Shabbat Shalom, everyone!
First of all, I’d like to thank you for the warm welcome here at the Beth Tikvah synagogue. It’s a pleasure to be able to spend this Shabbat with you, as well as with my good friend Cantor Tibor Kovari. Btw, I need to tell you what a wonderful treasure you have here at Beth Tikvah in the person of Cantor Kovari… He and I go back many many years, ever since we were working together at the Jewish Community in Bucharest, Romania, and I can tell you that his friendship, warmth and wonderful personality, as well as his professional qualifications are something truly amazing to behold. But I am sure you know that already… 🙂
This is actually my second time here at Beth Tikvah. The first time was for just a couple of days back in 2010, around the time of Yom HaAtzmaut. It was a great experience seeing your community back then, as my family and I were preparing to move to Canada. It was wonderful to have the chance to meet you, to know you a little, to make friends. And it feels really great to be back now…
It’s not Yom HaAtzmaut today, but the holiday we celebrate these days, Chanukah, does carry with it some of the messages of Israel’s Independence Day. First of all, because Chanukah was — in its time — a sort of “Independence Day”. The Maccabees fought an actual independence war and they won, then they relit the Menorah in the Temple and, through this act, they brought back into the world hope and faith. Also, the “State of Israel” of those days was renewed, the Hellenised Syrians were held at bay (at least for a while), and the Jewish spirituality was brought back from the brink of the abyss.
Also, there is a connection between Yom HaAtzmaut and Chanukah because of a shared ritual. We do not light candles on Yom HaAtzmaut, and we do not wave Israeli flags on Chanukah, but we do say Hallel on both occasions, to celebrate the miracles Hashem did for us and our forefathers, to rejoice and to express our praise and thanksgiving.
So, if we look closely, there is a strong connection between Chanukah and Yom HaAtzmaut.
But it turns out that Chanukah has a strong connection not just with Yom Ha’Atzmaut, but rather with pretty much all the other Jewish holidays. Sometimes, this connection is more obvious, other times it is well hidden, either in the very fabric of the ritual across denominations, or in a local custom, or in liturgy, or even in the culinary traditions of various holidays.
So, what I thought we could do in the next few minutes is take a detour from a typical Shabbat morning sermon. Instead, what I suggest is that we try to explore together some of the connections Chanukah has with the other Jewish holidays, in a Trivia-like challenge. I am sure that in this way everyone, young and elderly, beginners and knowledgeable alike, can benefit, have fun and perhaps even learn something new and interesting. So, what do you think? Are you up for the challenge?
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Let’s start at the beginning then… What is the link between Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur and Chanukah?
There are two important connections that I was able to find, though I am sure there are more. One connection is related to a Midrash quoted by the Talmud, while the other one stems from the Kabbalah.
In trying to explain the origin of two pagan holidays, Kalanda (which occurs eight days after the winter solstice) and Saturna (which occurs eight days beforehand), the Gemarah in Masechet Avoda Zara 8b records a very interesting Midrash about Adam, the first human, and his very first winter living in the world. According to tradition, Adam was created on Rosh Hashana, and during the first three months of his life, he noticed how the days slowly became shorter and shorter. So he said to himself: “Woe to me, because of my sin in Gan Eden, the world is getting darker. Soon, soon there would be no more light, and the universe will return to תהו ובהו, to chaos and disarray. This must be my death sentence for eating from the Tree of Knowledge.”
Instead of accepting this imminent fate — the Midrash continues — Adam overcame his depression, and took upon himself to fast, pray and repent (a common theme for the Tishrei holidays). After eight days, he noticed that the days indeed had begun to lengthen, and he realized that this is minhago shel Olam, the way of the world. He thus established an eight day yearly celebration and gave thanks to the Almighty. This was the first time in history when Chanukah (or its ancient correspondent festival) was celebrated.
The second connection between Rosh Hashana and Chanukah stems from Kabbalah, and it has to do with the way we perceive and understand miracles. According to Jewish mysticism, the root of the word miracle, נס (nes) in Hebrew, can also be read as nas, which means “to escape” or “to flee”. In Kabbalah, a miracle is the result of a ניסיון (nisayon), a test which a person must go through in order to escape from his/her nature and to transcend above it. The resulting transformation not only amazes us, but it also affects our life and our destiny, and it enables us to see better the truly miraculous nature of the world’s existence.
