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                                  What’s in a Name?

                                                   Rabbi Binyomin Lipson


                   Adapted From “Siftei Chaim” by Rabbi Chaim Friedlander

Why did the Sages choose to call this festival Chanukah? Interestingly, the early commentaries tell us that the name Chanukah actually comprises an abbreviation of the words “chanu kaf heh”, which literally means, “they came to rest on the twenty-fifth (day of the month)” What is the meaning of this cryptic phrase, and what message was this name intended to communicate?


We all know that Chanukah begins on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, but what does it mean that at that time the Jewish people “came to rest”? Some commentaries reckon that the resting which the name Chanukah refers to is a cessation of physical labor, thus supporting the view that such activities are forbidden during the time that the candles are burning. However, many find this proposal difficult to accept, as we do not find this concept mentioned in the Gemara. Rather, they explain that the name Chanukah refers to the fact that on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev the Jewish people triumphed in battle and “rested” from war with their enemies.

Even this answer still leaves a lot to be understood. If the Sages desired that the name Chanukah express the Jews’ miraculous military victory over the Greeks, would it not have been more appropriate to choose a name which proclaims this fact in a more direct fashion? When we examine history, has a nation who vanquished its enemies ever enacted an annual commemoration of its military victory and proudly entitled it “The Day We Stopped Fighting”? Such a name ignores the very essence of the celebration at hand; only passively alluding to the military victory, the true cause for joy.

In order to understand the name that the Sages chose, it is necessary for us to recognize that there are two distinct aspects inherent in any military victory. Conventionally, one might describe the main aspect as the victory itself, the long-awaited downfall of one’s enemies, whereas the second, the cessation of physical combat, is merely a secondary result of this goal. The question is: What are you really fighting for? In most wars, the goal of each side is, first and foremost, to defeat the enemy at hand, which is endowed with intrinsic importance of its own; the pride that comes with winning the war and repelling potential harm from the nation. Thus, when victory is finally achieved, the name chosen to commemorate it will inevitably be one which accurately expresses this achievement.

However, the Jewish people did not go to war with the Greeks over territorial disputes or in a quest for political independence, nor were they forced into battle by a threat to their lives which could not have been avoided in a peaceful manner. Rather, the sole reason the Chashmonaim battled the Greeks was because they wished to prevent us from performing the service in the Temple and other mitzvot of the Torah. For the Jewish nation, the fulfillment of the Torah is the only thing of ultimate importance and thus, for the Chashmonaim, victory over the Greeks could not be considered an end in itself, as their only intention was to free themselves from their oppressors and return to their sole mission; the service of God. Thus, when choosing a name for the celebration of their victory, the Sages wished to allude to the goal for which they were fighting, the cessation of conflict and their long-awaited return to the service of their Creator.

As the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 9:2) writes, “It is for this reason that the Jewish people long for the days of the Mashiach, in order that they may rest from the nations which do not permit them involve themselves totally in Torah and mitzvot . . .”
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