During the second Temple when the Hellenists ruled, they made decrees against Israel and suppressed their religion. They did not allow them to study Torah and perform the mitzvot. They seized their wealth and their daughters. They entered the Sanctuary, made many breaches in it and defiled that which was sanctified. Israel was greatly afflicted by them and they terribly oppressed them (the Jews). But then the G-d f our fathers had compassion for them and rescued them from their hands and He saved them. The members of the Chashmonai family – high priests – overcame them. They killed them and rescued Israel from their hands. They established a king from among the priests and sovereignty was restored to Israel for more than two hundred years – until the destruction of the second Temple. (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Chanukah 3:1)
1. An historical prologue to the laws of Chanukah
In the opening paragraph of his discussion of the laws of Chanukah, Maimonides provides an account of the historical background of the festival. He describes the oppression of the Jews by the Hellenist rulers of the Land of Israel. He explains that Hashem rescued His people through the leadership of the Chashmonai family priests. The Hellenists were defeated. Jewish sovereignty was restored for over two hundred years.
These introductory remarks are unusual. Maimonides composed his Mishnah Torah as a code of law. He deals with every area of Torah practice with thoroughness and precision. He does not digress into discussion of our history. Why does he introduce his treatment of the laws of Chanukah with an overview of the festival’s history?
For that reason the Sages of that generation prescribed that these eight days that begin from the night of the twenty-fifth of Kislev should be days of celebration and Hallel. We should kindle on them candles in the evening at the doors of the homes – each night of the eight nights. (This is in order) to demonstrate and reveal the miracle. These days are called Chanukah….. (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Chanukah 3:3)
2. Recalling and pronouncing the events of Chanukah
Chanukah is primarily observed though two practices. We recite Hallel daily. Each night we kindle the Chanukah lights. Maimonides explains that we kindle the lights in order to recall and draw attention to the miracles that the festival commemorates. In other words, the mitzvah of kindling the lights is performed in its entirety when it stimulates us to recall the miracles of Chanukah.
3. Reciting HaNerot Halalu
This explains our practice of reciting HaNerot Halalu after kindling the lights. This short paragraph’s origins can be traced to the immediate post-Talmud period. It includes a brief historical explanation for the practice of kindling the lights. We proclaim that we are kindling the lights in order to recall the miracles commemorated by the festival. The very nature of our practice of kindling the lights explains the inclusion of this paragraph in the procedure for the mitzvah. The mitzvah is fulfilled in its entirety only when the lights evoke our memory of the miracles that the festival commemorates. With this paragraph, we give verbal expression to our recollection of those events.
We can now begin to understand Maimonides’ motivation for including, in his presentation of the laws of Chanukah, a review of the festival’s historical background. This information does not merely provide the reason for the Sages’ creation of the festival and its observances. It is actually a fundamental element of one of the observances. The kindling of the lights must evoke our memory of the miracles commemorated by the festival and proclaim them to observers of the lights. In other words, in this instance, the history is not only relevant to the halachic practice, it is part of that practice.
4. The shared character of Chanukah and Purim
A problem remains. Purim and Chanukah are very similar in their objectives. Both are designed to recall occasions of miraculous salvation. On Purim, we recall our salvation through Hashem from the hands of Haman who sought to destroy the Jewish people. On Chanukah, our observances are designed to recall and proclaim the miracle of our salvation. On Purim, our practices are intended to serve the same purpose.
However, Maimonides does not include in his discussion of the laws of Purim an historical prologue. This background is fundamental to the halachic observance of Purim just as it is to the observance of Chanukah. Yet, Maimonides does not find it necessary to include in his treatment of the laws of Purim a discussion of its historical background!
5. A fundamental difference between Chanukah and Purim
The answer to this question may be obvious. The central observances of Purim and Chanukah are designed to recall and proclaim salvations and miracles. However, the practices employed to achieve this objective are fundamentally different. On Purim we read the Megilah. The Migilah tells the story of Purim. One only needs to perform the festival’s central commandment to accomplish its aim. In performing the mitzvah of reading the Megilah the festival’s historic background is recalled and proclaimed.
On Chanukah we kindle the lights. This practice only evokes a memory of the events the festival commemorates if one is aware of these events. Therefore, Maimonides’ must make us aware of these events if we are to fully fulfill the festival’s central commandment.
