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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Neirot Chanukah: A Cherished Expression of Ahavat and Kidush Hashem

In describing the need to be scrupulous in executing the mitzvah of neirot Chanukah, the Rambam (Hilchot Chanukah 4:12) succinctly characterizes this imperative as a “mitzvah chavivah he ad meod” (an exceedingly beloved or cherished mitzvah). The fact that this rare expression is employed to single out a rabbinic obligation is certainly noteworthy. Moreover, the Rambam’s formulation introduces an apparently innovative substantive ruling that is both undocumented (explicitly) in the Talmud and hardly logically self-evident. The Rambam links his extravagant depiction of this mitzvah with the normative conclusion that even one who is impoverished must make significant financial and human sacrifices to accomplish neirot Chanukah. While this decision was embraced by subsequent poskim (Orach Chaim 671:1- absent the characterization of “chavivut”) and several sources have been adduced to support the pesak (see, for example, Magid Mishneh and Lechem Mishneh op cit.), the Rambam’s intriguing perspective on Chanukah as particularly cherished demands further explication.

Undoubtedly, the Rambam’s expansive view on neirot Chanukah is informed by and consistent with his equally singular and expansive rendition of the beraita cited in massechet Shabbat( 21b) that encapsulates the mizvah of Chanukah as “yamim tovim be-hallel ve-hodaah”. While Rashi largely neutralizes the factor of “yamim tovim” (since there is no issur melachah on Chanukah), the Rambam (Chanukah 3:3) asserts that this term establishes an added obligation of simchah on Chanukah. [Maharam of Rothenberg explicitly disputes this and denies any obligation of seduah on Chanukah. See Orach Chaim 670:2.] Significantly, the Rambam also particularly accentuates the centrality of hallel on Chanukah, the second component in the triad (according to his three-tiered rendering of the beraita) . Instead of delineating the laws of hallel earlier in Sefer Zemanim and in the context of biblical holidays, the Rambam unexpectedly delayed his codification of these laws in order to integrate them into Hilchot Chanukah. This classificatory decision is further underscored by his interposing of the laws of hallel literally between the berachot and lighting of neirot Chanukah (Chanukah 3:5-4:1)! Although he treats hallel extensively in this section, he does not count it as an independent mitzvah, separate from neirot Chanukah. Evidently, his view is that the neirot Chanukah and hallel constitute a single kiyum. This conception that neirot Chanukah constitutes significantly more than a maaseh mitzvah is confirmed by his unique position on the third component, as well. The Rambam rejects the standard interpretation of “hodaah” as a reference to the recitation of “al ha-nisisim” (which he omits from Hilchot Chanukah, instead relegating it to Hilchot Berachot). Alternatively, he seems to posit the quite novel notion that the very act of hadlakat neirot itself constitutes an expression of “hodaah” (see, also Piskei ha-Rid, Shabbat 21b)! This perspective is reinforced in the very halachah (4:12) in which he depicts neirot Chanukah aschavivah ad meod”, an expression of hodaah that is indispensable even for a destitute ani. The role of neirot Chanukah in seamlessly conveying four crucial themes-praise, thanksgiving, Divine providence, and omnipotence (“kedai le-hodia ha-nes, u-le-hosif be-shevah HaKel ve-hodayah lo al ha-nisim she-asah lanu”)- is formulated in this halachah explicitly, certainly justifying the characterization of neirot Chanukah as “chavivah ad le-meod’.

Moreover, neirot Chanukah’s cherished stature extends beyond its important multiple functions. The substance of these functions, as well as the phrase “mitzvah chavivah” reflect other important associations that also reinforce the conclusion that this mitzvah should be pursued even in the face of poverty and other pressures.

The Rambam, himself, generally identifies the impulse and obligation to publicize Hashem’s sovereignty, providence, and beneficence with two core mizvot, ahavat Hashem and kidush Hashem. In his Sefer ha-Mizvot (aseh no. 3), he notes that Avraham avinu was designated “ohavi” precisely because his enthusiasm for avodat Hashem was uncontainable. His mission to publicize and expand Hashem’s presence (“ve-hanefesh asher asah be-charan”) overflowed from his own ahavat Hashem. In the same vein, the imperative “le-harot u-le-galot et ha-nes (Rambam, Hilchot Chanukah 3:3) and “le-hodia…u-le-hosif be-shevah HaKel ve-hodayah lo” (4:12) is a hallmark of ahavat Hashem, as the Rambam formulates it. These motifs in neirot Chanukah also express the related obligation of kidush Hashem- “le-farseim ha-emunah ha-zot ha-amitit ba-olam…she-yefursam ha-yichud ve-yegaleh ba-rabim…ve-yefarsemu ve-yechazku ha-emunah” (see Sefer ha-mizvot , aseh no.9).

