The Laws of Hanukkah

| Hanukkah By :  Isaac Klein Posted On Nov 20, 2012 | A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice | Holidays

1. Hanukkah

“Now on the five and twentieth day of the ninth month, which is called the month of Kislev, in the hundred forty and eighth year, they rose up in the morning, and offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs, citherns, harps, and cymbals…. And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days…. Moreover Judah and his brethren, with the whole congregation of Israel, ordained that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year for eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month Kislew, with mirth and gladness” (I Macc. 4:52-59).

“What is Hanukkah? For the rabbis have taught: Commencing with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislew there are eight days upon which there shall be neither mourning nor fasting. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil that was there. It was when the might of the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and vanquished them that, upon search, only a single cruse of undefiled oil, sealed by the High Priest, was found. In it was oil enough for the needs of a single day. A miracle was wrought and it burned eight days. The next year they ordained these days a holiday with songs and praises” (B. Shab. 21b: for variations of the story, see Pesiqta Rabbati, ed. Meir Ish Shalom, p. 5a; Megilat Ta’anit, ed. Lichtenstein, P. 341).

These passages represent the two strands within the Jewish tradition regarding Hanukkah and its meaning, the one preserved in the Apocrypha, in First and Second Maccabees, and the other in the Talmud.

In the apocryphal books, the story of the people of Israel during the Hellenistic period places special stress on the battles and victories of the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family. The war fought by the Hasmoneans is given a religious meaning; it was a struggle against the suppression of Judaism, culminating in the purification and rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem. The rededication took eight days; hence the eight days of Hanukkah.

The Talmudic tradition, on the other hand, stresses the miracle of the cruse of oil and mentions the Hasmonean struggle only cursorily. It is remarkable that while the Talmud contains an entire tractate devoted to Purim, Hanukkah is not even mentioned in the Mishnah. The talmudic discussion begins with the question ma’ee chanukah (“What is Hanukkah?”), as if the answer were not very well known.

The early authorities sensed that the Hasmonean victories had already lost their luster by the mishnaic period. Abudraham claims that while the Hasmoneans were initially pious, they sinned by making themselves the rulers of the Jewish state, an office not to be assumed by a priestly family, As Kohanim, the Hasmoneans had no right to take the royal scepter into their hands. Their punishment for this crime was eventually inflicted by Herod, who exterminated virtually all the Hasmoneans who were alive during his reign (Abudraham Hashalem, p. 201).

Rabbi Moses Sofer sees Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi as responsible for the. omission of Hanukkah from the Mishnah, He says that Yehudah Hanassi, who claimed to be a direct descendant of King David, regarded the Hasmoneans as usurpers since they were not members of the Davidic dynasty (Rabinowitz, Hol Umo’ed, p. 65). It has been suggested that there was also a political reason for the fact that the Maccabees are not mentioned in the Mishnah. The Romans, who dominated Judaea during the period when the Mishnah was compiled, would have interpreted any I emphasis on a Jewish war of independence as a sign of rebelliousness and this might have had dire consequences for the entire community (see Kahana, Sifrut Hahistoriah Hayisra’elit, 1:61).

It is apparent that the Hasmonean dynasty had lost its glory by the time of the Mishnah, for the last of the Hasmoneans were guilty of the very things their forebears fought against; as a result, Hanukkah was well-nigh forgotten (Kahana. loc. cit.). In time the festival was reestablished, but now the stress was on the miracles that accompanied the rededication of the Temple, not on the victories of the Maccabees. Hence, when the Talmud asked ma’ee chanukah the answer did not pertain to the Maccabean victories and rededication of the Temple, but rather to the miracle of the cruse of oil (B. Shab. 21a.)

The talmudic tradition has obtained to our own day. The message of Hanukkah is expressed in the prophetic words of the Haftarah of the Sabbath of Hanukkah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6). In this spirit Dr. Kaplan says: “The striking feature of the celebration of Hanukkah is the fact that, although the occasion which it commemorates was incidental to a successful war of independence fought against an oppressive foreign ruler, that occasion itself was neither a victory on the field of battle nor a political transaction that gave official recognition to the hard-won independence of Judaea. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple at Jerusalem to the God or Israel after it had been deliberately defiled by the Grecian rulers” (Kaplan, The Meaning of God, p. 330).

With the rise of Jewish nationalism, Hanukkah assumed a new importance; again the stress was shifted, this time back to the wars for political independence. The celebrations that heretofore were conducted at home and in the synagogue took the form of public demonstrations. The heroism of the Maccabees in liberating their country from foreign domination became a source of inspiration for nationalist endeavors (see Sefer Hamo’adim, Hanukkah, pp. 189-91, article by Joseph Klausner; Schauss, The Jewish Festivals, p, 230; Waxman, Handbook of Judaism, p. 73; Wahrman, Hagei Yisra’el Umo’adaw, p. 98).

