JWR's Chanukah

Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer: The Age of Illumination

Rabbi Moshe Sherer: Exploiting the Menorah -- and the Miracle

Lawrence Charap: Whose Chanukah? Variations on the Hasmonean Theme

Aural Torah: Sounds of the Lights

Reader Response

December 10, 1997 / 11 Kislev, 5758
Exploiting the Menorah -- and the Miracle

The Hellenists and us

Antiochus and the Maccabees are long gone, but Rabbi Moshe Sherer reminds us that the spiritual struggle between Hasmoneans and Hellenists has not ended.

IN THE HAFTORAH of Shabbes Chanukah, the Prophet describes his vision:

"And behold, there was a golden menorah with a bowl (gulah) on its top. (Zechariah 4:2)

Our sages declare in the Midrash that this menorah is symbolic of Klal Yisroel, the Jewish people; and then, in a beautiful word play, point out the word geulah, the golden bowl topping the menorah, implies golah, dispersion, and geulah, redemption.

The menorah symbol, therefore, contains a paradox. How one interprets this symbol in his approach to life determines whether he takes the road to golah, and disaster, or to geulah, to victory and eternity. The events of Chanukah help us to understand how this one symbol can branch off into two such diverse ends.

The Jewish camp in the days of Antiochus was split. The Hellenists (Misyavnim) stressed the outer forms of Judaism, the ceremonial. All they saw in the menorah was the pure glittering gold, which pleased their aesthetic sense. The Chashmonaim (Hasmoneans), in contrast, looked deeper and saw pure oil, the inner warmth emanating from a light kindled in holiness. Concern solely with the externals of religion leads ultimately to golah, a loss of Jewish cohesiveness. The road to geulah demands penetration to the substance, commitment to the core -- to content.

THE MIRACLE of the one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days is central to the Chanukah theme. Many commentators have given differing explanations as to why Chanukah celebrates an eight-day miracle, which the author of Judaism's constitution, Rabbi Yosef Karo, points out was actually only a seven-day miracle, since there was sufficient oil to burn for the first day. Our sages wisely observed that the miracle of the first day was manifest in how the Chashmonaim found the courage to light of the menorah, when logic dictated that the neir tamid (Eternal Light) would quickly dissipate.

To achieve geulah one must have this capacity to reach out for the unattainable. Were the Jew to have been deterred by his inadequacies and inhibited by his limitations, he would have long ago been swallowed up in golah.

The events of Chanukah yield another significant insight. The Greeks contaminated the oils of the Bais Hamikdash (Holy Temple). The question arises: if the Greeks aimed to black out the menorah forever, would it not have been suited their purpose to destroy the oils completely instead of only contaminating them?

However, their method exposes their sinister intentions. The Greeks reasoned: let the menorah lights burn brightly -- but let the flames arise from contaminated oil; let them shed a false light. The Greeks understood that the subversion of Torah would better be achieved if they could cause the Jewish people to illuminate the world with impure oils.


In recent years, Madison Avenue has developed a booming Chanukah industry in an effort to exploit the Menorah, as they did, lehavidil, with the Christmas tree. During this season, newspaper advertisements offer Chanukah greeting cards, Chanukah candies, Chanukah wrapping paper. With all the hoopla, the meaning of Chanukah has had little impact on the under-educated Jew. Contrast this with the experience of our grandparents; many of them lit their lights in crude utensils, but the candles they kindled penetrated every nook of their homes.

Like the Hellenists, our generation has enthroned the externals of the menorah, and extended this philosophy into all aspects of Jewish living. We have taken a leaf from the lessons of the legendary marketing genius, Elmer Wheeler, who instructed restauranteurs: "Don't sell the steak, sell the sizzle!" By selling the sizzle of mitzvos, instead of the life-giving substance of Yiddishkeit, the spiritual hucksters have sent our generation down the golah road, instead of the road to geulah.

Furthermore, our generation has, to a large degree, lost its belief in miracles and has placed its faith in studies, surveys and resolutions. They have exchanged the spiritual daring of our fathers for a cold, pragmatic approach to Judaism. Proper goals for genuine Judaism are often diluted because they do not seem practical. The lessons of the one-day supply of oil of the Chashmonaim seems to have passed by our generation, as we plod along with our chilling "realism."

What is most remarkable in this analogy is that the strategy of today's Hellenist forces is so strikingly similar to the tactics of the Greeks of old. Only the scenery has changed. Movements in Jewish life have kindled lights that they themselves have contaminated, trampling on basic Jewish concepts. All of these menorahs, lit by the forces that work from within to overthrow Torah authority and classical Judaism, have contributed to the chaos and confusion that characterize Jewish life today.

In America, for example, Jewish life can best be characterized as glittering and dazzling on the outside, but eroded and cold on the inside. Here, too, the modern-day Hellenists are building a Judaism based on slogans instead of sincerity, on theatrics instead of theology. The endless varieties of Judaism competing for the attention of the American Jew make a pretense of saving our youth with cliches and ceremonials. Today, they bear sad witness to the appalling results of the policy of serving our youth adulterated spiritual lollipops instead of inspiring them with the broad majestic sweep of our Torah.


In contrast to all other of the Jewish festivals, where there is a specific mitzvah of simcha, a commandment of rejoicing, we find no such obligation regarding Chanukah. Why? Should not the victories and miracles of Chanukah also be marked with the same degree of joy as all other holidays?

A great rabbi once offered this explanation: The battle of the Chashmonaim never really ended. It continues to this very day. It was essentially a struggle against forces that set out to make the Torah a museum piece and to assimilate the Jewish masses by subterfuge and subversion. This battle to confuse and betray true Judaism still rages in our times, and thus, still engulfed in the smoke of the battle, we do not pause to rejoice. In such a continuing crisis, one must concentrate with greater vigor toward the goal of geulah. Total Torah commitment must replace tokenism. Complete concentration must replace crippling compromise.


Rabbi Moshe Sherer heads the World Agudath Israel Organization.