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When Seven Meets Eight (Chanukah)

Oct 21, 2009 by Rabbi Pesach Siegel

We commemorate the oil lasting for eight days. The seven branched menorah in the Beis HaMikdash burned for eight days. A question arises, shouldn’t we do the same thing? Why don't we add a significant amount of oil to a seven branched menorah, enough to burn for eight days. (Granted, there might be a halachic issue with lighting an identical menorah to the one in the Mikdash). Additionally, in the Mikdash, all seven burned simultaneously, why is it our minhag to light one solitary light each night (or, lamehadrin, an additional light every successive night)?

We celebrate the chag beginning on the 25th day of Kislev. What happened on that day? It was the day following the victory of the Chashmonaim over the Greeks. The chag is called Chanukah due to the unique spirit of that day. The word “Chanukah” is a compound word. It is to be broken up to form the words “Chanu” “kaf heh”. This phrase is commonly translated as “They rested on the 25th day”. Since when does the word “chanu” mean to rest? The root of the word “chanu” is the word “machaneh” – which means “to encamp“.  (Actually, there are grounds among the commentators to define the word as rest. If the letters ches and nun are interchanged they form the word nach, as in the word menucha). Why is the Yom Tov known as “the encampment of the 25th.” To what type of encampment are we referring to and why is it a cause for celebration?

Let us explore a curious halachic phenomenon. Hopefully it will shed light on the above mentioned points.

It is far from clear whether an obligation exists for one to celebrate simchas Chanukah by way of a festive meal. The authorities discuss the distinction between Purim and Chanukah. Purim our physical lives were in danger. Haman did not seek to win the Jews over to his form of worship. Therefore we celebrate with a physical feast. Chanukah is different. The Greeks had no wish to kill us. They wanted us to embrace their way of life. We should become just like them, no longer occupying the role of the chosen people. The proper manner of showing gratitude to Hashem for such a salvation is through praise and thanksgiving.

The Rema disagrees. He states that there is a k’tzas mitzvah – a micro-mitzvah, to enhance one’s meals during the Chanukah period. It was during this time that the work of the Mishkan was finished. The mizbe’ach was inaugurated on that day, the 25th of Kislev. That day never received its due. The inauguration of the Mishkan was delayed until the month of Nissan. Nissan was the month within which Yitzchok Avenu was born. It was deemed appropriate to wait until then. The month of Kislev lost out in the deal. Hashem “paid back” the month of Kislev with the miracle of Chanukah.

Does this mean that there are no grounds for making a se’udas mitzvah on Chanukah in honor of Chanukah per se? That it just happened that a thousand years before, the month of Kislev was neglected. Therefore, coincidentally, we celebrate the consecration of the mizbe’ach of the Mishkan during Chanukah? Is it a mizbe’ach se’uda rather than a Chanukah se’uda,? What also needs to be explained is, why wait? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to celebrate the chanukas haMishkan immediately upon its completion?

In order to gain a deeper understanding in this matter, let us concentrate on the two concurrent themes of Chanukah. We celebrate the success of the war against the Greeks and the miracles surrounding the pach hashemen – the jug of oil.  In the prayer of al hanissim we focus entirely on the war, while in the praise of haneros halalu the stress is on the sanctity of the lights.

The miracle of the oil represents a quality in Klal Yisroel. No matter how low we sink there always remains a spark of purity that is unsullied, call it the pintele yid, the nitzotz, it is there, possessed by all. The inner core of a yid is of another world. It is impervious to the forces of impurity in this world.

The Yevanim sought to corrupt us through and through. They failed. The essence of Klal Yisroel remained intact. The Yevanim sought to sully the image of the Bnei Yisroel in their own eyes. They decreed that cattle owners must inscribe upon the horns the words “They have no portion in the G-d of Israel”. They intended to drive home the point that due to our guilt in regards to the sin of the golden calf, we have descended to the point of no return. What was the response of the Bnei Yisroel? They sent away their cattle rather than have this untruth brandished before them. The sin of the eigel was something that we did. It does not define who we are! We are a holy nation, a pure nation.

The pitcher of oil defied the attempts of the Yevanim to defile it. It remained pure, sealed by the Kohen Gadol, thereby making it inaccessible to impurity. It rises above this mundane world. For this reason it doesn’t have the limitations of olam hazeh. It transcends the boundaries of nature and lasts for eight days.

(At this point it would be appropriate to note the significance of the number eight compared to the number seven. The natural world is comprised of sevens. Seven days in the week, seven heavenly constellations, seven directions in space, seven notes on the musical scale. The number eight represents breaking out of the limited existence of sevens).

But Klal Yisroel was affected. There was damage. The Yevanim made inroads. They had their converts to their way of life – the Hellenists who embraced the culture and philosophy of the Greeks. They were allured by the beauty of Yefes. True, the essence remained pure, but among the majority the purity was very deeply buried.

There are two components that are part of the make up of a Ben Yisroel. There is a component that always remains pure and unsullied. In addition, a Ben Yisroel possesses the ability to bounce back, to repair the external damage. The two parts complement each other. It is only due to the inner goodness of a Yid that he has the ability to return.

The Mizbe’ach.

The role of the mizbe’ach in the Mishkan differed from that of the menorah. The light emanating from the menorah served as a safeguard to the pure light within each and every Yid. It’s function was to strengthen and bolster the purity within. Upon the mizbe’ach, animals were offered up. It is on the mizbe’ach that we render the animal within us up to Hashem. We serve Hashem with the very passions that tend to lead us astray. We harness them and if they wander, we bring them back. The mizbe’ach enables the cleansing of the external component of a nefesh Yisroel.