This stress on the Maccabean struggle for independence reached its peak in Israel, where Hanukkah has become a patriotic celebration.

In America the proximity of a Christian holiday, and its prominence on the secular calendar, has influenced the celebration of Hanukkah both positively and negatively. The positive influence expresses itself in the greater and more widespread observance of Hanukkah, Negatively, Hanukkah has become more important to many American Jews than some of the major festivals on the Jewish calendar and is celebrated more and more lavishly in order to compete with the celebration of the non-Jewish holiday.

Note: In fact, the festival is mentioned several times in the Mishnah. For instance, Taanit 2:10 and Moed Katan 3:9 list it as a day on which mourning is forbidden. Bava Kama 6:6 recognizes that most people would light candles outside their homes, with a possible fire hazard resulting. Megillah 3-4 lists the Torah readings for the holiday. Perhaps what Klein means to say is that there is no tractate devoted specifically to Hannukah, and only passing mention of its distinctive Mitzvot. (Rabbi Joshua Heller)

2. The Observance of Hanukkah

Hanukkah begins on the eve of the twenty-fifth day of Kislew and lasts eight days. Work is permitted during the eight days, but all signs of sadness are to be avoided. There is no fasting, and at funerals eulogies and tziduk hadin are omitted (O.H. 670:1; Rama on O.H. 683:1).

Hanukkah is marked by the kindling of lights at home and it) the synagogue (hence it is also called chag haurim, the Festival of Lights). If oil is used for the Hanukkah lights, olive oil is preferred (O.H. 673:1). If candles are used, wax candles are preferred. The weight of rabbinic opinion opposes the use of an electric Menorah (She’arim Metsuyanim Bahalakhah, 3:240 f., quotes Levush Mordekhai, Or Zar’ua, Pequdat El’azan, Bet Yitshaq, see also Rabbi Y. E. Henkin in ‘Edut Leyisra’el, p. 122; Mishpetei Uzi’el, 1:25). In addition to the reasons cited in these sources, it should be noted that the use of candles or oil has great esthetic appeal and more sentimental meaning.

One light is kindled on the first night of Hanukkah; an additional light is added each succeeding night, so that eight lights are kindled on the eighth night (O.H. 671:2). The lights should be kindled after sundown (O.H. 672:1), Three benedictions are recited before the kindling of the lights on the first night: lehadlik ner shel hanukkah, sheasah nasim la’avoteinu bayamim hahem bazmal hazeh, and shehechiyanu v’kiyemany v’higianu lazmal hazeh (O.H. 676:1); the first two are also recited on each of the seven subsequent nights, but shehechiyanu is not (O.H. 676:1).

The first candle is placed on the right side of the Menorah. The second candle (on the second night) is placed directly to the left of the place occupied by the first candle, and so on, always moving leftward, The kindling starts on the left and moves toward the right, Thus the first candle to be lit each day is the candle added for that day (O.H. 676:5). hanerot halalu, is sung while kindling the lights, followed by maoz tzur; (O.H. 676:4). The Menorah should be placed where it is visible from outside the house in order to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah to all passers-by–l’farsumei nisah (O.H. 671:5, B. Shab. 24a).

In addition to the candles that are lit for each day, there is a special candle known as the shamash. This extra candle is necessary because the Hanukkah lights themselves should not be used for kindling other lights–hanerot halalu kodesh hem v’ein lanu reshut lehishtamesh bahem. The shamash is added, therefore, to be used in lighting the other candles and to provide illumination, it remains lit with the others (O.H. 673: 1).

Hanukkah lights are lit in the synagogue as well as in the home, and the same laws apply, They are lit immediately before Ma’ariv (O.H. 671:7). Since the main idea is l’farsumei nisah, this is not a substitute for kindling the lights at home (ibid.).

For the same reason, it is customary to light candles in the synagogue before Shaharit each morning, but without the accompanying benediction (Ziv Haminhagim, p, 263, no. 26). This also serves as a reminder of how many candles must be lit in the evening (see Eisenstein, Otsar Dinim Uminhagim, p, 141).

On Friday night the Hanukkah lights are lit before the Sabbath candles (O.H. 678:1). Opinions differ regarding whether the Hanukkah candles should be lit before or after Havdalah in the synagogue (O.H. 681:2 and M.D. ad loc.). Our custom is to light before Havdalah (see Hayyei Adam 153:37; Qitsur Shulhan ‘Arukh 139:18).

3. Hanukkah Services

In the liturgy al hanisim is added before v’al kulam and in Birkat Hamazon before v’al hakol (O.H. 682:1). Tahanun is not recited on Hanukkah, beginning with Minhah on the eve of Hanukkah (O.H. 683:1). Complete Hallel is recited every morning after the ‘Amidah (O.H. 683:1 in Rama). Since there is no Musaf on Hanukkah, and Hallel is thus not the end of the Shaharit service, only half-Qaddish is recited after Hallel (see Ziv Haminhagim, p. 263, no. 26, Abudraham Hashalem, p. 202). The complete Hallel is recited each day of Hanukkah because each day has its own individuality, as marked by the addition of a candle (Abudraham Hashalem, p. 202).

