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The Chanukah Repast: Mitzvah or Otherwise?

Rabbi Avraham Rosenthal


The Gemara (Mo’ed Katan 9a) states: “There is no simcha without eating and drinking.” Additionally, according to the Rishonim, one must eat bread on Yom Tov in order to fulfill the mitzvah of simchas Yom Tov (Rosh, Brachos 7:23). These are but two of the sources that form the relationship between simcha and festive meals vis-à-vis Jewish holidays. Generally, whenever there is an obligation to have simcha, there is a requirement to eat a meal.

Concerning Chanukah, there are several interrelated questions discussed in halachic literature:

1) Is there a mitzvah of simcha on Chanukah?

2) Assuming that there is a mitzvah of simcha, does this create an obligation to eat a meal as we find with other yomim tovim, or is the simcha independent of the meal?

3) If there is a meal obligation on Chanukah, is it an absolute requirement, or is it merely a preferred thing to do?

Let us now examine some of the sources and attempt to answer these questions.

Megillas Antiyochus

We do not find any mention of a simcha obligation during Chanukah in the traditional sources such as Shas and Midrashim. Rather, the earliest mention of this idea is in Megillas Antiyochus.  This is a sefer originally written in Aramaic which retells the miracle of Chanukah in the same fashion that Megillas Esther recounts the Purim miracle. There is a disagreement among the Gaonim whether this megillah was written by the Chashmonayim themselves or during the time of Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel (see Sefer Chanukah by Rav Tzvi Cohen).

It is written in Megillas Antiyochus: “Therefore, the Bnei Chashmonai together with the Bnei Yisroel established these eight days as days of feasting and simcha, similar to the festivals mentioned in the Torah. And [they also established] to light candles during those [days]. Therefore, the Bnei Yisroel observe these eight days beginning from the twenty-fifth of Kislev as days of feasting and simcha.”

As we see, the requirement of feasting and simcha is referred to explicitly. However, this work, although an extremely early one, cannot be cited as a halachic source. The reason for this is that it was not written with Ruach Hakodesh, Divine Inspiration, not included in Sifrei Tanach and it only has value as a historical reference. This is referred to explicitly in the Gemara (Yuma 29a) which states that although there was authorization to write down the miracle of Purim, no such permission was granted concerning the miracle of Chanukah.

Incidentally, it is interesting to note that there is mention in the Rishonim of a minhag to read Megillas Antiyochus on Chanukah (Tosafos Rid, Sukkah 44b, s.v., hibit). Some communities did so either before or after the haftarah on the morning of Shabbos Chanukah, while others read it before Aleinu during Shabbos Mincha (Sefer Chanukah).

Three Schools of Thought

In examining the words of the Rishonim and poskim, we find three views concerning the obligation of simcha and partaking of a meal during the days of Chanukah:

1) Some maintain that there is only an obligation of simcha.

2) Some contend that there is both an obligation of simcha and to eat meals everyday of Chanukah.

3) According to others, neither is required.

I. Simcha Only

In the writings of Rabbeinu Yitzchok ibn Geyyus, one of the early Rishonim, we find the following: “We are accustomed from the days of the early elders not to say Tzidduk Hadin on Chol Hamoed, Rosh Chodesh, Chanukah and Purim… for these are days of simcha… and concerning each of these days it says in Hallel, ‘This is the day that Hashem has made, let us rejoice and be glad on it.’ Therefore, we do not recite Tzidduk Hadin on these days” (quoted in Rosh, Mo’ed Katan 3:87). We see that since he only refers to Chanukah as days of simcha and he does not mention “mishteh” – feasting, he maintains that there is no obligation to eat a meal on Chanukah.

The Rambam seemingly also holds that one is only obligated in simcha during Chanukah and not in mishteh. He writes (Hilchos Chanukah 3:3): “Because of this, the Sages in that generation instituted that these eight days, which begin on the eve of the twenty-fifth of Kislev, should be days of gladness (simcha) and thanksgiving (hallel).”

