Hanukkah 2017

Here are samples of what the Talmud has to say about Hanukkah.

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Talmud pages on Hanukkah, from Tractate

21a-b: The Miracle of Hanukkah

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, the second perek of Massekhet focuses on Shabbat candle lighting. This discussion leads the Gemara to turn its attention to another set of laws regarding candle lighting, specifically the rabbinic enactment requiring that candles be lit throughout the holiday of Hanukkah.

The holiday of Hanukkah was instituted primarily to commemorate the re-dedication of the altar in the Temple. The Baḥ explains that instituted kindling lights as the mitzva of Hanukkah to underscore that the Maccabees went to war to preserve the sanctity of the nation and the sanctity of the Temple, not to defend their lives.

The Gemara teaches that the year following the miraculous victory over the Greeks the Sages instituted an eight day holiday of lights. Some point out that since there was sufficient oil to burn for one day, the miracle lasted only seven days. Why, then, is Hanukkah celebrated for eight days? Many answers to this question have been suggested.

For one, Rabbi Yosef Karo maintained that only one eighth of the oil burned on the first day, so it was immediately clear that a miracle had been performed. Others explained that, from the outset, the priests placed only one-eighth of the oil from the cruse in the candelabrum, and it miraculously burned all day (The Me’iri). Yet others suggested that Hanukkah commemorates two miracles; first, the discovery of the cruse of pure oil on the first day, and second, the fact that it lasted seven additional days (She’erit Kenesset HaGedola). There is also an opinion that the eight days commemorate the reinstating of the mitzva of circumcision, banned by the Greeks, which is performed on the eighth day after birth (Sefer HaItim).

Another question was raised regarding the need for an eight day holiday. Why couldn’t a supply of pure oil have been procured sooner? The Ge’onim suggest that the pure oil came from Tekoa in the tribal territory of Asher in the upper Galilee, and the round trip from Jerusalem took eight days. Others say that all the Jews were ritually impure from contact with corpses, and therefore they were required to wait seven days to complete the purification process (Rabbi Eliyahu Mizraḥi).

22a-b: The Sanctity of Hanukkah Candles

The Gemara on today’s daf continues the discussion of the laws of lighting Hanukkah candles.

R Yehuda said that R Asi said that Rav said: It is prohibited to count money opposite a Hanukkah light. R Yehuda relates: When I said this before Shmuel, he said to me: Does the Hanukkah light have sanctity that would prohibit one from using its light? R Yosef strongly objected to this question: What kind of question is that; does the blood of a slaughtered undomesticated animal or fowl have sanctity? As it was taught in a baraita that the Sages interpreted the verse: “He shall spill its blood and cover it with dust” (Vayikra 17:13): With that which he spilled, he shall cover. Just as a person spills the blood of a slaughtered animal with his hand, so too, he is obligated to cover the blood with this hand and not cover it with his foot. The reason is so that mitzvot will not be contemptible to him. Here too, one should treat the Hanukkah lights as if they were sacred and refrain from utilizing them for other purposes, so that mitzvot will not be contemptible to him.

In principle, we must distinguish between tashmishei kedusha– items that have inherent sanctity – like the vessels used in the Temple, a Torah scroll, phylacteries, and the like, and tashmishei mitzva – those items that are used simply to perform a mitzva. The principle is as follows: Sanctified items no longer in use maintain their sanctity and must be buried. However, items used to perform a mitzva may be discarded. The Ramban explains that on that basis, Shmuel expressed surprise when the Gemara insists that Hanukkah lights be treated with the level of respect usually reserved for sacred items. Rav Yosef answered that while a mitzva is still being fulfilled, one must treat the items used for the mitzva with added deference, despite the fact that they do not retain their sanctity after the fulfillment of the mitzva.

23a-b: Blessings on Hanukkah Candles

The Gemara on today’s daf teaches:

R Ḥiyya bar Ashi said that Rav said: One who lights a Hanukkah light must recite a blessing. And Rabbi Yirmeya said: One who sees a burning Hanukkah light must recite a blessing because the mitzva is not only to kindle the light but to see the light as well.

Ultimately, the Gemara concludes that two blessings are recited on every night of Hanukkah, with an additional blessing recited on the first night. In delineating the different blessings, the Gemara says that one of the everyday blessings that is recited is:

Who has made us holy through His commandments and has commanded us to light the Hanukkah light.

To which the Gemara asks:

And where did He command us?

The mitzva of Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah, so how is it possible to say that it was commanded to us by God?

This question is often asked with regard to blessings recited over mitzvot of rabbinic origin. Two answers are offered by the Gemara:

Rav Avya said: The obligation to recite this blessing is derived from the verse: “You shall not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto you, to the right, nor to the left” ( 17:11).

From this verse, the mitzva incumbent upon all of Israel to heed the statements and decrees of the Sages is derived. Therefore, one who fulfills their directives fulfills a divine commandment. Next:

Rav Neḥemya said that the mitzva to heed the voice of the Elders of Israel is derived from the verse: “Ask your father, and he will declare unto you, your Elders, and they will tell you”( 32:7).

Here, the Gemara cites two sources. The first, “You shall not turn aside,” which is both simple and accepted halakha, was sufficient. The Gemara preferred a source from a positive rather than a negative mitzva and therefore cited the verse: “Ask your father” (Rabbi Elazar Moshe Horowitz).


This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

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