In June 1967, even skeptics and agnostics admitted that the people of Israel, who only days before were digging their own graves, were saved by nothing short of a miracle. Over the years, however, however, the miracle, so obvious when it occurred, became camouflaged in a shroud of strategic, military terms.
Clearly, the victories of the outnumbered Maccabean freedom fighters over the vast Syrian armies of Antiochus, Lysias and their allies could only be explained in terms of a miracle. Indeed, the Book of the Maccabees, as well as the Al Hanisim prayer, portrays the military victories as miracles. Yet the Talmud, in a seven-line summary of the meaning of Chanukah, makes no mention of the military miracles.
Rather, the Talmud focuses on the miracle of that small jar of pure oil, untouched by the Syrian invaders, which burned for eight days, even though it contained oil sufficient for only one.
Why does the Talmud emphasize the miracle of the oil over the miracle of the military victory? The Talmud tells us that a lamp is lit over the head of each unborn child in its mother’s womb, enabling it to perceive all the ways of God throughout the world. When the child enters this world, however, it leaves the lamp behind and has to discover the ways of God without it. And in the jostle and struggle for physical survival, the divine spark that remains to guide us is often threatened with extinction. Life becomes so reasoned and vision so tunneled, that even the flare of a miracle can go unrecognized. Enter the Chanukah lights. This miracle, of the jar of oil sufficient in quantity for one day that burned for eight, is a nes galui, inexplicable in natural terms.
The rabbis tell us that the purpose of the Chanukah lights is to illuminate the miracle of the military victory which could perhaps be a nes nistar, explained in natural terms. They also tell us that the time to light is at sunset, when the light in this world is about to die, and that the Chanukah lights must remain burning “ad shetichle regel min hashuk” – until the streets become empty.
The Berditchever Rebbe points out that the word “regel,’ which means foot, is the same as the word “hergel,” which means habit. And so, he explains, the lights of Chanukah should remain burning until they remove the habit of reason from our spiritual vision and allow us to behold the nes nistar. Furthermore, though the Maccabean battles for the rededication of the Temple were won, the war was ultimately lost with the destruction of the Temple some 200 years later. The pure oil of the Temple menorah was extinguished until this day. But not the oil of the Chanukah menorah. Like the miracle of the burning bush of Moses, the Chanukah lights have withstood, for centuries, the fires of persecution.
Like the Jewish people themselves, the Chanukah lights, we are assured, will never die. That was God’s promise, in response to Aaron’s complaint that the Tribe of Levi was not invited to participate in the dedication of the Sanctuary. The lights of the Sanctuary, God warned, would eventually be extinguished, but the Chanukah lights of Aaron’s Maccabean descendants will shine forever.
The Midrash identifies seven chanukot in history, which include the chanukah of Creation, when God lit the lights of the world, the chanukah of the Sanctuary, the Maccabean chanukah, and the chanukah of Mashiach. On Shabbat Chanukah we celebrate two chanukot, the chanukah of Creation and the chanukah of the Maccabees. Which do we light first? The Shabbat and the Havdalah candles that celebrate the chanukah of Creation or the Chanukah candles that celebrate the chanukah of the Maccabbees?
The answer of reason and numbers would dictate tadir vesheino tadir, tadir kodem, which means do first what you do more frequently. And since Shabbat is celebrated each week and Chanukah just once a year, light the Shabbat candles first. But the Chanukah lights defy the logic of numbers and reason. Their message of pirsumei nissa takes precedence to remind us that creation and daily existence are miracles that cannot be explained in natural terms.
That is perhaps one of the reasons why most agree that the Chanukah lights are lit before the Shabbat candles and why most agree that the Chanukah lights are lit at home, before the Havdalah candles after reciting Havdalah in the Amidah.
Raphael Grunfeld’s book “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Judaica bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.
Any comments to the writer are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.