Reflections of Rav Soloveitchik on Chanukah
by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander
…so that the entire Oral Law might become known to all without difficulty… I have called this work Mishneh Torah, for a person will be able to first read the Written Torah and afterward read this [Mishneh Torah] (Introduction to the Mishneh Torah).
Given the Rambam’s stated objective, there is much to be learned from the content and context of the Rambam’s Hilchot Chanukah. When codifying the Biblical holidays, the Rambam lists them in calendrical order, and Rav Yosef Karo, in his Shulchan Aruch, follows suit. Rav Karo discusses the rabbinically instituted holidays of Chanukah and Purim in calendrical order as well. The Rambam, however, codifies Chanukah and Purim in historical order, placing Purim before Chanukah. Furthermore, the Rambam does not codify them in distinct treatises, but as one treatise, Hilchot Megillah v’Chanukah (The Laws of Megillah and Chanukah), as if they constitute one holiday. Additionally, while the Rambam generally discusses only the halachic dimensions of each holiday, he opens the laws of Chanukah with a review of the holiday’s backstory. What explains these various oddities in the Rambam’s codification of Chanukah?
Rav Soloveitchik explained that the shift in order and style of the laws of Chanukah reflects the stated purpose of the Mishneh Torah – to systematically summarize the Oral Tradition. Therefore, when organizing the rabbinic holidays, the order chosen was one consistent with the halachic development of these days. Purim is the holiday where the legal battle was waged over the ability to institute holidays not prescribed in the Torah:
Our rabbis taught: Forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses prophesied to Israel, and they neither took away from nor added anything to what is written in the Torah, save only the reading of the Megillah [the holiday of Purim] (Megillah 14a).
The establishment of Purim set the precedent for establishing additional rabbinic holidays such as Chanukah. This idea is accentuated in the language used by the Rambam to codify the rituals of Chanukah, in which he regularly inserts references to the Purim holiday.
These days are known as Chanukah. Eulogies and fasting are forbidden just as they are on Purim, and the kindling of lights is a mitzvah… just like the reading of the Megillah. All who are obligated to read the Megillah are also obligated in the kindling of the Chanukah light (Laws of Chanukah 3:3-4).
Unlike the Shulchan Aruch, written only with the aim of offering a practical guide for contemporary observance of halacha, the Mishneh Torah both delineates and defends the entirety of the Oral Tradition, leading the Rambam to explicitly anchor Chanukah in the precedent of Purim.
Similarly, since the Chanukah experience took place after the canonization of the Written Law, the story of Chanukah is the only holiday in which both the story and its legal juridical components are part of the Oral Tradition. Therefore, Maimonides must include both the stories and laws of Chanukah.
Rav Soloveitchik further noted that the only place the story of Chanukah is found in the Talmud is in Tractate Shabbat (21b). Why is the story taught there, and not in the tractate of Megillah, which focuses on rabbinic holidays?
Though Chanukah and Shabbat are distinct experiences, each plays off the other. Chanukah’s holiday experience brings the light found in the Jewish home and allows it to radiate into the public thoroughfare. The laws regarding the menorah’s location and time of lighting are determined by pedestrians’ ability to see its illumination in the public thoroughfare.
Yet this goal is only achievable when a Jew also experiences Shabbat. Shabbat is celebrated by retreating from the public arena of life. We experience Shabbat primarily within the privacy of our home, our spiritual epicenter. Introducing the festival of Chanukah in the middle of Tractate Shabbat reminds us that we can only perfect the public thoroughfare when the private arena is strong and vibrant. Conversely, if the Shabbat experience leads to a permanent withdrawal from broader society, it becomes an obstacle to achieving the divine purpose of the chosen people.
As we usher in this Chanukah season, let us commit ourselves to the sacred synergy between Shabbat and Chanukah, to both calibrating our personal spiritual compass and fulfilling the mission of Knesset Yisrael as “a light unto the nations”.
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an international network of 30 Religious Zionist institutions committed to illuminating the beauty and relevance of authentic Torah Judaism in the modern world. Prior to making Aliyah, Rabbi Brander was Vice President at Yeshiva University and the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, overseeing its explosive growth from 60 to more than 600 families.