If you don’t see this week’s issue by the end of the week, check which may be more up-to-date

Back to This Week's Parsha | Previous Issues

 Chanukah Potpourri

On Chanuka we add a paragraph to the Shemoneh Esrei prayers and to Birkas HaMazon in which we thank Hashem for the miracles which He performed at this time. After describing all of the miracles which Hashem performed for our ancestors, this paragraph, known as “Al HaNissim,” concludes v’kavu shemonas y’mei Chanuka eilu l’hodos ul’halel l’shimcha hagadol – and they (the sages) established the 8 days of Chanuka to give thanks and praise to Your Holy name. In the “Al Hanissim” paragraph which is added on Purim, no analogous mention is made of the manner in which we commemorate the miracles Hashem performed for Mordechai and Esther. Further, if they opted to discuss our religious obligations on Chanuka, why is no mention made of the requirement to light the menorah, which is traditionally considered to be the primary mitzvah associated with publicizing the miracle of Chanuka?

Secondly, the song known as “Maoz Tzur” which is traditionally sung each day after lighting the menorah refers to the enactment of Chanuka as b’nei bina y’mei shemonah kavu shir ur’nanim – men of insight established 8 days for singing and rejoicing. As there are numerous words in Hebrew to connote wisdom (e.g. deiah, chochmah) why are they specifically referred to as b’nei bina – men of understanding? Finally is the famous question attributed to the Beis Yosef: if there was enough oil for one day, then the miracle was in reality only for the last 7 days, so why is Chanuka commemorated for 8 days and not for 7?

Before beginning to answer these questions, let us pose one additional question, the answer to which will provide the key to addressing these questions. Studying science and revealing the depth and intricacy of Hashem’s Creation often brings people to believe in Hashem as they marvel at the impossibility of it all occurring by chance. As history teaches that although the ancient Greeks were on the cutting edge of science and knowledge of the natural world, why were they also the biggest heretics?

This last question may be answered with a parable. There were two families who performed tremendous acts of chesed (kindness). The first family noticed a poor homeless beggar and invited him to their home for a warm supper, a shower, a change of clothes, and a good night’s sleep. The second family heard of the plight of a young abandoned baby and with great mercy adopted him and raised him as their very own. While both are admirable, praiseworthy acts, the latter clearly far outweighs the former, as it is an obligation for life versus a commitment of one night.

Yet upon speaking with the homeless man and the adopted child and measuring their levels of gratitude, one would surprisingly find the homeless man gushing with effusive praise for his compassionate hosts, while the child will be far less enthusiastic. The explanation for this phenomenon is that because he was adopted at such a young age, the child has grown accustomed to their myriad acts of kindness to the point of taking them for granted and assuming that they occur automatically, whereas the homeless man is able to recognize the magnitude of their unexpected thoughtfulness.

Similarly, the ancient Greeks were leaders at furthering the understanding and awareness of the natural world, but they were led astray by the very fact that the focus of their inquiries – nature – is by definition constant and self-perpetuating. This led them to take nature for granted and to view it as an independent power unto itself. Not surprisingly, the gematria (numerical value) of the word ha’teva (nature) is the same (86) as that of Elokim, yet they erred in concluding that nature is a god rather than His work and the way in which His Divine Will manifests itself in this world.

This introduction provides a deeper understanding of the victory of the Chashmonaim over the Greeks. The struggle wasn’t merely military in nature, but it represented a battle over this fundamental mistake made by the Greeks. The Chashmonaim realized that everything in the world comes from Hashem, and everything – including nature itself – is in reality a miracle. The Ramban writes (Shemos 13:16) that from clear and open miracles a person should come to recognize that even the mundane things he takes for granted, such as nature, as also miraculous, albeit in a “hidden” form. This concept is so fundamental to Jewish belief that he concludes that one who denies this has no portion in the Torah.

