Rabbi David Brofsky
Faculty, Midreshet Lindenbaum
The Nature of the Mitzvot of Chanukah
Rambam begins each section of his Mishna Torah by listing the biblical and rabbinic mitzvot addressed within that section. In his introduction to the laws of Purim and Chanukah, he writes, “Contained within are two positive rabbinic mitzvot (mitzvot asei miderabbanan).” This statement appears strange. Don’t the observances of Purim and Chanukah contain more than just two mitzvot? On Purim alone, one is obligated to read the Megilla twice, send matanot la’evyonim (gifts for the poor) and mishloaḥ manot (gifts to fellow Jews), and eat a festive meal. On Chanukah, we light candles and recite Hallel for eight days. How, then, does Rambam arrive at a total of only two mitzvot?
Apparently, Rambam believes that the numerous actions performed on both Purim and Chanukah still only make up one single mitzva – the obligation of “shevaḥ vehodaa,” praise and thanksgiving to God. Indeed, the Al HaNissim prayer concludes, “…and established these eight days of Chanukah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name.” This mitzva of shevaḥ vehodaa is fulfilled through various activities, such as publicizing the miracle (pirsumei nissa) through reading the Megilla and lighting the neirot Chanukah, sending matanot la’evyonim and mishloaḥ manot, participating in a festive thanksgiving meal, and certainly through the recitation of Hallel.
Interestingly, Rambam discusses the laws of Hallel in the first of the two chapters dedicated to the laws of Chanukah (Hilkhot Megilla VeChanukah, chap. 3), rather than among the laws of prayer or Yom Tov. Rambam chose Hilkhot Chanukah as the most suitable context for the laws of Hallel because the laws of Chanukah are essentially the laws of “shevaḥ vehodaah.”
Hallel on Chanukah
The Talmud lists the eight days of Chanukah among the eighteen days (twenty-one days in the Diaspora) on which we recite the full Hallel (Arakhin 10a). The Gemara continues to determine the criteria for the Hallel obligation:
As R. Yoḥanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yehotzadak: There are eighteen days on which an individual must recite the entire Hallel: the eight days of Sukkot, the eight days of Chanukah, the first Yom Tov of Pesaḥ, and the Yom Tov of Shavuot.…On Shabbat, which is distinct in its sacrifices, let us recite ? It is not called a mo’ed . On Rosh Ḥodesh, which is called a mo’ed, let us recite ? It is not sanctified with regard to the performance of melakha .
The Gemara seems to indicate that in order for a day to require the recitation of Hallel, it must be distinguished by a unique korban, be called a mo’ed, and feature a prohibition of melakha. Chanukah, of course, does not meet any of these criteria. The Gemara raises this question and responds, “Because of the miracle.” The obligation to recognize the miracle of Chanukah itself generates the requirement to recite Hallel. Indeed, as we declare during the HaNeirot Hallalu prayer after candle lighting, the days of Chanukah were established “in order to thank and praise for the miracles.”
The Gemara thus draws a distinction between two types of Hallel: Hallel that is recited on the festivals and Hallel that is recited in response to a miracle. This distinction similarly emerges from the Gemara’s discussion in Pesaḥim:
Who recited this Hallel? The prophets among them instituted that Israel should recite it for every season , and for every crisis that might come upon them – when they are redeemed from it, they recite it over their redemption. (Pesaḥim 117a)
Interestingly, both Maggid Mishna and Ḥatam Sofer suggest that the Hallel of Chanukah may actually be a greater obligation than the Hallel recited on the festivals. Based on the passage in Pesaḥim, Maggid Mishna suggests that the obligation to recite Hallel in response to divine salvation originates “midivrei kabbala,” the words of the prophets. Ḥatam Sofer goes so far as to suggest that while Hallel on the festivals may be a rabbinic obligation, the Hallel of Chanukah may apply mide’oraita – on the level of biblical obligation! Indeed, Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam (1186–1237) records that a contemporary and critic of his father, Rabbi Daniel HaBavli, held that Hallel of Chanukah is certainly of biblical origin, as one is biblically obligated to recite praise upon being miraculously delivered from harm. Most authorities, however, disagree, insisting that Hallel on Chanukah, and possibly all occasions, is of Rabbinic origin.
If we assume that Hallel on Chanukah is of rabbinic origin, we may conclude that women are obligated to recite it. Women are included in the mitzva of lighting Chanukah candles, despite the fact that it is a time-bound commandment, because of the principle of “af hen hayu be’oto ha’nes” – “they were also in the miracle” (Shabbat 23a). (This is similarly the case regarding Megilla reading (Megilla 4a), matanot la’evyonim, and mishloaḥ manot on Purim.) It would seem that women should be obligated to recite Hallel on each of the eight days of Chanukah for the same reason. Indeed, Tosafot offers a similar argument regarding Hallel of the night of Pesaḥ (Sukka 38a).
