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Chanukah and Self-Doubt

What is Chanukah?, famously asks the Talmud (Shabbos 21b). What led the Sages to establish this holiday? The response has led to many essays attempting to understand what seems to be the Talmud’s wrong answer to this basic question. The Talmud tells the story of the Hasmonean rededication of the Temple, for which enough Menorah oil for only one day was found that miraculously lasted for eight days.

What, the commentaries ask, about the war? Many were delivered into the hands of the few, the strong to the weak. There is no mention of the Jewish rebellion against the mighty Assyrian-Greeks, which seems to be the main Chanukah story. The Chanukah additions into the prayers emphasize the war, not the oil. Why does the Talmud emphasize the oil?

I. Primacy of Oil

Rav Gershon Zaks (Mo’adei Ha-Gershuni, no. 52) asks further: Where do we see any other case in which we recite Hallel because we were able to perform a mitzvah? As a general rule, if you are unable to perform a specific mitzvah, you are exempt from the obligation. This is very different from salvation from a life threat or from religious persecution that prevents you from leading a religious life. In this case, we were unable to light the candles in the Temple. Why did the Sages declare an eternal holiday to commemorate the ability to light those candles?

Rav Zaks quotes Rav Nissim Gaon’s comments, as quoted by the Ramban (Num. 8:2). Rav Nissim Gaon quotes the midrash as saying that the Hasmonean rededication of the Temple had a Menorah lighting for which God does miracles and salving through the kohanim. This seems to imply that the miracle of the oil includes the salvation of the Hasmonean war. What does this mean?

Elsewhere, the Ramban (Gen. 49:10) explains that the Hasmoneans sinned by appointing kohanim as kings. The kohanim are from the tribe of Levy while kings must come from the tribe of Yehudah. We discussed this elsewhere. However, the Ramban believes that they only sinned by failing to turn over the kingship to the tribe of Yehudah after the war ended. The kohanim were correct to take power during the war.

II. Fighting Religious Oppression

Many people believe that Chanukah is a symbol of Jewish might. Rav Zaks believes that this is incorrect. The Hasmoneans were weaker and less numerous than their opponents; they were less mighty. Chanukah is a symbol of Jewish willingness to suffer martyrdom for God and His Torah. The Assyrian-Greeks forbade us from observing our religion, which required fighting back. In such a case, we don’t ask whether we can win the fight. We don’t calculate the odds of success. We have no choice but to fight even a hopeless battle. Even if we can escape, we should fight against this anti-religious tyranny.

The Chafetz Chaim told Rav Zaks’ father, Rav Menachem Zaks (the Chafetz Chaim’s son-in-law), that he regretted leaving Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik persecution. He felt that he should have remained and fought with the three million Jews that stayed in Russia. Even though the laws of nature indicate that he would have lost, the Torah demands fighting against natural odds, relying on God to save them supernaturally like He did in Hasmonean times.

III. Religious Self-Doubt

After the Hasmoneans won the war, they questioned whether they had done the right thing. Should they have fought the seemingly hopeless war against the might enemy? Were they justified in appointing kohanim as leaders during the war? The miracle of the Menorah oil revealed God’s approval. Through this miracle, the Hasmoneans learned that they fought a justified war and won miraculously. The miracle of the oil taught that the entire endeavor was righteous and worthy of celebration.

The Talmud explains what led to the establishment of the holiday. While the war was the primary underlying miracle, it was not enough for the holiday. The miracle of the oil confirmed the religious intuition that led the Jews to fight the war. Like many Jews throughout history, the Hasmoneans were unsure how to proceed. They used their best judgment and still retained doubts, even after they won. The miracle of the oil resolved those doubts, enabling the establishment of the Chanukah holiday.

This questioning seems like a healthy response to a difficult situation. Today, we can’t expect miracles to answer our self-doubts. Instead, we must use our best judgment and recognize that we can’t always be certain. We can only do our best and leave the rest in God’s hands.