The Torah is read every morning and three people are called to the reading. The reading is from the Sidrah naso (Num. 7); it is known as parashat nesi’im because it tells of the gifts the princes of Israel brought at the dedication of the Tabernacle in the wilderness.

On the first day the reading starts at the beginning of the chapter (the Sefardim start three verses earlier, with the Birkat Kohanim) and ends with verse 17 (O.H. 684:1).

There are variations in the manner in which the portion is divided into ‘aliyot. According to one custom, we read up to bayom harishon for Kohen, the first three verses of the next passage for Levi, and the last three verses for Shelishi. According to the other custom, the passage beginning with bayom harishon is kept intact for Shelishi, and the first passage is divided between Kohen and Levi, the first four verses being read for Kohen, and the rest for Levi (O.H. 684:1). The Rabbinical Assembly Weekly Prayer Book follows the latter custom.

On the second day the portion begins with verse 18–bayom hasheni–which describes the offering of the second day. The first three verses are read for Kohen, the second three verses for Levi (O.H. 684: 1), and the entire passage of bayom hashlishi for Shelishi (Rama on O.H. 684: 1).

The same order is followed each day except the sixth, which is also Rosh Hodesh Tevet (O.H. 684:3), the day or days of Hannukah that fall on a Sabbath, and the last day of Hanukkah, when we begin with bayom hashmini and complete the chapter up to and including the offering of the twelfth day, and the concluding passage beginning with zot chanukat hamizbeach (O.H. 684: 1). Because of the reading of this passage, the eighth day of Hanukkah is sometimes called zot chanukat.

On the last day the reading begins with bayom hashmini. The paragraph is divided as on the other days: the First three verses for Kohen, the next three for Levi, and from bayom hatishi’i through the end of the chapter for Shelishi.

On the sixth day, which is always Rosh Hodesh. two Torah scrolls are taken from the ark. In the first Torah scroll we read the portion prescribed for Rosh Hodesh (Num. 23:1-15), calling three people. In the second Torah scroll we read the prescribed portion for Hanukkah, bayom hashishi, calling one person (O.H. 684:3). When Rosh Hodesh Tevet is observed for two days. the service follows the same procedure on the second day of Rosh Hodesh as on the first, except that the portion read from the second scroll begins with bayom hashvi’i.

On the Sabbath two Torah scrolls are taken out. The Sidrah of the week is read from the first. The Maftir, which is the prescribed reading for that day of Hanukkah, is read from the second (O.H, 684:2). The Haftarah is Zechariah 2:14-4:4. It was chosen because it mentions the Menorah and also because it contains the verse “Not by might, nor by power, etc.,” which has become the motto of Hanukkah.

Since Hanukkah lasts eight days, it will have two Sabbaths if the first day of the festival is a Sabbath, In such a case, we follow the same procedure on the second Sabbath as on the first, except that the Haftarah is from I Kings 7:40-50. This passage has a description of the furnishings of the Temple of Solomon, an appropriate reading on a holiday that celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple.

If Rosh Hodesh and the Sabbath coincide, three Torah scrolls are taken out, The Sidrah of the week is read from the first, and six people are given ‘aliyot, The passage for Rosh Hodesh (Num. 28:9-15) is read from the second for the seventh aliyah. The Qaddish is then recited. The prescribed reading for the sixth day of Hanukkah is read from the third, The Haftarah is that of Hanukkah (O.H. 684:3). The services for the day incorporate the special prayers of both Hanukkah and Rosh Hodesh; i.e., complete Hallel, the Musaf ‘Amidah of Rosh Hodesh and al hanisim in each ‘Amidah (O.H. 682:2). On the Sabbath of Hanukkah av harachaman and tzidkatcha tzedek are omitted (Rama on O.H. 683:1) since they are omitted on any Sabbath on which, were it a weekday, Tahanun would not be said (O,H. 292:2).

Many festive customs are associated with Hanukkah, special games (dreidl) and special foods (latkes or pancakes) are characteristic of the holiday. In America Hanukkah has become an occasion for the exchanging of gifts, especially for children (Ziv Haminhagim, pp. 262-63, nos. 24, 25). Plays and celebrations are held in religious schools. At home there is special emphasis on the children’s participation in the lighting of the candies (O.H. 675:3). The festival thus recalls to us a great act of faith, commemorating the liberation of our people bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, “in those days, at this season.” Hanukkah symbolizes the struggle, of “the few against the many, the weak against the strong,” the eternal battle of the Jewish people for its faith and its existence. To the world it proclaims the eternal message of the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might, nor by Power, but by My spirit.” 

Excerpted from:
A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Isaac Klein (Supplement by Rabbi Joel Roth)
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York and Jerusalem, Copyright 1979, 1992