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The Joy of Chanukah

In honor of the Chanukah festival we are celebrating, we address a tenet of the laws of Chanukah: The concept of joy.

Chanukah is, of course, a family time. We spend much time in family gatherings, both at candle-lighting and in Chanukah events with family and friends. The question we wish to address is the nature of these gatherings: Are Chanukah meals a se’udas mitzvah? If not, are they of any religious value? What, in a more general sense, is the nature of the Chanukah joy? What are the differences between Chanukah and Purim?

The Joy of Chanukah

The Gemara (Shabbos 21b, citing from a baraisa) teaches that during the eight days of Chanukah it is forbidden to fast or to eulogize. Together with saying Hallel, which is an expression of thanksgiving, this is the basic halachah of the Chanukah days, as cited by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 570:1, 3). (It is permitted to eulogize a Torah scholar at the time of his funeral.)

This basic halachos of Chanukah thus appear to indicate that there is no requirement of positive joy during the days of Chanukah (though Hallel can be seen as an expression of joy, it is essentially an expression of thanksgiving). The joy of Chanukah is expressed only in negative terms of not fasting or eulogizing – but not in a positive celebration.

In fact, some early authorities write explicitly that the days of Chanukah do not require a state of joy (simcha), but only thanksgiving. The Maharam of Rotenberg writes that Chanukah was instituted “specifically for praise and thanks, and not for feasting or joy,” and his ruling is cited by a number of later authorities (see Shut Tashbatz [Katan], Vol. 2, no. 170; Leket Yosher (p. 150); and Shut Mahari Bruno (no. 136).

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 670:2) rules along similar lines: “The festive meals of Chanukah are optional in nature (reshus), because the days were not instituted for feasting and joy.”

Joy (Simcha) and Feasting (Mishteh)

Although the Shulchan Aruch notes that the days were not instituted for “joy,” the fact that it is forbidden to fast indicates that the day obligates some element of happiness.

The Rambam in fact notes that there is an obligation of joy on Chanukah, yet makes no mention of an obligation to eat or otherwise give concrete expression to this obligation. He writes (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 joy and thanksgiving.”

Several commentators on the Rambam actually cite the teaching of a Gemara in Pesachim (109a), whereby one can only attain simcha by eating meat. Based on this principle they contend that according to the Rambam there is a concrete obligation to eat a meal on Chanukah in order to attain the requisite level of simcha (Maaseh Rokeiach; Binyan Shlomo).

However, this is certainly not the simple understanding of the Rambam, who makes no mention of an obligatory meal. Rather, it appears that according to the Rambam the joy of Chanukah does include a fixed expression such as a formal meal.

In explaining the prohibition of reciting tzidduk hadin (a prayer recited before burial of the dead) on Chanukah, the Rosh (Mo’ed Katan 3:87) mentions the element of joy, writing (citing from Rabbi Yitzchak ibn Geyyus): “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 joy […] and concerning each of these days is written: ‘This is the day that Hashem has made, let us rejoice and be glad on it'” (the ruling is cited by the Rema 420:2 and 683:1).

It is therefore possible that although there is no obligation of a meal, the prohibition against fasting (which effectively amounts to an obligation to eat), nonetheless, implies some element of joy in eating. This is apparent from the Rashba (Vol. 1, no. 699), who discusses whether Chanukah is considered a Yom Tov, and writes that “even though these days [Chanukah and Purim] are not included in moadim and yamim tovim, they still have [an element of] simcha and oneg.” The concept of oneg, which refers to physical pleasure, falls short of obligating a meal, but does imply an element of joy in special foods.

Obligation of Eating a Meal

An important opinion on this matter is the Ra’avyah (Berachos no. 131; Megillah no. 563; see Mordechai, Berachos 279), who goes a step further than other authorities, and maintains that not only is there an obligation to eat something on Chanukah, but that one must actually eat a bread meal.

For this reason, the Ra’avyah rules that if one forgets to recite al hanisim in birkas hamazon, he must repeat the berachah, just as if somebody omits retzei on Shabbos he must bench again. The Ra’avyah bases his ruling on a statement of the Yerushalmi (which does not appear in our texts).

However, the Shulchan Aruch (682:1) rules in accordance with the mainstream opinion that there is no obligation to eat a meal – and certainly not a bread meal – on Chanukah. Based on this opinion, if somebody forgets to mention al hanisim in his benching, he does not bensch again.

It is interesting to note that the Bach (682) actually sides with the Ra’avyah in this dispute, explaining that Chanukah is called a Yom Tov, and that a bread meal is obligatory and not merely optional (as the Shulchan Aruch states). However, other poskim do not uphold his ruling, and the standard practice is that somebody who forgets to mention al hanisim in his benching does not return to the beginning.

Miracles and the Mikdash

An original approach is adopted by the Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kama 7:37). The Maharshal understands that the festive days of Chanukah mean to commemorate two events that took place at the time of the Chashmonaim.

One set of events is the actual miracles of Chanukah, which brought the outnumbered Jews victory over the Greek armies. The commemoration of these miracles was enacted in terms of giving “praise and thanks,” without the obligation of a celebratory meal.

However, the inauguration of the Altar – chanukas ha-mizbe’ach – which took place after the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks, set aside the eight days of Chanukah  not only as a time of thanksgiving, but also as a time of joy and feasting. He therefore rules that the meals of Chanukah are full “mitzvah meals.”

He proves this point from the wording of the Gemara, whereby the days of Chanukah are set aside as yamim tovim, festival days, noting also that the Rambam writes that the days were enacted to be “days of joy.”  Indeed, further proof to the concurring position of the Rambam can be brought from his statement whereby “on Chanukah and Purim one adds al hanissim in the berachah of the Land, just as one adds in davening.” The Lechem Mishnah explains that this statement is based on the Yerushalmi, as cited by the Ra’avyah.

Yet, although the bracketing together of Chanukah and Purim does suggest that there is an obligatory meal for both, we have already noted that the simple reading of the Rambam in the Laws of Chanukah does not imply this.

The Difference between Chanukah and Purim

Several authorities raise the question of the difference between Chanukah and Purim: Why is it that concerning Purim the obligation to eat a meal is straightforward, whereas concerning Chanukah there is a debate among poskim, and the majority opinion is that there is no obligation? In both instances we were saved from our enemies; why then is there a difference?

The most well known answer is given by the Levush (670:2, cited by the Mishnah Berurah), who explains that the Greeks of the Chanukah miracle had no desire to kill the Jews. Their intent was rather to detach the Jews from their faith, and to inculcate them with Greek Hellenistic culture. This is by contrast with the wicked Haman, whose goal was to wipe out the Jewish People.

In the case of Purim, the salvation was physical, and it is therefore fitting that the celebration should involve a physical meal. On Chanukah, the salvation was spiritual, therefore, no physical feasting is required.

The Bach (670) offers a slightly different explanation, citing the sin that brought about the evil decree of Haman as the transgression of partaking from the feast of Achashveirosh. Because their sin was physical, the Jewish people were threatened with physical annihilation, and the commemoration of the salvation is likewise physical.

In the case of Chanukah, however, the cause of the decree was a spiritual decline in connection with the service of the Temple; as a consequence, it was decreed that they could not perform the Divine service. The commemoration of the miracle returning the avodah to the people was fittingly spiritual – giving praise and thanks to Hashem – rather than physical.

The Maamar Mordechai offers a third explanation, writing that the miracle of Purim took place by means of the meals that Esther prepared for Achashveirosh and Haman. Thus, in commemoration of the miracle, we eat the feast of Purim. In the case of Chanukah there was no miracle involving food or a feast (the miracles were the military victory and the burning of the oil), and there  only obligation is “giving praise and thanks” for those miracles (Maamar Mordechai).

Praise and Torah at the Chanukah Meal

Although we have noted that according to the Shulchan Aruch (and most authorities) there is no obligation to eat a meal on Chanukah, the Rema makes the following addition: “Some say that there is a slight mitzvah to augment the [Chanukah] meals, because the rededication of the Altar took place during those days.”

Thus, although there is no formal obligation to eat a meal, due to the special nature of the time it is proper to give the joy of Chanukah an expression in terms of adding something extra to one’s meals.

The Rema proceeds to note: “The custom is to sing songs and praises during those special meals, and then they are considered to be se’udos mitzvah.” The Mishnah Berurah (9, citing from the Maharshal) adds that anything a person does with the intention of publicizing the miracle of Chanukah (or giving praise to Hashem) renders the meal a se’udas mitzvah.

The Maharshal (no. 85, cited in Biur Halachah 670) further notes that the simcha of the Chanukah meals should be “completely mixed with the joy of Torah.” In other words, in addition to the songs and praises sung at these meals, Torah thoughts should be an integral part of the meal. The Maharshal also writes that these meals should not be at the expense of one’s fixed Torah learning schedule.

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