In Miketz this week, learning what’s in a name


When we focus on our sages’ presentation of Purim and Chanukah, we discover the former has an entire tractate of the Talmud Bavli that discusses its halachot, whereas Chanukah and its laws are found in a few pages in Masechet Shabbat. Consequently, the following question and its response take on particular import:

“What is Chanukah and why are lights kindled on Chanukah? The Gemara answers: [The Sages taught in Megillat Ta’anit:] On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Chanukah are eight. One may not eulogize on them, and one may not fast on them. [What is the reason?] When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them.

“And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there [to light the Menorah] for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit [the Menorah] from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of Hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b)

In his Commentary on the Talmud, Rashi suggests the interrogative phrase, mai Chanukah, should be interpreted as “based upon which miracle was Chanukah established?” rather than “what is Chanukah?” in the literal sense of the words. (Shabbat 21b) In so doing, he helps us understand the reason this passage in Masechet Shabbat comprises the functional equivalent of a mini-Chanukah haggadah, since without it, we would be unable to determine the primary miracle of Chanukah. 

Having identified the key miracle of Chanukah, the next logical question to ask is “why is it named, ‘Chanukah,’ rather than something like, ‘Nase Pach Shemen (the Miracle of the Cruse of Oil)’?” After all, if it is really about, the “one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks … [and the] miracle occurred [so that] they lit [the Menorah] from it eight days,” then Nase Pach Shemen seems to be a more appropriate name.

Fortunately, there are classic sources that answer just this question. In his Chidushei Aggadot on Masechet Shabbat 21b, the Maharsha (Rav Shmuel Eidels), basing himself on Mishna Middot 1:6, maintains that Chanukah received this name because the Maccabees had hidden away the stones from the Mizbeach (Altar) that the Syrian-Greeks had desecrated through their idol worship. As such, they needed to construct an entirely new Mizbeach and reconsecrate it, a process known as chanukat haMizbeach.

The etymological relationship between the terms chanukat haMizbeach and Chanukah is clear and, for the Maharsha, constitutes the basis for the name Chanukah.

In his work, Machzor Vitry, Rashi’s student, offers two responses: “The name Chanukah [in the original Hebrew] may be read as ‘chanu kaf hay b’Kislev — they [the Maccabees] ceased fighting on the 25th of Kislev’.” His second answer, focuses, as well, on the Hebrew letters in Chanukah and posits that, “chane b’ kaf hay Kislev — [the Maccabees obtained grace from the Almighty] on the 25th of Kislev.” Therefore, according to Rav Simcha ben Shmuel, this chag is named Chanukah since its very letters portray major historical and spiritual aspects of the festival.

The second answer of the Machzor Vitry, “chane b’ kaf hay Kislev,” is reminiscent of an idea attributed to the Vilna Gaon in which he notes that there is a remez (hint) to Chanukah in the Torah itself: If someone counts from the first word of the Torah until the 25th word of the Torah, they will find that the 25th word is none other than “ohr (light)” a hint to the light that we are blessed with on Chanukah, on the 25th of Kislev.

Moreover, building upon this thought, I believe we can discover a strong proof for the connection between light and grace in the second verse of Birkat Kohanim:

May Hashem make His presence enlighten you and grant you grace. (Sefer Bamidbar 6:25)

With the Almighty’s help, may this bracha be realized this Chanukah, and every day of the year, for the entire Jewish people. V’chane yihi ratzon.