambam folds the laws of Hanukka into one set of laws along with those of Purim.  This might not seem so strange, since he does the same to the laws of Shofar, Sukkah, and Lulav, for example.

Whatever the reason for that decision, this case becomes more interesting when we note that he opens the first chapter of the Laws of Hanukka (the 3rd chapter of this section overall) with a brief review of the Hanukka story.  This is already striking because he does not do that for other holidays with a strong historical component, such as Purim or Pesach.

The Laws of Hanukka As a History Lesson

In addition, his version of the story is offered with a clear bias and perspective.  He tells us (in my imperfect but I hope adequate) translation:

“In the Second Temple times, when the kings of Greece made evil decrees against the Jews and nullified their religion and did not allow them to be involved with Torah and mitsvot, and took their money and their daughters, and entered the Sanctuary and made breaches in it, and rendered ritually impure parts of the Temple which must be ritually pure, and it was greatly troubling for the Jews, and they pressured them greatly, until the God of our forefathers had compassion on them and saved them, and the Hasmonean High priests killed them and saved the Jews from them, and established a kingship for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple.

While this is not yet the piece of most interest to me, I note that in Rambam’s telling, the salvation of Hanukka wasn’t so much about victory over an enemy, but about the recovery of the kind of independence that allows the Jewish people to be involved in Torah and mitsvot.  It wasn’t only that the Syrian Greeks persecuted us religiously; it was that they took away our self-determination, our control over our money, over our daughters’ chastity, and, of course, our ability to function as we wished in the religious realm.  The necessity of military victory was not only for independence, or only for avoiding decrees about our religiosity, it was about both, the ability to be free so that we could function religiously.

This already makes an interesting comment about observances of Hanukka today—those who focus on the recovery of religious freedom might forget the importance, at least to Rambam, of political and military freedom, while those who focus on the latter might forget the former.

The Comparison to Purim

In any case, skipping to the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th halachah of the chapter, Rambam writes:

“And because of this, the Sages of that generation enacted that these 8 days…be days of happiness and praise-giving, and we light candles… to show and reveal the miracle, and these days are called Hanukka, and are prohibited in eulogies and fasts like the days of Purim.  And the lighting of candles… is a Rabbinic obligation like the reading of the Megillah.  [Hal. 4] All who are obligated in the reading of the Megillah are obligated to light Hanukka candles…[all emphases added]

 Three times in as many sentences, Rambam grounds the setup and structure of the holiday in the setup and structure of Purim.  I cannot be sure why, but I have a hypothesis that offers a richer reason for his having grouped the two holidays in one set of halachot, as well as his interest in offering a history of Hanukka before telling us its laws: Purim offered an example that showed the Rabbis’ ability to create a holiday such as Hanukka.

To understand what that means, we should note how revolutionary it is to create a new holiday.  But for the thousands of years we have had Purim and Hanukka, the simplest reading of the Torah would suggest that the prohibition of בל תוסיף, of adding to the Torah, should prohibit doing such things. (Indeed, Ramban, in his Commentary on the Torah, expresses the prohibition exactly that way, as ruling out setting up one’s own religious practices).  The Gemara in Megillah records a back-and-forth between Esther and the Sages of her time over the possibility of setting up such a holiday.

That same question explains why a Hanukka question led to one of the central disquisitions on the role of the Sages in the formation of laws.  When the Gemara in Shabbat speaks of the proper blessings on Hanukka candles, it questions our right to say אשר קדשנו במצוותיו, who has sanctified us in His commandments, since clearly God did not command us to light Hanukka candles.  The Gemara offers two answers, which may or may not be in opposition to each other, but, at least for Rambam, one of the suggested verses, לא תסור, was actually the source for the idea that any Rabbinic commandment carries Torah-law weight.

In other words, then, questions around Hanukka go to the heart of what our Sages are allowed to creatively add to the Torah without running afoul of לא תסור.  It seems to me plausible that Rambam was implicitly arguing here that one of the sources of the Sages’ comfort with instituting Hanukka was the prior institution of Purim, ratified not only by Hazal, but by the book of Esther being included in Tanach, in Scripture.

If so, Rambam would be noting for us that the lighting of Hanukka candles was meant to mimic the reading of the Megillah; because of that, the obligation applies to the same people. And that would mean, then, that the lighting of the candles is supposed to be a reminder of the miracles of the holiday, just like the Megillah tells the story of its holiday.  In the case of the Megillah and of Pesach, though, Rambam has no need to remind us of the story, since the texts of those holidays do it themselves.  Hanukkah, without an authoritative text but a mitsvah that is supposed to produce a parallel discussion of the miracle, calls out for a version that stresses the events and their underlying religious meaning. Which is exactly what Rambam gave us in the first halachah.

The Shift To the Laws of Hallel

 If Purim serves as Rambam’s model in one way, though, explaining both his need for an introduction and his repeated references back to that holiday, it does not explain Rambam’s shift to discussing Hallel in the rest of the chapter.  For all that he mentioned candlelighting in the 3rd halachah of the chapter, and the blessings made on that lighting in the 4th, he then switches to the laws of Hallel, returning to the laws of candles in the next chapter. Perhaps even more interesting, it is here, in the laws of Hanukkah, that Rambam lays out for us the rules of reciting Hallel, even though this is the final set of laws in the Book of Festivals (זמנים), and several of the preceding holidays also involved a recitation of Hallel (such as, for the best example, Sukkot, where we say a full Hallel all the days of the holiday).

The answer to this is more obvious, embedded in Rambam’s description of the enactment of the holiday, as we saw above. The Sages who enacted the holiday made it as “days of rejoicing and Hallel,” with the candle lighting being a particular practice of the day (on this issue, see my colleague R. Nati Helfgot’s interesting discussion here).  Hanukka is essentially a holiday of Hallel, of giving praise to God, with a particular practice, that of lighting candles.

This is as opposed to other holidays where we recite Hallel as part of our experience of them, but not as the essence of it.  Hallel on the first days of Pesach is a vital reaction to our re-experiencing redemption, and on Sukkot an essential aspect of our joyousness, but on Hanukka, the days themselves are essentially meant for Hallel.  That means, to me, that while candle lighting is an important mitsvah, it is no more the whole of the experience of the day than Shofar blowing is the whole of the experience of Rosh haShanah (as important as it is).

Could We Make Hanukkah Again Days of Hallel?

 Let me close with a fantasy that this idea stimulates: We all say Hallel with our morning minyanim, presumably because זריזין מקדימין למצוות, the earlier we perform a mitsvah the better.  As a result, though (depending on the minyan), Hallel might be crammed into five-ten minutes.  Once we recognize that this Hallel is really the fullest expression of what the days of Hanukkah are about, we might be prone to wanting a longer, more fulfilling Hallel.

Coming to our rescue, at least in my dreams, is the simple halachah, recorded by Rambam in paragraph 9 of that chapter, that Hallel can be said all day. Which leads me to wonder what it might look like if Jews were to gather together in the middle of the day—on their lunch hours, perhaps—just to say Hallel, but to really give it their all, to sing every paragraph, to have a Hazzan who took as much as half an hour to praising God for the salvation we experienced.  Imagine filling Ben-Yehuda Street, or Madison Square Garden, with Jews otherwise living out their ordinary day, pausing to praise God, to make these days truly days of rejoicing and praise, of thanks for the salvation we once experienced, whose echoes still reverberate today.

*  Written on the 3rd light of Hanukka, the 21st yahrzeit of avi mori, Ari Rothstein, אריה בן יוסף הלוי, with the hopes that it will be part of my continuing hopes to be a credit to his memory.

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