The Aḥaronim debate this issue. Rabbi Shimon Sofer (1850–1944), son of Ketav Sofer and grandson of Ḥatam Sofer, writes in his responsa Hitorrerut Teshuva that based upon the Tosafot cited above, women are obligated to recite Hallel all eight days of Chanukah. Others infer from Rambam, however, that women are exempt.
In addition to saying Hallel, during the eight days of Chanukah, we add the Al HaNissim prayer in both Shemoneh Esreh (after Modim) and Birkat HaMazon (during the second blessing). One who recites the blessing and realizes that he forgot to insert Al HaNissim does not return to the point where it should be recited; he simply continues the Shemoneh Esreh or Birkat HaMazon.
The Rishonim debate whether one adds a text about the uniqueness of the day, “mei’ein hame’ora,” in the Birakat Me’ein Shalosh, known as Al HaMiḥya. Rambam rules that one should mention special occasions in the Birkat Me’ein Shalosh, but Hagahot Maimoniot notes that this applies only to Shabbat and Yom Tov; we do not mention Purim or Chanukah in Al HaMiḥya.
Why do Purim and Chanukah differ from Shabbat and Yom Tov in this regard? Why shouldn’t we mention the special occasion in Al HaMiḥya, just as we do on Shabbat and Yom Tov? Rabbi Mordechai Yoffe (1530–1612), known as Levush, after his commentary on the Shulḥan Arukh, explains that Al HaNissim is fundamentally a prayer of thanksgiving, and we therefore insert it in the blessings of thanksgiving in the Shemoneh Esreh and Birkat HaMazon. The blessing of Al HaMiḥya, however, does not contain a section dedicated to thanking God, and therefore Al HaNissim is simply thematically inconsistent with Al HaMiḥya.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik offers a different explanation. He contends that the paragraph of Retzei, which we recite on Shabbat, and that of Yaale veYavo, which we recite on Yom Tov and Rosh Ḥodesh, should be viewed as independent berakhot, and not as mere insertions into the text of Birkat HaMazon. He proves this theory via the halakha that requires that one who omits Retzei or Yaale veYavo recite a separate blessing that expresses the same idea, such as “shenatan Shabbatot lemenuḥa le’amo Yisrael…” The fact that the omission of Retzei and Yaale veYavo warrants a separate blessing and requires that one repeat Shemoneh Esreh indicates that they are not mere insertions, but rather independent prayers. These prayers must be recited either during the berakha of Boneh Yerushalayim or, when forgotten, as a separate blessing afterward. The omission of Al HaNissim, on the other hand, does not necessitate the repetition of Shemoneh Esreh or Birkat HaMazon. Al HaNissim does not constitute a separate prayer, but rather a mere “hazakara,” a text inserted into our prayers. The berakha of Me’ein Shalosh serves as an abridged version of the Birkat HaMazon, and is thus composed of passages that are integral to the Birkat HaMazon. Passages that are not essential enough to warrant repetition or the insertion of a separate blessing if they are omitted are not mentioned. Therefore, Purim and Chanukah are not mentioned in Al HaMiḥya.
The question remains, however, why Al HaNissim differs from Retzei and Yaale veYavo in this regard. Why did Ḥazal establish Retzei and Yaale veYavo as independent berakhot, while Al HaNissim is only considered an insertion within a berakha? Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that the difference lies in the formal kedushat hayom (sanctity of the day) with which Shabbat and Yom Tov are endowed. This special status mandates inserting a separate and independent prayer mentioning these days in the Shemoneh Esreh and Birkat HaMazon. Purim and Chanukah, however, do not have kedushat hayom. One therefore merely mentions the miracles of these days during the prayers, but this does not constitute a separate prayer.
See Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, shoresh 1 and Hilkhot Ḥanukka 3:5–6. Ramban disagrees in his comments on the Sefer HaMitzvot, arguing that Hallel must be of biblical origin. He suggests that it may either be a Halakha leMoshe miSinai or an expression of the biblical obligation to rejoice on the festivals (simḥat Yom Tov). Ra’avad, in his comments on Rambam, suggests that Hallel may be “midivrei kabbala,” from the prophets, which is implied by the gemara in Arakhin cited above. See also Sha’agat Aryeh 69, who rules that Hallel is only miderabbanan, and therefore, if one is in doubt whether he recited Hallel, he need not repeat it (as we maintain that safek derabbanan lekula).
For a more thorough discussion of this topic, see Rabbi Refael Shapiro (1837–1921), Torat Refa’el, Hilkhot Pesaḥ 75; Rabbi Shlomo HaKohen (1828–1905), Responsa Binyan Shlomo, Oraḥ Ḥayim 61; and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Responsa Yabi’a Omer, Oraḥ Ḥayim 6:45 and Yeḥave Da’at 1:78.