The Shabbat of Chanukah is a unique time of year that has significant spiritual meaning for the Jewish people.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
SInce the festival of Chanukah is celebrated for eight days, each year there is at least one “Shabbat Chanukah” – the Shabbat that coincides with Chanukah. In addition to the Torah portion, Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), we also read an additional section of the Torah relating to Chanukah.
Chanukah celebrates the survival of the Jewish people from destruction – spiritual destruction, that is. Unlike the evil Haman of the Purim story, Hitler and Khameini, King Antiochus and the Syrian-Greeks had no interest in murdering the Jews in a physical sense. They wanted to destroy the Jews spiritually by having them dispose of their Jewish way of life.
As part of their anti-Torah, anti-Judaism campaign, the Syrian-Greeks specifically focused on eradicating three mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah: Shabbat observance, brit milah (circumcision), and the celebration of Rosh Chodesh, the arrival of the new Jewish month.
What did the Syrian-Greeks have against observing Shabbat? They believed that the world existed for all eternity. They didn’t believe that there was a point in time when the universe was created by a Supreme Being. And they certainly didn’t believe in the Creator – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When the Jewish people observe Shabbat by refraining from work and focusing on spiritual matters, they essentially testify loudly and clearly, broadcasting to the entire world, that God is the Creator of the world, and He is the Master over it.
What did the Syrian-Greeks have against brit milah? That’s an easy one. The circumcision is the permanent physical sign that one is part of the Jewish people. It testifies that we are different, separate and unique. The Syrian-Greeks couldn’t tolerate that. They wanted one massive, assimilated nation living the Hellenistic way of life. They had to quickly get rid of this mitzvah if they wanted everyone to be like them.
The third of these bans, as mentioned, was the ban on observing Rosh Chodesh (the New Month). Why did the Syrian-Greeks care so much if the Jews celebrated the arrival of a new month? The answer is that the observance of Rosh Chodesh symbolizes the belief in a spiritual model that the Syrian-Greeks couldn’t accept. In ancient times the sanctification and declaration of a new month would be based on the testimony of those who first saw the new moon. Once the new moon was declared, the month would begin, and the holidays of the month would follow accordingly. For example, once the new moon inaugurating the month of Nissan was seen and declared, Passover would begin 15 days later. This is true even if it is later discovered that the witnesses erred in their sighting of the new moon!
Spirituality is a Two-Way Street
Rosh Chodesh, therefore, essentially symbolizes a spiritual system that the Syrian-Greeks could not tolerate: that man has the power to affect the spiritual dimension. Make no mistake – the Syrian-Greeks loved spirituality. Their fantasy world of mythology remains with us to this day. But they believed that man can make no impact. They believed that spirituality is a one-way street – from Heaven above to the earth below. They believed that everything was set in stone. Life was simply a Broadway musical that we have to sit back and allow to play out. Judaism, however, teaches that spirituality and the service of God is a two-way street. A partnership of sorts. We believe that we can affect change in this world and influence the order of events. Our good deeds affect change for the better, and our misdeeds can effect change for the worse.
It is these three things that the Maccabees stood up to defend: Shabbat – our declaration that there is only one God above; Brit Milah – that we are a distinct nation not only spiritually, but also physically; and Rosh Chodesh – that mankind carries an important role in the functioning of the world. If we focus on this historical-spiritual message and stand proud to be a part of the nation that observes mitzvot (commandments) such as these, we can be sure that we are continuing the legacy of the Maccabees proud and handing them a victory once more.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah from Israel!
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