However, several commentators on the Rambam cite the Gemara in Pesachim (109a) that one can only attain simcha by eating meat. Therefore, they contend that the Rambam must hold that one must eat a meal on Chanukah in order to attain simcha (Maase Rokeiach and Binyan Shlomo).

II. Simcha and Mishteh

In the responsa of the Rashba (volume I, #699) we find the following question: If someone makes a vow and excludes yomim tovim, does he have to fulfill the vow on Chanukah or Purim? In other words, let us say for example that a person vows not to eat meat except for yomim tovim, is he permitted to eat it on Chanukah or Purim? The question here revolves around whether or not Chanukah and Purim are included in the category of “yomim tovim.”

The basis to include these days is that the Gemara indicates that any day which has an increase of simcha and mishteh can be termed a “yom tov.” This is alluded to in the incident where one of the Amoraim stated he would make a “yom tov” for the scholars if so-and-so recovers from his illness. In other words, he would make a festive meal (Brachos 46a).

The Rashba prefaces his response with the famous ruling of the Gemara that concerning vows one follows common day speech (Nedarim 30b). What this means to say is if the one making the vow did not have anything specific in mind, and he vowed that he would only eat meat on yomim tovim, he will only be permitted to eat meat on days commonly referred to as “yom tov.” Therefore, the Rashba rules that in this case, since it is unclear whether Chanukah and Purim are indeed referred to as “yom tov,” the petitioner will have to act stringently and not eat meat on those days.

However, if he contends that when making the vow, his intent was to include Chanukah and Purim in the category of “yomim tovim,” he is believed and he will be allowed to eat meat on those days. The reason for this, explains the Rashba, is because, “even though generally these days are not included in “moadim” and “yomim tovim,” they still have [an element of] simcha and oneg.”

Since the Rashba refers to Chanukah as being days of “simcha and oneg,” this indicates that he maintains there is an obligation to eat a meal on Chanukah.

Aside from the Rashba, several other Rishonim also maintain that Chanukah is a time of simcha and mishteh. These include Tosafos (Taanis 18b, s.v., halachah misaneh u’mashlim) and the Raavyah (Brachos #131, Megillah #563). It is interesting to note that the Raavah goes one step further than the other Rishonim and maintains that not only is there an obligation to eat on Chanukah, but one must eat bread. This is apparent from his position that if one forgets to recite al hanisim in bircas hamazon, he must bentch again, similar to if one forgets retzai on Shabbos. He bases this on a statement of the Gemara Yerushalmi, which unfortunately does not appear in our texts.

A Different Reason

In addition to the above mentioned Rishonim, Rav Shlomo Luria (more commonly known as the Maharshal), one of the preeminent Acharonim of the sixteenth century, discusses in his Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kama 7:37), which meals are considered a seudas mitzvah. He cites the opinion of those who contend that meals during Chanukah are non-obligatory. This view is based on the fact that the Gemara in Shabbos (21b) which discusses the enactment of Chanukah states that these days were established for “praise and thanks.” Since the Gemara makes no mention of simcha and mishteh, there is no obligation to partake of a meal during Chanukah.

Rav Luria contends that this is true only concerning the miracles of Chanukah. With regards to the miracles there is only an obligation of giving “praise and thanks.” However, another event took place during these days that does require mishteh and simcha – the chanukas hamizbayach, the inauguration of the altar in the beis hamikdash.

During the rule of the Greek overlords and the Hellenists, the mizbayach and the other vessels fell into disrepair. When the Chashmonayim overcame their enemies, they rebuilt the altar and repaired everything that required fixing. This project took eight days (see Megillas Taanis). In honor of this rededication of the mizbayach and beis hamikdash, the eight days of Chanukah are also set aside as days of mishteh and simcha.

As a proof to this approach, Rav Luria points to the Gemara (Shabbos 21b) which states that they established Chanukah as “yomim tovim, with praise and thanks.” Since the Gemara added in the phrase “yomim tovim,” this indicates that there is an obligation of mishteh and simcha on Chanukah just like on any Yom Tov.

