Thursday, December 21, 2006

Rock of Ages

The following is based on a speech delivered by the Rosh HaYeshiva שליט"א on the Sixth Night of Chanukah, 5767. The basic premise is also discussed in this essay, and this essay also touches on some of the same issues.

In the end of his laws of Chanukah, Maimonides writes[1] that the commandment of lighting Chanukah candles is an especially endeared commandment to the Jewish nation. Why is this commandment specifically more endeared than any other commandment? Furthermore, Maimonides continues to say that even a pauper must sell all that he owns in order to have the equipment necessary to fulfill this commandment; such sacrifice is not requested from a poor person to fulfill any other commandment. So why is the commandment of Chanukah candles different? Furthermore, after discussing some laws of Chanukah, Maimonides goes on a tangent to discuss all the laws of Hallel and then he returns to his discussion about the laws of Chanukah. Why does Maimonides write all the laws of Hallel in middle of his code of laws for Chanukah and never discuss the details about Hallel elsewhere; why is Chanukah so special? Finally, when Maimonides discusses the obligations of Chanukah, he writes that the lighting is done "in order to make known the miracle" however, he writes afterwards that there is an obligation to "add praises to HaShem and give thinks for the Miracles which He has performed." Why does Maimonides begin by saying that the purpose of Chanukah is to publicize "the miracle" (in singular) and then go on to discussing giving thanks for "the miracles" (in plural)?

In discussing the Maccabean victory over the Syrian-Greeks, the prayer Al HaNissim says that HaShem placed "the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Torah." Seemingly the first two clauses describe the miracle of the Maccabees victory, while the last three clauses seem to merely detail the character traits of those involved in the Chanuka story that pure, pious, Torah-studying Maccabean men overtook the dirty, evil, licentious, Syrian-Greeks. However, in actuality, the liturgical description of the story of Chanukah was hinting to the underlying theme of the holiday by mentioning the last three clauses. That is, the holiday of Chanukah symbolizes the triumph of Torah over empty and void values. In the miraculous Maccabean victory, HaShem taught the world that purity, righteousness, and Torah are significant forces in life, as opposed to the bare values of Greek philosophy. Greek philosophy is so cynical, dark and depressing that the ancient Greeks invented organized sports as a coping mechanism for their national depression which resulted from their philosophy devoid of any meaning. In contrast, Torah values are filled with life. B recalling the miracle of Chanukah, when Torah values prevailed over the Greek philosophical ideals, Jews are, in essence, reaffirming the Torah's legitimacy. Therefore, in reciting Hallel on Chanukah, one is also really thanking HaShem for all of His miracles mentioned in the Torah. This explains why Chanukah is considered the epitomical example of a holiday on which Hallel is recited. This is also why Chanukah is considered such a cherished commandment; its fulfillment encompasses the entire Torah. Furthermore, Maimonides was explaining that by remembering the singular miracle of Chanukah, the outcome is that all other miracles are remembered.

Chanuka is truly a light in the midst of darkness. After lighting the Chanuka candles, Ashkenazi Jews have a custom of singing "Ma'oz Tzur" (commonly mistranslated as "Rock of Ages"). This poem mentions the ends of the various Jewish exiles: It mentions the drowning of Pharaoh and his Egyptian army after the Exodus from Egypt, it mentions Zerubavel leading the Jewish nations from her exile to Babylon, it mentions the hanging of Haman and his sons in Shushan, and it mentions the Maccabean victory over the Syrian-Greeks. The exile is a dark and gloomy period, while Chanukah is the last beacon of light in anticipation of the long-awaited redemption. Furthermore, Chanukah is the only holiday celebrated in the Jewish calendar in the winter and while there is no moon[2] because it is a spiritual oasis of light in the dark desert of the exile and winter.


[1] Laws of Chanukah 2:12
[2] Because Chanukah spans from the tail end of the Lunar month of Kislev to first few days of the month of Teves, while most other holidays are in the middle of the month (e.g. Pesach is 15th of Nissan, Succos is the 15th of Tishrei, Purim is the 14th of Adar, etc…).

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