In this light, we can now appreciate the answer given by the Alter of Kelm to the well-known question of the Beis Yosef. The question was that because there was enough oil to burn on the first day, no miracle occurred and therefore Chanuka should be celebrated only for the 7 days that the oil burned “miraculously.” The Altar of Kelm answers that the miracle of the first day is that oil burns at all! One will argue that this isn’t miraculous, but just the functioning of the laws of nature, but this is exactly the point! The first day of Chanuka commemorates the recognition that nature itself is a creation of Hashem, and just because one is accustomed to it on a daily basis, it is no less miraculous than the fact that the oil burned for longer than it was supposed to!

The Gemora in Taanis (25a) relates that one Friday, the daughter of Rav Chanina ben Dosa accidentally put vinegar in the Shabbos candles instead of oil. Her father wasn’t fazed, as he unequivocally declared that “He who told oil to burn can tell vinegar to burn.” He recognized clearly that the accepted laws of nature are essentially arbitrary; if Hashem willed them to be another way, they could just as easily be completely different. He understood that there is nothing intrinsically more miraculous in the burning of oil than that of vinegar, as nature is just another, more hidden, form of a miracle. Not surprisingly, the Gemora concludes that for somebody on such a level, an open miracle occurred and he lit his Havdolah candle from those very same vinegar candles which were still burning strong!

In a similar vein, Rav Moshe Feinstein answers another difficulty raised with the wording of the “Al Hanisim” prayers for Chanuka. Why is no mention made of the most well-known miracle associated with Chanuka, the burning of the oil for 8 days? Based on the above, he suggests that it is indeed mentioned, in the words v’hidliku neiros b’chatzros kadshecha – they lit candles in Your Holy Temple. One may point out this this wasn’t the miracle of the oil, as they had enough oil to burn initially, but this is exactly the point! That the oil burned at all was the first miracle of the oil, and one no less miraculous than that which occurred on the remaining 7 days!

In light of the above, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky beautifully explains why the sages are specifically referred to as b’nei bina.  Rashi writes (Devorim 1:13) that binah is specifically used to connote the wisdom of being meivin davar mitoch davar – extrapolating from one concept and using it to understand something else. This is the precise description of the Chashmonaim, who acted in line with the aforementioned Ramban’s principle, and from the open miracle that they witnessed on the last 7 days, they were able to step back and use it to recognize that the lighting of the first day had been just as miraculous.

This was their conquest over the Greeks and their pagan philosophy. Had they only established a holiday of 7 days, they would have missed the entire point. The Greeks also would have agreed to make a holiday commemorating the latter 7 days, but that was their entire defeat. We therefore stress that the wise and understanding men established 8 days for singing and praising; the fact that they made it 8 and not 7 is precisely the proof that they were b’nei bina!

The Gemora in Berachos (7b) states that in naming her 4th son Yehuda in order to express her gratitude to Hashem (Bereishis 29:35), Leah became the first person in history to thank Hashem. How can it be that the righteous Avrohom, Sorah, Yitzchok, Rivkah, and Yaakov never once thanked Hashem? The K’sav Sofer answers that they thanked Hashem repeatedly, but only for the open miracles. Leah was the first person to thank Hashem for something which could be classified as “natural,” the birth of 4 sons. She recognized that nature is also a miracle and requires just as much gratitude as the open miracles!

The Bach writes (Orach Chaim 670) that the Greeks were able to control and overpower the Jews at that time because they weakened themselves in their Divine Service. The Shem Mi’Shmuel clarifies that the Bach doesn’t mean to say that they weren’t observing the mitzvos. They were doing everything that they were required to do, but they were doing it k’mizvas anashim m’lumada – from rote and habit.

In discussing how long the menorah must burn, the Gemora (Shabbos 21b) doesn’t give an amount of time as one would expect but rather an unusual measurement: ad shetich’leh haregel min hashuk, until people’s feet are no longer walking around outside in the marketplace (where they will be able to see the menorahs, and hence there is no further purpose in publicizing the miracle).

The Chiddushei HaRim suggests that the word “ha’regel” (the foot) can also be read “hergel” (habit). The foot is the part of the body which is farthest from the brain, and as such it is the most capable of functioning on “automatic pilot” without any thought at all. The Gemora can be re-read to require “ad she’tich’leh hergel min ha’shok.” A person only fulfills his obligation on Chanuka when he turns off the “cruise control” and begins to act in a thought-out, premeditated manner.