As another support to his contention, Rav Luria points to an incident in Bava Kama (80a) where Rav, Shmuel and Rav Assi, three of the greatest Amoraim, all came to partake of a “Yeshua Haben.” This is either a meal made in honor of the mitzvah of pidyon haben (Rashi ad loc.), or a meal served in order to give thanks that the baby was born alive (Tosafos ad loc.).

Rav Luria reasons that it is obvious that this type of meal is a seudas mitzvah, for otherwise, those great sages would not have attended, as the Gemara states that a talmid chocham should only partake of a seudas mitzvah. If the Yeshua Haben meal which is served either in honor of a mitzvah or as a venue to give thanks to Hashem for the miracle is considered to be a seudas mitzvah, then certainly Chanukah meals which are served for both, in order to publicize the miracle and to give praise and thanks to Hashem, should be viewed as such.

An Allusion from the Chumash

It is interesting to note the Maharshal’s disciple, the author of the Mateh Moshe writes an allusion to the idea of eating a meal on Chanukah. When Yosef’s brothers come back to Mitzrayim the second time, bringing Binyanim as per Yosef’s instructions, Yosef tells his butler to prepare a meal for the guests. The pasuk reads (Bereishis 43:16), “utvo’ach tevach vehachein,” “have meat slaughtered and prepare it.” The last letter of tevach, cheis, together with the letters of the word vehachein (vav, hey, chaf, nun) spell Chanukah. Additionally, the gematria of “tavo’ach tevach” is forty-four, the number of candles lit during Chanukah (Mateh Moshe, volume V, #993).

III. Neither Simcha or Mishteh

Several Rishonim maintain that there is no obligation in either simcha or mishteh during Chanukah. One of the earliest sources of this view is the Maharam Rotenberg, who says that Chanukah was instituted “specifically for praise and thanks and not for mishteh or simcha” (cited by Shu”t Tashbeitz [Katan], volume II, #170). This opinion is subsequently quoted by later Ashkenazic authorities such as the Leket Yosher (pg. 150) and Shu”t Mahari Bruna (#136).

The Difference between Chanukah and Purim

The question has been raised by several Acharonim: Why is it that concerning Purim, the obligation to eat a meal is straightforward, while with regards to Chanukah there is a debate? In both situations we were saved from our enemies. Why is there a difference?

Several approaches have been suggested. These include:

1) During the time of the Chanukah miracle when the Jews were under the control of the Greeks, our enemies had no plans to exterminate us. Their intent was to merely subjugate us and to remove us from our religion. Therefore, when Hashem miraculously saved us and we were once again allowed to perform His mitzvos, it was incumbent for us to praise Him for those miracles and the opportunity to fulfill His Will.

Achashveirosh and Haman on the other hand, plotted to wipe out the Jewish People. Even had the Jews wanted to convert, chalilah, it would not have helped them. Since Klal Yisroel was saved from a physical danger as opposed to a spiritual one, the way to celebrate that salvation is through physical means, namely mishteh and simcha (Levush 670:2).

2) The main reason why destruction was decreed on the Jews during the time of Haman was because they partook of the Achashveirosh’s feast. Because their sin was a physical one, they were threatened with physical annihilation. When they did teshuvah, they fasted for three days as an atonement for their sin. Therefore, when they were saved, they established the requirement of mishteh and simcha as a remembrance of the miracle.

With Chanukah however, the cause of the gezeirah was because they were laid-back concerning the avodah, the Divine Service, in the Beis Hamikdash. Unlike the sin at the time of Purim, this was considered spiritual in nature. As a punishment for this, it was decreed that they could not perform the avodah. When they did teshuvah and decided to perform the Divine Service with mesiras nefesh – they were willing to give up their lives for it – Hashem helped them overcome their enemies. Thus, as a remembrance of the miracle, they established Chanukah only for the purpose of “giving praise and thanks,” something spiritual in nature (Bach 670).

3) The miracle of Purim occurred by way of the meals that Esther prepared for Achashveirosh and Haman. Thus, as a remembrance, we eat a seudah on Purim. With Chanukah however, the miracles were the military victory and the fact that one day’s worth of oil burned for eight. Therefore, the only obligation is “giving praise and thanks” for those miracle (Maamar Mordechai).

Opinion of the Poskim

We mentioned earlier that the Rambam only mentions the concept of simcha with regards to Chanukah, but does not mention an obligation to eat meals. However, several authorities understand the Rambam to mean that there is such a requirement. It is interesting to note that although Rav Yosef Karo in his Shulchan Aruch generally follows the opinion of the Rambam, concerning this issue, he writes that Chanukah was not established for mishteh and simcha and therefore, all Chanukah meals are non-obligatory (Shulchan Aruch 670:2).

The Bach (ad loc.) on the other hand, first cites the opinion of the Maharam Rotenberg that there is no obligation for either simcha or mishteh. He then goes on to disagree and concludes that the minhag of serving special meals on Chanukah “has already been practiced by the great leaders of earlier generations.”

The Rama, commenting on the Shulchan Aruch’s opinion that there is no obligation, writes, “And some say that there is a bit of a mitzvah to augment the meals because the rededication of the altar took place during those days.” He concludes: “The custom is to sing songs and praises during those special meals, and then they are considered to be seudos mitzvah.”

Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah (ad loc.) writes that whatever a person does to give praise to Hashem, or to publicize the miracle or mitzvah will make the meal into a seudas mitzvah.

The Optional Wedding Feast

From where does the Rama derive this idea that one can transform a “seudas reshus” – a non-obligatory or optional meal into a “seudas mitzvah” by singing praises to Hashem?

Before proceeding, we must quote a Gemara relevant to our discussion. The Gemara (Pesachim 49a) states that a talmid chocham is not allowed to partake of any meal that is not a seudas mitzvah. One of the examples of such a meal is the meal served in honor of the marriage of the daughter of a Torah scholar with an ignoramus.

The question was posed to the Maharam, based on this Gemara, what is the justification for the practice where talmidei chachomim do in fact participate in such meals?

The Maharam responds that since it is common practice to sing praises to Hashem during these meals, they are no longer considered non-obligatory, but rather they are seudos mitzvah (Shu”t Maharam Rotenberg #605).

Torah Learning and Seudos Mitzvah

It is worthwhile to mention that the Maharshal whom we quoted earlier also writes in his responsa (#85, cited in Biur Halacha 670:2), that the simcha of the seudos Chanukah should be “completely mixed with the joy of Torah.” In other words, in addition to the songs and praises sung at these meals, divrei Torah should be an integral part. Additionally, the Maharshal maintains that these meals should not be at the expense of one’s fixed learning seder.

Various Minhagim

Many Chassidic courts have the custom that festive meals are served every night of Chanukah and the Rebbe conducts a “tish” (Nitei Gavriel, Chanukah, page 212, footnote #8; Darchei Chaim v’Shalom #817). Others did not have such a minhag to do so every night; instead they serve a large seudah only on the last day – Zos Chanukah (Likutei Mahariach).

Some maintain that one should serve additional food on Shabbos Chanukah as well as Rosh Chodesh Teves, which occurs during Chanukah. Some have the minhag of adding one dish on Shabbos Chanukah and if it is also Rosh Chodesh, they add two dishes (Ben Ish Chai, end of Vayeishev; Mishnah Berurah 419:2; Minhag Yisroel Torah #670).

It is Up to Us

As we mentioned earlier, the Shulchan Aruch writes that the meals served on Chanukah are seudos reshus – non-obligatory. The Chiddushei HaRim comments on this halachah that Chazal “left us these meals as a reshus in order that we can transform them into seudos mitzvah.”

This author found the sefer Minhag Avoseinu Beyadeinu by Rav Gedalia Oberlander (Monsey 5769) helpful in preparing this article.

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