The Holy Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria from Tsfat) explains that on Chanukah we receive the power to create miracles for the whole year, and to reconnect to the source of life’s energy, health, success, confidence and continuity. In this sense, Chanukah resembles Tishrei’s holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur) that enable a similar access to those powers. This connection — the Ari points out — is so strong that Chanukah actually merits the name of “Little Rosh Hashana”.
Also, there are voices amongst the commentators who maintain that although one’s destiny is determined in the month of Tishrei, until Chanukah there is still an open hand in the heavens waiting for people to repent and change their ways. (By the way, this last idea is also in sync with the Torah portion we read this week, Miketz, in which Joseph’s brothers do genuine teshuvah, as they repent from all the evil they caused him in their jealousy and callousness.)
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So far, so good: connection between Yamim Noraim and Chanukah established. What about Sukkot then? What is the link between Chanukah and Sukkot?
Well, this one is much more straightforward, and it emanates primarily from the main Talmudic source that talks about the holiday of Chanukah.
The Gemara (Shabbat 21b) cites a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel regarding the number of Chanukah candles we light each night. We all know the story, don’t we? Beit Hillel (the opinion we follow today in our ritual) say that we start with one candle on the first night, and then add a candle on each subsequent night. On the flipside, Beit Shammai say that we light eight candles on the first night, and one candle less on each subsequent night.
The reasoning for each side is very interesting: Beit Hillel maintain that מעלין בקודש — maalin be’kodesh, meaning that in matters of spirituality we only ascend. Beit Shammai’s opinion is a bit more cryptic: כנגד פרי החג — “the Chanukah candles are parallel to the bulls that were sacrificed on Sukkot”. Thirteen bulls were sacrificed on the first day of Sukkot, and on each subsequent day one less bull was offered. So — says Beit Shammai — Chanukah should also be observed by lighting candles in descending order. But why? What has Chanukah got to do with Sukkot?
Well, a few special connections come to mind:
- In parashat Emor (chapters 23-24 in the Book of Vayikra – Leviticus), when the holidays are mentioned, the last one in the series is Sukkot. Immediately afterwards, the Torah recalls the lighting of the Menorah in the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
- Historically speaking, when the Maccabees won the war against the Greeks and rededicated the Temple, the last holiday which they had missed — due to the war and the Temple being inaccessible and profaned — was indeed Sukkot. So the Maccabees decided to celebrate Sukkot during the rededication of the Temple. Only in subsequent years, the days we celebrate now in December were actually Chanukah proper, but on that very first year, we actually celebrated Sukkot instead.
- During the Temple proceedings for the holiday of Sukkot, special sacrifices were brought on the altar on behalf of all mankind. It was one of the few moments in the Jewish calendar when the Temple and its special place in the relationship with G-d did not “belong” to Jews alone, but to all the world. It was a moment in which the verse in Isaiah 56:7 was indeed made to shine: “My house will be a house of prayer for all nations.” Chanukah constitutes a parallel to that idea, in the sense that the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukiah can be fulfilled not only amongst Jews, but Gentiles as well. The Gemara places the time limit on the commandment to publicize the Chanukah miracle at the moment עד שתחלה רגל מן השוק — “until all passersby have disappeared from the marketplace”. Passersby, not just Jews. As long as people (regardless of faith, nationality or creed) are still around to observe the lights, the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle of Chanukah and the power of G-d in creating such a miracle can and should still be performed.
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Purim is next on our list. Being the “twin” holiday to Chanukah, I am sure this one does not need much explaining. The primary connections are the fact that both Chanukah and Purim and post-biblical holidays, rabbinically instituted, and on both holidays we celebrate miracles that ensured our continued existence as a Jewish nation. On Purim, the Jews were saved from physical annihilation, on Chanukah they were saved from spiritual assimilation.
On both holidays, the hardships of the exile and lack of complete sovereignty still persisted. On Purim, the Jews remained under Achashverosh’s rule in Persia, while on Chanukah, the independence gained by the Maccabim against the Greeks was short lived.
On both occasions, we recite Al Hanissim, a special paragraph thanking G-d for His miracles and salvations, and on both occasions we have the mitzvah of rejoicing and abstaining from fasting or mourning public behaviours.
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Pesach and Chanukah connect on a much deeper and more hidden level. Of course, there is the obvious link in the sense of national independence being gained on both occasions: on Pesach as a result of G-d’s intervention in Egypt, when, as part of the Exodus, the Jewish people were taken out of slavery; and on Chanukah, as a result of the actions of the Maccabees, with G-d’s help, against Antiochus Epiphanes and his cohorts.
