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                                What Else is Chanukah?

                                              Rabbi Chaim Sholom Leibowitz

The Gemara (Shabbat 29b) asks the  question, "What is Chanukah?" Now let’s ask one of our own. What exactly is the Gemara trying to find out? Rashi explains that the Talmud is seeking to understand exactly what motivated the Sages to enact the festival of Chanukah, as Rashi rephrases the question; In response to which miracle was it enacted? The Gemara goes on to relate the story of the one remaining flask of oil which miraculously lasted for eight days, concluding that in the following year the Sages added the  festival of Chanukah to the Jewish calendar specifically designated for offering thanks and praise to Hashem.

Accordingly, the Shulchan Aruch (570:2) explains that that the Sages initiated the eight days of Chanukah specifically as a time for the Jewish people to express their gratitude to Hashem, and not as a time for feasting and physical celebration. For this reason, the Shulchan Aruch rules that there is no requirement to arrange festive meals and physical celebration during Chanukah as we do on all the other festivals, for this was not the idea upon Chanukah was set up by the Sages.

However, the Rema, in his glosses to the  Shulchan Aruch, writes that according to some early authorities these is indeed a basis for the festive gatherings which are commonly arranged during Chanukah, as it was at this precise time of the year that the work of the Tabernacle was completed by the Jewish people in the wilderness. Thus, according to the ruling of the Rema, Chanukah is actually a time when we commemorate two distinctly different events in the history of the Jewish nation; the miracle of the menorah’s oil and the completion of the work of the Mishkan. What’s more, according to the early sources upon which the Rema bases his ruling, the completion of the Tabernacle, which also took place on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, was actually part of the Sages’ reasoning in initiating the festival of Chanukah in the first place. As the Rema summarizes his ruling, “ On Chanukah, the Sages initiated a festival of thanks and praise in response to the miracle that was performed with the flask of oil, as well as a festival of feasting and joyous celebration due to the completion of the work of the Mishkan.”  Although the work of the Tabernacle was completed on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, Hashem waited to initiate its use until Nissan, the month in which Yitzhak was born. The Midrash relates that at that time Hashem made a promise to the month of Kislev that it would be compensated for this loss with a similar celebration in the time of the Chashmonaim. Thus, according to the Midrash as well, it would seem that the holiday of Chanukah was, at least in part, brought about in order to celebrate the dedication of the Mishkan which was removed from Kislev and celebrated in Nissan.
If, according to the Rema, the Sages wished to introduce feasting and joyous celebration on Chanukah in commemoration of the completion of the work of the Mishkan in addition to the miracle of the menorah, then it is certainly pertinent for us to try and understand what great significance this event held for the Jewish people at that time. The Midrash relates that when Hashem initially created the world, the Divine Presence rested on Earth together with His creations. However,  when Adam and Chava transgressed, the Shechina left the Earth and moved its dwelling to the “first firmament”. Soon afterwards, when Kain killed his brother Hevel, the Shechinah moved still farther to the “second firmament”. The Midrash goes on the describe that as a result of the transgressions of each consecutive generation, the Shechinah was pushed farther and farther from the world in which it had originally rested. This continued until it reached the “seventh firmament”, the farthest possible distance from the creation. The Midrash continues and relates that there then came seven generations of righteous people, each of which helped to bring the Shechinah one level closer to the world once again. The very last person in this list was Moshe who successfully brought the Divine Presence back to Earth when he erected the Tabernacle. We see from this Midrash that in essence, the Shechinah wished to dwell in the midst of the creation as it was at the world’s inception, but was pushed away by the transgressions of the generations. Thus, the day on which Moshe erected the Mishkan and the Shechinah was once again present on Earth was a day of great rejoicing for the entire world. This is the joy which according to the Rema is also present on Chanukah, the happiness of the Shechinah coming back to its rightful home.

In our generation, once again we are lacking a place for the Divine Presence to rest. However, all is not lost. The Gemara tells us that when a husband and wife treat each other with the proper respect, the Shechinah resides together with them. Even without the Beit Hamikdash, at least on some level, our homes fulfill the all-important function of providing the Shechinah with a place to dwell on Earth. If so, how great then is our responsibility to ensure that Hashem will feel welcome in our homes? When an honored guest  comes for a visit, how much effort do we go though to ensure that he will feel comfortable in his accommodations? How much more so should we be concerned that there is nothing in our homes which is not in keeping with this most honored guest?

A student who regularly accompanied R’ Shlomo Zalman Aeurbach zt”l once noticed that every time he was about to enter his home he would quickly tidy his clothing and smooth the hairs of his beard. At first he thought that R’ Shlomo Zalman did this out of courtesy to his wife who was usually home when they arrived, but subsequently observed that R’ Shlomo Zalman  did not change his custom even when he knew that she would not be at home. After seeing him do this several times, the student finally got up the courage to ask R’ Shlomo Zalman the reason for this interesting practice. R’ Shlomo Zalman answered his question with wonderment, “The Gemara says that the Divine Presence dwells in a peaceful home. Is it not proper to check one’s appearance when he knows that he is about to greet the Shechinah?”