Chanukah

The “Missing Yom Tov” of Chanukah

December 10, 2012

One of the special laws of the shemitta year is the prohibition of sefichin – grains and vegetables which were not planted in the seventh year but rather grew by themselves as the aftergrowth of the sixth year. For most produce, the prohibition of sefichin extends until Chanukah (Yerushalmi Demai 2:1, Rambam Shemitta 4:6). In the time of the Mikdash, Chanukah was also the latest date for bringing bikkurim (Mishna Bikkurim 1:6).

We see that Chanukah has not only a historical aspect but also an agricultural aspect, like the Torah holidays of Pesach (beginning of barley harvest and bringing of omer), Shavuot (beginning of wheat harvest and bringing of shtei halechem and bikkurim), and Sukkot (the end of the harvest season for most crops and building of sukkah from their stalks etc.)

The Torah festivals all have special sacrifices. While there are no special observances of Chanukah in the Temple service, there is a powerful connection to the Mikdash, for the holiday commemorates the inauguration of the altar and the renewal of the avoda in the Mikdash. With all of these likenesses, we could almost call Chanukah a “quasi-festival”.

While Greek philosophy was focused on truth, ultimately Greek religion and thought were focused on usefulness. Greek civilization’s best minds were occupied in ascertaining the laws of beauty (asthetics), the laws of language, the laws of nature, the laws of human society. There is an interesting hint of this in the Midrash. On the one hand, the Sifri learns that the periodic clearing out of tithes (biur maasrot) could not be on Chanukah because the Torah refers to “miktzeh shalosh shanim” – at the end of three years, and the word ketz, or end, refers specifically to a festival – not Chanukah. (Sifri on Devarim 14:28.)

Yet in Bereshit Rabba the expression “miketz yamim” (at the end of some days) which describes when Kayin murdered Hevel is understood to refer specifically to Chanukah! (Bereshit Rabba on Bereshit 4:3.) So this terminology also hints at a festival-like status for Chanukah.

Indeed, there seems to be a “missing festival” at the time of Chanukah. After all, the other three tekufot (equinoxes and solstice) have festivals – why not the winter solstice? And the other demarcators of the agricultural year have holidays: beginning and end of the crop harvest (Pesach and Sukkot) and beginning of fruit harvest (Shavuot); why not the end of the fruit harvest – Chanukah, when the last olives are gathered and can be brought as bikkurim?

We can view Chanukah as a festival which was intended from the beginning, but which HaShem “kept in store” for us, waiting to bestow it until the time of the Maccabim. Perhaps this “solstice” of Jewish history was the time when it was most needed.

After hundreds of years of “shortening days” for the Jewish people, with no prophets and no sovereignty, HaShem gave us two things. He gave us a source of light, with the victory of the Maccabim who returned partial sovereignty to the Jews of Eretz Yisrael and restored the Mikdash. And He gave us the miracle of the oil, which reminds us that with His aid, a lamp which seemingly can last only a short time – even partial Jewish sovereignty lasted only about two hundred years – can actually illuminate the Jewish people for a much longer period, until new oil is pressed.

So the Rabbinical festival of Chanukah reminds us that the spiritual might of the Maccabim is not extinguished, but will continue to burn until the impending final Redemption, when complete material and spiritual sovereignty will be restored here in the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Meir’s book Meaning in Mitzvot is now available as an e-book through AmazonibooksGoogle Play and B&N.