But there are at least two more connections which are harder to spot. The first, comes from the Mishna and has trickled down in history in the form of a halakhic ruling. On Chanukah, a poor person is required to do anything in their power, even to sell even their clothes or to go out and beg for charity in order to secure the money required to buy oil or candles for the holiday. Similarly, on Pesach, a poor person is required to go to the same great lengths to secure the money necessary to buy the wine for the four cups.
Why is that so? Because on both occasions, the symbolism conveyed by those items is the same: freedom. Without freedom, our very existence would be much darker, much poorer, if at all possible. Even in today’s world — that is often a bit “disconnected” from the spiritual realm — freedom is highly valued. Without it, there is almost no sense of self, no notion of peoplehood, and no direction in life. For this reason alone, Pesach (the holiday of our freedom) and Chanukah (the holiday of lights) are strongly related — because they both symbolize a power beyond ourselves, the power that gives people their identity, their sense of belonging, and their destiny. On both holidays, the motif is the same: as Rabbi-Lord Jonathan Sacks puts it: “G-d, who led His people from slavery to freedom, desires the free worship of free human beings.”
And for this reason, Pesach and Chanukah share a strong root: the power of G-d to create and secure freedom for those in need of it. Because in His love and kindness, Hashem chose to free the weak from the hand of the strong, the oppressed from the hand of the cruel, the small from the hands of the great. Egypt was arguably the largest and most powerful culture of the ancient world. The Greeks were not far behind in power and influence. In both cases, the physical existence and spiritual identity of smaller cultures and systems of faith was being threatened. And in both cases, G-d intervened and granted freedom to the slaves, as well as the ability to follow not the laws of idolatry, but the laws of the Torah.
And there is yet another connection I found between Chanukah and Pesach, this time in the form of a local custom that only came to my attention very recently. In a writing by a rather obscure Rabbi Avraham ben Mordechai Galante of 16th century Italy, a minhag from the Turkish city of Izmir stands out as very interesting. In his time, the Jews of Izmir had the custom to use their leftover oil from Chanukah to light a small lamp to use for Bedikat Chametz, the search for leaven conducted on the eve of Pesach in every Jewish home.
Here too, Chanukah and Pesach are linked, but on a different level: that of spirituality and its role in shaping our existence. As a general rule, the Chanukah candles’ sole purpose is to enlighten the spiritual world. Halachically, we are not even allowed to derive benefit from their light. We say — as part of Hanerot Halalu, the recitation right after the kindling of the chanukiah every night — that אין לנו רשות להשתמש בהם אלא לראותם בלבד — “we do not have the right to use the lights of Chanukah, but rather only to look at them.” And yet, when it comes to using the oil to enable an additional step on the spiritual path, the Jewish law makes an exception.
By using the leftover Chanukah oil on Pesah, the Jews of Izmir are making a statement not unlike that of Beit Hillel, that “in matters of spirituality, we must keep going up”. We are allowed to take from the holiness of one holiday, especially the Holiday of Lights, to light up the rest of our year, to infuse it with spirituality and holiness. The light of the Temple Menorah, symbolized today by the Chanukah candles, was in its time a symbol of the connection between G-d and not just Jews, but all of humankind. It is said about the Menorah that from Jerusalem it used to “illuminate the entire world”. And so, we strive to keep that symbolism alive: by bringing the light into our mundane existence, by creating bridges between our moments of holiness, we remind ourselves that we exist because we care for light, for all the light in the world.
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Next on our list is the holiday of Shavuot, the time when the Torah was given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, the very moment when our physical freedom, freshly received during the Exodus, was intrinsically coupled with the spiritual uplifting of the Revelation. Shavuot is about receiving the Torah, about establishing a relationship with G-d, about hearing the Ten Commandments and making a commitment to obey G-d’s will and to walk in His ways. And while none of those seem to relate in any way to Chanukah, a connection can still be made by way of two small details: a story and a culinary custom.
On Chanukah, as well as on Shavuot, we have the custom to eat cheese and dairy products. On Shavuot, we do it for several reasons, including the unfamiliarity our forefathers had at Sinai with the newly instituted laws of shechita (ritual slaughtering); Moshe’s forty day stay on Mount Sinai (while the numerical value of the Hebrew word חלב – “milk” is 40); and because the Torah refers to the Israel as the land “flowing with milk and honey” and we want to keep a living connection to our spiritual home, the Land of Israel.