Let’s assign names to these components. We’ll call them tzaddik gamur (complete righteousness) and baal teshuva (repentance). The baal teshuva can only return if he has the tzaddik gamur to return to. If one becomes completely corrupted, there is nothing left, nothing to go back to. The process of teshuva is galvanized by the healthy self image that purity remains despite the damage done by sin.

The avoda of a complete tzaddik is clearly belonging to another world, a higher existence. The avoda (task) of a baal teshuva seems to belong to this world, the world of free will, the world where mistakes are possible (and unavoidable). This is in appearance only. One can rectify his errors and return to the state of a newborn baby, clean of all taint of sin, as if one had never sinned. This is above nature and is due to the fact that the evil that one does doesn’t truly penetrate the inner sanctum.

It is for this reason that the inauguration of the Mishkan was delayed. It was delayed until the month that Yitzchok Avenu entered the world. That month was the window through which the ability to take the lowly physical entities of this world and nullify them totally and completely to the highest of purposes entered this world. Yitzchok Avenu exemplified the ideal that one’s physical makeup is to be reduced to dust and ashes on the mizbe’ach of Hashem.

Upon completion of the Mishkan, that year in Kislev, Klal Yisroel had not reached the required level to inaugurate the mizbe’ach. It should have been then, but it wasn’t.

  The Bnei Yisroel merited a second chance to dedicate the mizbe’ach. Starting from the 25th day of Kislev, in the times of the Chashmonaim, they were involved in two services simultaneously, the lighting of the menorah and the rededication of the mizbe’ach. The Yevanim had defiled and dismantled the mizbe’ach. It did not share the same lot as the sealed flask of oil. It was necessary to reconstruct and purify the altar. The work took eight days.

The act of going to war, not for reasons of personal security, but to give up one’s life for the pursuit of the olam hanitzchi (the world of eternity) is the ultimate combination of the two ideals, the two worlds, to negate the temporal in the service of the eternal.  This is a form of Akeidas Yitzchok. The ones who brought it about were the Kohanim, the segment of Klal Yisroel which is to remain unsullied by mundane matters, but being part and parcel of all of Klal Yisroel they brought the lower elements up to their high level of self sacrifice.

This is further illustrated by a cryptic minhag. Yehudis, the daughter of Yochanon Kohen Gadol was about to get married. The Yevanim decreed that prior to the wedding the bride was to be defiled by the ruler of the city. Yehudis, rather than submit to such a fate, fed the ruler Elifarnes with dairy products which induced slumber. She then proceeded to decapitate him, thus setting off the subsequent war. Due to this, women have a custom to refrain from work during the time the lights are burning. There is clear connection between the act that set off the war and the miracle of the lights. According to halacha, a woman is not obligated to give up her life to avoid being defiled. Yehudis put her life on the line. Why? The Yevanim wanted to inject their venom into the segment of Klal Yisroel that the physical child actually emerges from, the future mothers. Yehudis was ready to sacrifice herself for the sanctity of the Jewish body. In reward for her act, the women of Israel merit a Yom Tov within a Yom Tov, when the body is at rest, and is involved in only spiritual pursuits.

In the times of the Chashmonaim, Klal Yisroel had finally arrived at the level where the world of seven has been elevated to the level where it meets and combines with the world of eight.

The results of this achievement were two miracles, one which defied nature and one hidden within nature, the lights and the victory.

It comes to light that the simcha of the chanukas hamizbe’ach and Chanukah are one, the process began during the month of Kislev when the actual work in the desert was completed, but the completion took place on Chanukah. It stands to reason that the proper way to acknowledge this is to make a seuda of the body, for that is a parallel to the avoda on the mizbe’ach. It is only a micro-mitzvah, for it is only part of a whole. The main catalyst was the pure untouched spark of Klal Yisroel that requires no physical manifestation of celebration.

The Malbim defines the word “chana” is not just any encampment. It is an encampment made specifically at the end of a journey. It’s certainly been a long journey that we embarked upon from the time of the completion of the Mishkan until the days of Chanukah. Klal Yisroel was almost lost. The war was fought by the very few. The bulk of the nation allowed themselves to be misled and were unaware of the special nature of our destiny. The miraculous defeat of the many, the impure at the hands of the few and the holy brought the nation of Israel to their true destination. On the 25th day they arrived and encamped. It is this that we are celebrating. This is done specifically on the 25th day. The Ben Ish Chai points out that the 25th word in the Torah is “ohr” – light, thus the 25th  day represents the arrival at the final destination where everything is “ohr”, where even evil can be lit up and turned into good.

Perhaps now we can understand our minhag of lighting eight lights. In the time of Chanukah, the world of limits came into contact with the world that everything is possible through the will of G-d. The world of seven linked up with the world of eight. The menorah in the Mikdash had eight lights, the seven natural ones and the source of them all from a world beyond our mortal existence. So too, we light eight lights. But it was not an instantaneous process. One must begin the journey within the natural world, see the hand of G-d in nature, only then can one proceed to the level where the laws of nature are suspended. So we do it gradually, day by day, until we have lit for seven days. Then we are prepared to light eight lights.

Each day of Chanukah we have the opportunity to get closer and closer to bringing out the awareness which lies deeply within us. We can rise up from our lowly image of ourselves, shake off the shackles of our limitations, and ultimately be united with the will of HaKodesh Baruch Hu.


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