It has been cynically suggested that while Orthodox Jews are traditionally subdivided into the categories of FFB (Frum From Birth) and BT (Baal Teshuva), most of them fall into a 3rd category, FFH (Frum From Habit), people who keep Shabbos because they did it last week, and who eat kosher because that’s what they did growing up. Chanuka is a time to work to overcome this and become thinking Jews!

The question with which we began was why the “Al Hanisim” on Chanuka concludes with how the miracles are commemorated, and once it does so, why does it only mention the need to give thanks while overlooking the lighting of the menorah? Rabbi Yosef Sonnenschein suggests that because the goal of Chanuka is to overcome the power of habit, giving thanks to Hashem is an integral part of the holiday.

If a person does most mitzvos, including lighting the menorah, without proper intent, it definitely takes away from the value of the mitzvah, but at the end of the day the mitzvah was still done. The burning menorah publicizes the miracle to all who see it regardless of the concentration, or lack thereof, of the one who lit it. Gratitude, on the other hand, if offered unenthusiastically, isn’t considered as having been given yet somewhat deficiently; it’s meaningless and wasn’t given at all! If a person doesn’t feel that somebody has benefited him, or ascribes to him ulterior motives, or simply doesn’t feel appreciative, then saying an insincere “thank you” is hollow and worthless.

Although it is incredibly difficult to feel and express proper appreciatin for Hashem’s kindnesses, this is no excuse. Rav Nosson Wachtfogel points out that the days of Chanuka are miraculous days, a time of being above the laws of nature. The “Al Hanisim” prayer stresses that this is a time when Hashem delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak and the many into the hands of the few. Let us use this precious opportunity to recognize that even what is cloaked in the guise of nature is indeed miraculous, and to reflect upon the numerous miracles which Hashem performs for us every second of every day, and to thank Him with hearts full of gratitude!


Chanuka Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them): 

1)     On Chanuka we add a paragraph, known as “Al Hanissim,” to the Shemoneh Esrei prayers and to Birkas HaMazon in which we give thanks to Hashem for the miracles, for the redemption, for the acts of might, for the salvations, and for the wars which He performed for our ancestors at this time. Wouldn’t we have been better off without wars? Why are we giving thanks for them? (Leket Sichos Mussar, Noam Hamussar, Derech Sicha Biurei Ha’Tefilla, Shiurei Bina)

2)     The song known as “Maoz Tzur” which is traditionally sung each day after lighting the menorah states uminosar kankanim na’aseh neis lashoshanim – with the remaining oil, a miracle occurred for the roses. Why are the Chashmonaim compared to flowers, and why specifically to roses?

3)     The song known as “Maoz Tzur” which is traditionally sung each day after lighting the menorah states regarding Haman rov banav v’kinyanav al haeitz talisa – the majority of his sons and possessions You hung on the tree. As the Pirkei D’Rav Eliezer states that Haman had 40 sons and only 10 of them were hung with him, in what way were the majority of his sons hanged? Also, in what way were his possessions hung on the tree? (Torah L’Daas Vol. 9)

4)     Why is virtually no mention made of the festival of Chanuka and its pertinent laws anywhere in the Mishnah? (Chasam Sofer)

5)     The Gemora in Shabbos (23b) states that a person who is careful regarding the mitzvah of lighting the candles of Shabbos and Chanuka will merit sons who are Torah scholars. Why won’t he be rewarded by becoming a sage himself? (Pri Chodosh)

6)     How were the Greeks able to render the oil in the Beis HaMikdash impure when the Gemora in Pesochim (17a) states that many of the liquids, including the oil, which were used in the Beis HaMikdash (mashkeh beis matb’chaya) aren’t susceptible to becoming impure? (Shu”t Beis Yitzchok Orach Chaim 110, Imrei Daas Moadim, Chiddushei HaRim)


© 2006 by Oizer Alport. Permission is granted to reproduce and distribute as long as credit is given. To receive weekly via email or to send comments or suggestions, write to

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel