The Talmud asks: What is Chanukah? When the Greeks entered the Temple they contaminated all the oil in the Temple. The Maccabees overpowered them, and they searched but could only find one flask of oil with the High Priest’s seal that would last one day, and it lasted for eight days. The following year they established these days of praise and thanksgiving.
The holiday of Chanukah is the only holiday in the Jewish calendar where there is no mitzvah to eat a meal. Why is this so? Although it is true that the danger presented by the Greeks was spiritual, and consequently the celebration ordained was also spiritual, that hardly seems to be sufficient reason not to have a festive meal, too. Rosh Hashanah is a spiritual celebration as well. So is a bris milah celebration when a child enters the covenant of Abraham, and the bar mitzvah celebration of a boy becoming obligated in mitzvos; yet all these celebrations are marked with a festive meal. Why is Chanukah any different?
My father, Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum, offered the following answer: In the Al Hanissim prayer in the service it says that the Greeks tried to cause the Jewish people to forget the Torah. It does not merely say that they banned Torah study, but that they tried to cause them to forget Torah. How did they try to do that?
The Greeks were a hedonistic people who encouraged a life of gluttony, physical beauty and pleasure. When a person is saturated with cheap thrills and pleasures, it is much more difficult for him to enjoy the finer, more subtle pleasures in life. In the same way, when a person is steeped in physical pleasure he becomes desensitized to spiritual pleasure and he is unable to appreciate it.
The Greeks tried to lead the Jews to hedonism, thus causing them to forget Torah. The Midrash finds an allusion to the Greek exile in the darkness at the beginning of Creation, because the Greeks “darkened the eyes of Israel.” Why should the Greeks be alluded to by darkness more than the Babylonians, Persians or Romans? If anything, they were more civilized and enlightened than the other exiles.
The answer is that while the other exiles may have operated in darkness by persecuting the Jews, the Greeks operated in the light. They darkened the eyes of the Jews by blinding them in the artificial light of hedonism. When the Maccabees vanquished the Greeks, they were freed from this darkness and they regained their sensitivity. Once again, they were able to appreciate the subtle beauty of Torah.
When the rabbis established Chanukah as a yom tov, they deliberately avoided celebrating with festive meals. The celebration of Chanukah was meant to allow us to appreciate pure spiritual delight, and physical pleasure can actually serve as an impediment to achieving that goal.
Rabbi Yossi Nisenbaum is the director of programming at Jewish Learning Connection in University Heights.