Thursday, December 14, 2006

Chanukah vs. Purim

Chanukah and Purim are both highly popular and great fun, but comparing them gives us pause. As the two post-biblical holidays, they both commemorate periods when the Jews lacked independence, faced persecution and emerged victorious (i.e. survived). But yet, the two holidays are celebrated very differently. Latke-Hamentashen debates are entertaining, but the Chanukah-Purim contrast demands a serious response.

Chanukah is celebrated with the lighting of a Menorah. This is a bit surprising. Menorah lighting is a biblical mitzvah reserved for the Jerusalem Temple; considered a special privilege even among the Kohanim of old, we would have never expected to see every Jew doing it at home. Another mitzvah of Chanukah is the singing of Hallel. Each morning of the eight days, Hallel, an exuberant selection of chapters from King David’s Psalms, is added to the regular morning prayers. The extraordinary mitzvot of Chanukah express the heightened sanctity and spirituality of these special days.

Purim is different. On Purim, there is no Hallel and there is no candle lighting; instead, we have a party. Jews celebrate Purim with a proper feast, including plenty of fine wine. No such celebration occurs on Chanukah. Why the difference?

There is a good answer to this question, an answer that makes perfect sense. In the Purim story, the Jews were threatened with annihilation. The Persian Empire had embraced the final solution and the Jews were doomed. When the Jews are saved from this threat, they enact a holiday that celebrates their survival. This holiday appropriately involves rejoicing through the physical pleasures – after all, it was our bodies that were saved. Food, drink and festivities are the order of the day.

The situation in the days of the Chanukah story was altogether different. The Hellenists weren’t out to kill Jews; they just forbade the practice of Judaism. A Jew who abandoned his or her faith was welcomed as a full-fledged citizen of Hellenist society. As long as we went along with their agenda, our bodies were not in danger – but our soul was. So when the Maccabees defeated the enemy, the holiday instituted was a holiday that involved not the body, but the soul. The mitzvot of Chanukah are therefore entirely spiritual in nature. (cf. Levush 670:2)

Our comparison of these two holidays is incomplete. One more fundamental difference must be addressed.

How did the Jews react to these two persecutions? In the Purim story, the Megillah is clear. Esther told the Jews to fast for three days (Esther 4:16). Fasting, prayer and repentance are the national response and this is commemorated with the Fast of Esther the day before Purim. What about Chanukah? In the Chanukah story, the response was slightly different. Instead of a prayer rally, the Jews launch an insurgency. Against all odds, a small group of dedicated Jews, the Maccabees, takes up arms to resist the religious persecution of the Greek Hellenists.

How strange! When confronted with physical annihilation, the Jews pray and when confronted with religious persecution, they fight? Isn’t that kind of backward? Shouldn’t a physical threat be matched with force and a spiritual one with fasting and prayer?

Let’s try to put ourselves in their shoes. In the Purim story, the Jews are facing annihilation. As terrifying as that might be, unexpected it is not. Several such situations are recorded in the Torah and Moshe prophesized that the Jews would face such threats again. The Jew knows what this means – G-d’s divine justice is reckoning sins. The Jews fast, pray and repent and G-d overturns the decree. It’s standard operating procedure.

The Chanukah story, however, is inexplicable. Religious persecution? The Jews have never experienced that before; they’ve never even heard of it. If G-d was angry, He would destroy the Temple, exile them from their land and maybe threaten them with destruction. But none of that was happening. Instead, the Jerusalem Temple is transformed into a pagan house of worship and the observance of mitzvot is forbidden. How can such a situation be explained from a perspective of faith?

For a while, the Jews did not know how to respond. The Maccabees hid out in the Judean hills and caves of Modi’in, mulling over the state of affairs and pondering their options (cf. Leket Sichot Mussar vol. II, R. Yitzchok I. Sher, pgs. 146-147). Why is this happening? What does G-d want from us? Finally, after much deliberation, they come to a conclusion: This persecution is not about sin. On the contrary, it is about mitzvot.

If G-d has not destroyed the Temple but just taken away our religious freedom and our ability to serve Him, it can only mean one thing: He was not satisfied with the quality of our service. Our mitzvot must have lacked the requisite passion and joy and now G-d wants to see how much we really care. Will we stand up for the privilege to do mitzvot? Or does it not matter to us that much? (cf. Bach 670:4)

The Maccabees proved the depth of their commitment and G-d showed them miracles in return. They defeated vastly superior forces and returned to restore and rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem. The Shechinah once again dwelled in the Sanctuary. And the miracle of the Menorah showed one and all that when mitzvot are done right, G-d’s presence will be manifest in our world.

Today, our Chanukah celebrations are appropriately mitzvah-centric. We too must demonstrate our love for mitzvot and cherish the privilege of lighting a Menorah and singing Hallel. In the merit of these mitzvot, the eternal light of the Shechinah can be brought into every Jewish home.


  1. Rabbi,

    Happy Hanukah to you and yours. Were you perhaps referring to the Bach in Orakh Haim 670:4?

    More importantly though, I was wondering why it would be that for a spiritual deficiency, God would ask of us to take up arms against the enemy as opposed to an inward repentance process or perhaps asking us to publicly observe His laws even at the risk of death.

    I seemed to have picked up from my readings a distinct effort to downplay the role of the warriors and to stress the efforts of the Temple rededication.

  2. Zelik-
    Thanks for pointing out the typo on the Bach's coordinates.

    I don't see the difference btw "publicly observing His laws even at the risk of death" and waging war for religious freedom. Are they not one and the same?

    I have also observed the downplaying of the Maccabee's military bravery on the battlefield, as in the "Al HaNissim" prayer.
    Your guess is as good a mine.

  3. Dear Rabbi--Happy Hanukkah to you! Your essay depicting the differences between Chanukah and Purim reminded me of the phrase, "All is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven." That is, one of the main issues of Chanukah was the loss of the "fear of Heaven" through the process of Hellenization. We cannot ask G-d to restore our fear of Heaven--this is something we must do for ourselves. At Purim, we retained our fear of Heaven--there, it was permissible to pray for Divine intervention to maintain our physical survival.

    One question: Why didn't the books of Maccabess I and II become canonized, i.e., part of Tanach?

  4. Barry-
    Maccabees I & II could not become part of Tanach because they are not prophectic works. Prophecy ended with Ezra almost two centuries earlier.