On Chanukah, the custom of eating cheese and dairy products is mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (670:2). The source is an apocryphal book called the Book of Yehudit, named after a woman who had strong ties to the Hashmonaim family, the same family to which the Maccabees of Chanukah belonged. Basically, the story goes as follows: Yehudit, the daughter of Yochanan the Kohen Gadol, brother of Matityahu whom we mention in our Al HaNisim prayer, was a beautiful widow, who wanted to boost the morale of her Jewish countrymen against their foreign conquerors. In the story, Yehudit went with her loyal maid to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes. Gaining his trust, she was allowed access to his tent one night and she fed him salty cheese and wine. As he lay drunk, she decapitated him, and took his head back to her fearful countrymen. The Assyrians, having lost their leader, dispersed, and Israel was saved. In honor of her courage — the tradition says — we maintain the custom of eating milk, cheese and other dairy products on Chanukah.
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And one last connection before we conclude… How is Chanukah linked to Shabbat? Not a holiday per se, but perhaps a lot more than that, Shabbat is the “island in time” that comes to us once a week, to mark the Creation of the World and G-d’s contemplative resting upon its completion.
The primary connection here is one that is intrinsic to the holiday: light. On both Shabbat and Chanukah, we light candles not a s Biblical obligation, but rather as a commandment from the Rabbis to infuse our homes with light. It is as if the Rabbis are trying to deliver a message to us beyond that on the Written Torah: that the core of our identity as a people is light. We are the people of light, not just the people of the book, because we cherish it deeply and we strive to bring it more and more into the world. The concept of Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place, and the concept of being or lagoyim, a light unto the nations, are key concepts in Judaism.
On Shabbat, we refrain from working because we want to dedicate ourselves, for a brief moment, to a higher realm, that of spirituality, wisdom, light, warmth, friendship and love of G-d and of fellow humans. On Chanukah, we bring light into the darkness of the night, to inspire and encourage in us and in others the cultivation of spirituality, wisdom, friendship and love. And it is perhaps for this very reason, for the importance of light in our lives and in these two special times in the Jewish calendar — that the very mentioning of Chanukah in the entire Talmud is done in Mesechet Shabbat, the Tractate that deals with the laws of Sabbath, in the chapter that talks specifically about the laws of lighting the Shabbat candles.
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And so, our journey through the Jewish year as it relates to Chanukah is complete… Connected to all other Jewish holidays, in spirit, observance, meaning, custom or history, Chanukah is the holiday when we are told to remember the miracles of old, as well as those of our own lives. It is the holiday when we are encouraged to hold on to the victories, and to celebrate our spirituality and connection to the Source of our existence, G-d Himself. It is the holiday when, through light, we create for ourselves a vision of the world without pain and despair, full of hope, faith, and good promises for a better future. On Chanukah, we are given the task to reach further than ourselves, to the entire world, and to remind everyone of the miracles of the triumph — time and again — of freedom against oppression, love against hate, and light against darkness. It is a message that our world today so desperately needs to hear!
For me personally, Chanukah is all of this and much more. Many years ago, my life started (or restarted) on Chanukah, as I completed the process of converting to Judaism on the day right before the first night of Chanukah. So Chanukah was the very first holiday that I observed as a full-fledged Jew, as a member of Am Yisrael, and as a part of G-d’s covenant with His people. I remember that night as if it were today. The flickering of the Chanukah light that I had just lit — in essence a mirror image of my own soul flickering in my newly embraced Jewish identity. The fire that lit the night — in essence the same fire that was lighting my own self now, inside, warmly and brightly.
This is my Chanukah, and these are my connections. I am sure you all have your own. And this is really what the whole exercise is about: finding — each for ourselves — our OWN connections, not just to other Jewish holidays, but to the rest of our year, and to the rest of our lives.
The inspiration is here, in our holidays, our faith, our rituals and our customs. In our communities, our families, our strong link to the Jewish past, and in our children who vouch for our future. And in the light that radiates through it all, just like the light of the Chanukah Menorah. If you ask me, it’s worth looking into that light! And I am sure that if we truly let get inside of us, “though the crack in everything” (as Leonard Cohen ז”ל would have put it), then we can all shine — for ourselves and for all those around us — brighter than ever.
Shabbat Shalom & Chanukah Sameach!
— Offered at Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Toronto, ON