What’s Wrong with THIS Year?
Rabbi Benjy Myers
Educational Director, Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel
In Shabbat 21b we read about the miracle of the oil that lead to the establishment of the festival of Chanukah and the declaration of eight days of celebration and thanksgiving. The relevant section in the Talmud ends with the following statement:
The following year they instituted these days and made them festive days for praise and thanksgiving.
The question that arises from this statement is, why was Chanukah declared a national festival only “the next year”? What’s wrong with instituting days of joy and thanksgiving at the time of the miracle itself?
We can suggest a number of answers to this question:
Ritba (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham), the 14th Century Spanish Talmudic commentator, suggests that they could not institute a festival for they were still actively engrossed in the miracle, and could not foretell how long the miracle would last. Each day the candle stayed alight was further cause for celebration. The complete festival could only be instituted once it was clear how long the miracle of the oil actually lasted.
The 19th Century composer of the halakhic work “Arukh haShulhan”, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halevi Epstein, proposes a more historical answer. He suggests that the Hasmoneans set aside eight days of celebration and thanksgiving to make up for the eight days of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret they were unable to celebrate due to the Hellenistic occupation and the battles that were raging at the time. However, as soon as the Jews regained control of the Temple, they set aside eight days in recompense. Once they saw the miracle of the lighted menora, they realized that their thoughts and intentions in making up for the lost festival had been accepted by Heaven, and declared a new festival to celebrate.
A more esoteric approach is suggested by Rabbi Yisrael Hopstein, the Maggid of Koznitz, in his work Avodat Yisrael. There he suggests that the miracle at the time was so immense, clear and bright for all to see, that there was no need to formally institute a festive celebration at that time. The following year, however, a formal enactment was necessary to institutionalize the festival and remembrance of the miracle.
Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (born in 1917, a giant in the field of halakha and medicine), cites this passage of Talmud in his responsa “Tzitz Eliezer”. A question was posed to him by a group of people who – having been encircled by enemy forces – miraculously survived the Six Day War. On the very day of their salvation they asked whether to recite Hallel, the ultimate thanksgiving prayer. Rabbi Waldenberg responded that it is inappropriate to recite such a joyous prayer to God when so many of their fallen comrades are lying in the field of battle awaiting burial, their family and friends crying and trying to come to terms with their loss. He then adds:
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why in the miracle of Chanukah it [the festival] was only instituted the next year…for in that year the casualties of the war still lay before them and the people had only just begun mourning their loss. Therefore, they could not yet institute a day of praise and thanksgiving.
In this most profound insight, Rabbi Waldenberg shows us the importance of paying attention to human emotions and frailties even at the time of greatest joy. There is a time and a place for everything in this world. It is important to celebrate and give thanks, it is important to mourn and comfort, and it is vital to always take into consideration all these factors.
At every wedding, at the time of the couple’s greatest joy, the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem is recounted and a glass broken as a sign of mourning over our as yet incomplete redemption. The time for true rejoicing will come when we are all back in our homeland, the Temple restored, and the miraculous light of the menora will once again shine brightly for the whole world to see.