This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Looking Forward to Hanukkah *

Is Hanukkah a mitzvah?

That depends in part on how you define a "mitzvah." In its most narrow sense, the word designates only precepts that are actually written in the Torah and were commanded by God to Moses at Mount Sinai.

According to that definition, it would appear quite obvious that the word "mitzvah" cannot be applied properly to Hanukkah since the holiday is not mentioned in the Bible and it commemorates events that occurred long after the revelation at Sinai.

This, however, was not obvious to all of our great rabbinic authorities. Take for example Rabbi Simeon Qayyara, the eighth-century author of the influential legal compendium Halakhot Gedolot who introduced his book with an enumeration of all the commandments. His listing of the 613 mitzvot does in fact include the obligation to light lamps on Hanukkah, as well as the celebration of Purim and the recitation of the Hallel psalms on festive occasions.

Rabbi Moses Maimonides, writing in twelfth-century Egypt, felt that the Halakhot Gedolot was guilty of intellectual sloppiness on this issue, and that the question of counting commandments had to be revisited in a thorough and consistent manner. Clear methodological guidelines had to be established for determining what qualifies as a true "commandment" and what does not. Maimonides composed a special Arabic treatise on this topic--the "Book of Commandments"--much of which was devoted to formulating a set of coherent principles for the enumeration of mitzvot.

One of Maimonides' key principles stated that, to qualify as a commandment, a law must indeed have been revealed at Mount Sinai. In an acerbic barb directed at Rabbi Qayyara, he noted that there really should not have been any need to mention such an obvious truism, given that the classic talmudic source for the concept of 613 commandments refers to them as having been "spoken to Moses at Sinai,"and that clearly excluded any precept--like Hanukkah--that was introduced later by the rabbis (or, for that matter, by other biblical prophets).

Nor did Maimonides allow the matter to rest there. Purely for the sake of argument, he imagined the hypothetical possibility that Hanukkah could have been legislated in Moses' time. "Let us assume that Moses was instructed at Sinai to command us that if, in the last days of our independence we should undergo certain events in connection with the Greeks, then we should be obligated to kindle a Hanukkah lamp."--But after proposing that tenuous hypothesis, he immediately dismissed it: "I doubt that anyone would ever conceive of such an eventuality, nor even imagine it!" And indeed, Maimonides' reductio ad absurdum sounds compelling and irrefutable.

Or is it? In his cogent reconstruction of what could or could not have been said at Mount Sinai, Maimonides used a rather narrow selection of proof-texts. There was after all an alternative approach to the question, one that found expression in a number of well-known rabbinic traditions. Some texts suggested that the laws that were given at Sinai were not necessarily subject to the constraints of chronological sequence. A familiar example is the Talmud's assertion that "even an original interpretation that will be proposed some day by an advanced student was already given to Moses at Sinai." When viewed from this perspective, there is nothing intrinsically preposterous about the scenario of Moses being instructed at Sinai about the "commandment" of Hanukkah.

As it happens, the Talmud did touch briefly on the question of Hanukkah's status as a commandment . The familiar blessing that accompanies the kindling of the lights refers to God as having "commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lamps." Our sages, acutely sensitive to the difficulty inherent in this wording, asked "where did he command us?" to which Rav Avia replied by citing the verse "don't turn away from what they [your religious leaders] tell you," and Rabbi Nehemiah quoted "ask your father and he will tell you, ask your elders and they will explain it to you." That is to say, the Torah is commanding us to follow the instructions and enactments that will be made by the priests, elders and sages of each generation, and they are authorized to establish new holidays like Hanukkah.

This, argued Maimonides, was what the talmudic sages had in mind in their expositions about the original insights of future students being revealed to Moses at Sinai. They did not mean to imply that Hanukkah or Purim were explicitly decreed or foretold in that revelation, but rather that the Israelite people were consenting at Sinai to follow the instructions of the sages of future generations, including any new "commandments" that they would see fit to establish.

In this connection, Maimonides drew a sharp distinction between the unique revelation of Mount Sinai and the teachings of subsequent biblical prophets. Even those prophets who introduced obligatory practices were doing so in their capacity as rabbinic scholars, and not by virtue of their supernatural revelations.

Maimonides had yet another gripe against the author of the Halakhot Gedolot: If it was permissible to include post-Sinai commandments in the count, then there were too few of them in his list! Since all the enactments of the prophets and sages had been revealed to Moses, why did Rabbi Simeon Qayyara count only three of them among the 613?

Maimonides' outspoken position found a scathing and worthy critic in the person of Rabbi Moses Naḥmanides, the Ramban. Naḥmanides had a general inclination toward conservatism, and for that reason alone he was likely to oppose the upstart Maimonides' blunt dismissal of the revered Halakhot Gedolot. Naḥmanides argued that the Talmud's allusion to the 613 commandments being spoken at Sinai need not be understood so literally, and it would not be unreasonable if the general rule had two or three exceptions.

Nor, insisted Naḥmanides, is it outrageous to believe that God actually revealed to Moses some commandments that would not take effect until the distant future. The rabbis were skillful at uncovering all manner of subtle allusions or numerological secrets in Scripture that foretold future events. Though Maimonides might not have accepted such instances as literal teachings of the Torah, that should not prevent other scholars from taking them seriously. The three precepts that were singled out by Rabbi Simeon Qayyara (Hanukkah, Purim and Hallel) were special in that they were unconditionally obligatory and not contingent on other factors or conditions.

Naḥmanides raised a further objection against his adversary's position: By subsuming the entire body of rabbinic tradition under the Torah's precept of "don't turn away from what they tell you" (in keeping with Rav Avia's statement in the Talmud), Maimonides appeared to be effectively obliterating all distinctions between the authority of the Torah and that of the rabbis!

Compared to this kind of unmanageable jumble, Naḥmanides argued, the Halakhot Gedolot comes across as far more reasonable when it declared that only Hanukkah and a few other observances had been elevated to Sinai-like status.

When you think about it, Naḥmanides' attitude can have some extraordinary implications.

If Moses on Mount Sinai was informed about the Hasmonean victories in the distant future, then he could also have been aware of the ensuing controversies between Naḥmanides, Maimonides and Halakhot Gedolot. And for that matter, he might well have known something about the discussion of the issues in this article.

A person can get thoroughly dizzy contemplating such timeless questions.

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

published by

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:

  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, December 3, 2010, p. 21.
  • For further reading:
    • Halbertal, Moshe. By Way of Truth: Naḥmanides and the Creation of Tradition. Sifriyat Yahaduyot. Jerusalem: Shalom Hartman Institute, 2006.
    • Silman, Yochanan. Voice heard at Sinai. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1999.
    • Twersky, Isadore. Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah). Yale Judaica series v. 22. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.