Indeed, the events and subsequent miracle of Chanukah were engendered by an expression of ahavat Hashem for the sake of kidush Hashem. When the Chashmonaim refused to concede their avodat Hashem even in the face of mortal risk in a time of religious crisis (shaat ha-shemad- see Sanhedrin 74b; Rambam, Hilchot Chanukah 3:1, Hilchot Yesodei ha-Torah 5:3) they were applying the norms of kidush and ahavat Hashem. It is significant that the source and concept of ahavat Hashem- “ve-ahavta eit Hashem Elokecha be-kol levavechah u-bekol nafshecha u-bekol meodecha” - is the basis for the kidush Hashem of martyrdom (idolatry, and possibly shaat ha-shemad…see Sanhedrin 74b; Pesachim 25a; Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei ha-Torah 5:7), as well as the daily kidush Hashem obligation to represent avodat Hashem and halachic commitment constructively (Yoma 86a- “she-yehei shem shamayim mitahev al yadecha”; Rambam, Yesodei ha-Torah 5:11, though with a different source).

 In light of this perspective, it is particularly interesting to note that the gemara (Berachot 61b, Yoma 82a, Sanhedrin 74a, Pesachim 25a) utilizes the term “chaviv” to depict the absolute priority of ahavat Hashem that overrides every other pressure or consideration. Commenting on the diverse factors of “bekol levavecha”, “bekol nafshecha” and “u-bekol meodecha”, each of which should serve and facilitate the greater value of “ve-ahavta eit Hashem Elokecha”, the Talmud comments “im yeish lecha adam she-gufo chaviv alav me-mamono lekach neemar bechol nafshecha; ve-yesh adam she-mamono chaviv alav me-gufo…” Perhaps the Rambam intentionally, albeit subtly, invokes the themes of ahavat and kidush Hashem that supersedes any other cherished ( “chaviv”) value by using the expression “mitzvah chavivah ad le-meod” in connection with neirot Chanukah,.

This perspective might also explain the Rambam’s conviction that neirot Chanukah is mandatory even when it intensifies reliance upon others and deepens poverty. While the sources adduced by the commentators are valid, it is conceivable that the Rambam’s perspective that neirot Chanukah express ahavat and kidush Hashem contribute to his view that “bechol meodecha” (with all of your means) applies to this rabbinic obligation.

The fact that neirot Chanukah, is ideally executed by means of mehadrin min ha-mehadrin (the most preferred method), is also consistent not only with the cherished status - “chavivut ha-mitzvah” - of this halachic practice, but also reflects the ahavat Hashem idea of overflowing enthusiasm. Although we accept the halachic ruling that kavtah ein zakuk lah (if the candle extinguishes prematurely it need not be rekindled- Shabbat 21b), numerous poskim found it difficult to reconcile this conclusion with the theme of pirsumei nisa- “le-harot u-legalot ha- neis” (Rambam 3:3- publicizing the miracle) and the mehadrin approach to this beloved mitzvah. Some authorities found it inconceivable that an aborted effort might sufficiently satisfy the demands of this cherished mitzvah, leading to a reassessment of the scope and circumstances of this ruling (see, for example, Beit ha-Levi al ha-Torah, end of sefer Bereishit).

The Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvot, aseh no. 3) posits that ahavat Hashem is accomplished by Torah study. In this vein, the motivation not only to ban Torah study but to banish Torah knowledge (al hanisim text- “le-hashkicham Toratecha”) should be perceived not merely as an attack on Torah literacy, but as an effort to undermine the very foundation of ahavat Hashem. The victory of the Chashmonaim was vindication not only of Torah study but its broader involvement and impact, as well (“zeidim be-yad oskei Toratecha”). The menorah generally is perceived as a symbol of comprehensive and wide-ranging Torah study (see, for example the extensive remarks of the Netziv on parshat Bahalotcha and throughout his Hamek Davar)and the gemara (Shabbat 23b) specifically notes that one who is scrupulous about neirot Chanukah will merit children who are proficient in Torah study. The Magid Mishneh (4:12) actually invokes this reference as the source that neirot Chanukah is a particularly cherished mitzvah! These themes and texts reinforce the idea that the Chanukah struggle tested Klal Yisrael’s devotion to ahavat and kidush Hashem. The neirot Chanukah precisely accentuate these stakes and mark the victory as a ringing affirmation of Torah commitment in its various dimensions.

It is noteworthy that the characterization of neis Chanukah in conjunction with neirot Chanukah as “mitzvah chavivah” is not exclusive to the Rambam. Tosafot (Sukah 46a s.v. ha-Roeh) uses this same expression to explain why only the mitzvah of neirot Chanukah includes a birchat ha-roeh. The Chacham Zvi invokes this very motif to explain why the principle of “tumah hutrah be-zibbur “ was not applied in connection with the defiled oil of the beit ha-mikdash, rendering the whole miracle of the pach ha-shemen superfluous.

In all of its dimensions, neirot Chanukah emerges as a special opportunity to assert love, praise and appreciation of Hashem and to reaffirm our devotion to avodat Hashem. Indeed, the mitzvah of neirot Chanukah is precisely as the Rambam characterizes it: “mitzvah chavivah he ad meod”.

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