6. The comprehensive nature of Maimonides’s Mishnah Torah
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l suggested another explanation for Maimonides’s special treatment of the historic background of Chanukah. Rav Soloveitchik – The Rav – bases his explanation on Maimonides’ own comments in his introduction to his code of law – Mishnah Torah. Maimonides explains that his code is a comprehensive compilation of the laws of the Torah. He explains that his work, when combined with the books of Tanach, provides a complete presentation of the Written and Oral Laws. He adds that one who masters these works has mastered the entirety of the Torah without need to make reference to any other work.
The historical background of Purim is included in Tanach. It is the subject of Megilat Esther. Tanach does not include an account of the events commemorated by Chanukah. Because it is not included in Tanach, Maimonides includes this material in his Mishnah Torah. This inclusion is consistent with his objective of creating a comprehensive presentation of the entire Torah. All of the essential elements must be included in either Tanach or his Mishnah Torah. Whatever is not found in Tanach and is essential, must be incorporated into Mishnah Torah.
7. Two centuries of sovereignty
Now that we understand Maimonides’ considerations in including an historical prologue to his treatment of the laws of Chanukah, let us more carefully consider the content of this presentation. One aspect of his presentation seems out of place or superfluous. Maimonides’ intention is to describe the oppression of the Jewish people by the Hellenists and their liberation from oppression. However, in addition to his description of these events, he adds that the Chashmonai family – who were priests – appointed a king from their family and restored sovereignty to the Jewish people for more than two hundred years. Why is this information relevant to Maimonides’ presentation?
8. The Chashmonai family controversy
In order to respond to this question another issue must be considered. Maimonides seems to consider the establishment of the Chashmonai family dynasty of kings as a positive development. Nachmides disputes this position. He comments that the Chashmonai family did not have the right to elevate itself to the position of kings. He explains that once Hashem chose David as king, the institution of kingship was awarded to him and his descendants in perpetuity. In assuming the kingship, the Chashmonai family was a usurper. Nachmanides argues that they were severely punished for this trespass. Maimonides apparently maintains that the Chashmonai family kings did not usurp the role of the house of David. Kingship will ultimately return to the family of David, but it is not inappropriate to appoint a king from another family or shevet, if necessary. The Torah instructs us only that the kingship cannot be permanently transferred to another family. In short, according to Maimonides, the Chashmonai family did not violate the Torah’s laws through their ascension to the throne. According to Nachmanides, they were not entitled to serve as rulers. Only the descendants of David may rule the Jewish people.
From Nachmanides’ perspective the events commemorated by Chanukah are not completely positive. The Jewish people were saved from their oppressors. The Temple was restored. But the political outcome of the conflict was that the throne of Israel was seized by a usurper. The Chashmonai family presumed to be rulers of the Jewish people. We celebrate our salvation and deliverance from oppression. But these same events led to the emergence of an unfortunate political reality. A king who was not a descendant of David seized the throne.
Maimonides regards the ascension of the Chashmonai family to kingship as positive. He does not regard them as usurpers. They merely served as regents in the absence of an appropriate king from the descendants of David. Why does Maimonides note that sovereignty was restored to Israel for more than two centuries? He apparently maintains that these two centuries of sovereignty somehow confirm his position! How does an extended period of sovereignty support his view?
9. History as a teacher
The Rav suggests that sometimes the unfolding of subsequent events indicate whether a decision was proper and correct. His underlying assumption seems to be that the response of providence communicates to us whether we or our ancestors acted properly. Proper and appropriate decisions are rewarded by positive outcomes. Poor or inappropriate decisions are not rewarded with success. Based on this theory, the Rav contends that we can determine whether an issue was properly decided by discerning the response of providence. If a controversial decision proves to be effective, then history is indicating that the decision was proper.
The Rav’s view seems to be reflected in the comments of Maimonides. Maimonides fully recognizes that the decision of the Chashmonai family to serve as kings is subject to criticism. He understands that other authorities will contest his position that the Chashmonai family acted properly. In response to critics, he notes that these kings initiated over two centuries of sovereignty. He is indicating that history seems to support his position. In other words, the success that resulted from the ascension of the Chashmonai family to kingship communicates that Hashem approved their decision.