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Chanukah, Yosef and Miracles

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

The gemara in Masechet Shabbat[1] when introducing the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles offers three progressive options.

Firstly, "ner ish u'beto", one candle for the person and his household each night of Chanuka. Next level, "ve'hamehadrin ner lekol echad ve'echad", a candle for each member of the household every night. For example, one who has ten people in the house would light ten candles each night of Chanukah. Thirdly, "ve'hamehadrin min ha'mehadrin", brings us to the well-known argument between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel whether to start with eight candles on the first night and down to one on the last (Bet Shammai) or to start with one on the first and work up to eight on the last (Bet Hillel), as we do.

The concept of "Hidur Mitzvah", the beautifying of mitzvoth, is a well-known idea which applies to many mitzvoth; however the nature of the "hidur" in the Mitzvah of Chanukah seems quite unique. Usually there is the Mitzvah to be done and then one has the ability to do it in a "mehudar" beautiful way. For example, the gemara says "make a beautiful sukkah in His honour, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful tzitzit, and a beautiful Torah, and write it with fine ink, a fine quill, and a skilled sofer, and wrap it about with beautiful silks". The hidur mitzvah doesn't change the basic format of the mitzvah; it merely allows one to simply beautify it. In this regard the mitzvah of Chanukah is very different and it seems difficult to find a comparison in halacha where the hidur mitzvah changes the format of the mitzvah itself.

The later Talmudic commentators discussed why Chazal incorporated within this mitzvah the concept of "hidur mitzvah". Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains[2] that when the Chashmonaim found the one container of oil that sufficed for only one day, they could have prepared thinner wicks which would have burnt less oil and thus prolong the time the oil would last, yet they insisted on doing the mitzvah in its beautiful way. In a similar fashion the Pnei Yehoshua writes[3] that according to halacha it was not necessary to light the Menorah with pure oil since "tum'ah hutra be'tzibur" impurity is permissible for the sake of the public, yet the Chashmonaim insisted on finding pure oil in order to light the Menorah with "hidur" thus the theme of "hidur" is central in the mitzvah of Chanukah.

The gemara in Masechet Berachot[4] relates the following discussion:

"Rav Papa said to Abaye: How is it that for the former generations miracles were performed and for us miracles are not performed? It cannot be because of their [superiority in] study, because in the years of Rav Yehudah the whole of their studies was confined to Nezikin, and we study all six Orders, and when Rav Yehudah came in masechet 'Ukzin [to the law], 'If a woman presses vegetables in a pot (or, according to others, 'olives pressed with their leaves are clean'), he used to say, I see all the difficulties of Rav and Shmuel here. And we study Ukzin in thirteen yeshivot. And yet when Rav Yehudah took off one shoe [on a fast day for rain] rain used to come, whereas we torment ourselves and cry loudly, and no notice is taken of us! He replied: The former generations used to be ready to sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of Hashem's name; we do not sacrifice our lives for the sanctity of Hashem's name."

Rav Wolbe, in his book AlleiShur,[5] explains that when Abaye says that "in the former generations they were ready to sacrifice their lives (mesirut nefesh) for the sake of Hashem", he was not referring to the classical understanding of "mesirut nefesh" in the context of one faced with having to violate one of the three prohibitions that one has to give up one's life for. Certainly there was always a readiness for that "mesirut nefesh". "Mesirut nefesh", explains RavWolbe, is appropriate in all mitzvoth and in all things one does. It means readiness to go through with something to the fullest and with the utmost of one's ability. In its extreme it means even to the point of literally giving up one's life, but ordinarily it means going to the limit of ones capabilities in what one does. According to this, every mitzvah one does can be done with "mesirut nefesh". One can daven with "mesirut nefesh", learn with "mesirut nefesh", honour ones parents with "mesirut nefesh", and in fact do everything either with or without "mesirut nefesh".

Beyond this important idea, this gemara reveals to us that this attribute is the key to miracles! Only after we have exhausted all of our abilities in the realm of nature is there a possibility for miracles. Miracles are the level beyond nature, "le'ma'alah min ha'teva", that is the realm beyond our influence, but it has to be reached.

This week's parsha begins with the verse that after two years Par'oh dreamed etc. Rashi at the end of last week's parsha, quoting chazal, explains why the incidents that lead to Yosef's release from prison were delayed for two years.

"But the chief cupbearer did not remember: on that day. And he forgot him: afterwards. Because Joseph relied on him to remember him, he was compelled to be confined for two years, as it is said: "Praiseworthy is the man who made the Lord his trust and did not turn to the haughty (Ps. 40:5). He did not turn to the Egyptians, who are called haughty[6]".

I have previously[7] discussed this Rashi and its implications, however it is interesting to note the way the Chazon Ish explained Yosef's sin. The Chazon Ish[8], unlike many others before him, explains that obviously it was incumbent on Yosef (even on Yosef, I would add) to do everything he could to ensure his release from prison. Trust in Hashem does not mean the reliance on Hashem to act and intervene for someone instead of making the effort oneself. The mistake of Yosef was his decision to turn to the conceited and egocentric Egyptian and expect him to help. That, in the opinion of the Chazon Ish, was an unreasonable ploy, and an action done out of "yeush" total despair (the words of the Chazon Ish). That was a display of lacking faith. Ironically, while according to many, the ultimate level of faith in Hashem is expressed by total reliance on Him to do everything and anything, anytime and the less one does the more it is an expression of faith, according to the Chazon Ish it seems quite the opposite - reliance on the improbable, the miraculous - is a lack of faith.

I think that is the meaning of what Chazal said: "Ein somchin al ha'ness" one is not to rely on miracles. The tendency to rely on miracles is prohibited because it inhibits ones effort to make the required effort and consequently results in the implausibility of any possible miracle of happening. "One who relies on a miracle a miracle will not be performed for them."[9]

Back to Chanukah. We celebrate on Chanukah the miracle of the victory of the Chashmona'im over the Greeks, and the miracle of the jug of pure oil found by them. However, as we have seen, miracles can occur only after there has been "mesirut nefesh". By instituting within the mitzvah of candle lighting the possibility of "hidur mitzvah" we have the ability to express our "mesirut nefesh", our aspiration to go the limit in our fulfillment of mitzvoth, which is the precursor of miracles.

May we all be zocheh to permeate all our mitzvoth and other positive actions with "mesirut nefesh" and subsequently also be zocheh to: "We have fulfilled what You have decreed upon us. Now You do what is incumbent upon You to do."[10]

In conclusion, a question for you, the readers.

As mentioned above, the gemara presents three progressive possibilities to fulfill the mitzvah of Chanukah candles. The Shulchan Aruch in Hilchot Chanukah however states:

"How many candles do we light? On the first night we light one candle. Then we add on one candle for each successive night until the last night of Chanukah where there are eight candles. Even if there are lots of people in the house one may not light more candles."[11]

Oddly enough, the Shulchan Aruch doesn't even mention the possibility of doing the first two options. The Mishnah Be'rurah[12] writes that the law of the Shulchan Aruch is indeed for those who want to do "mehadrin min ha'mehadrin" and that one may do the simplest level of one candle per household per night, but the question is why the Shulchan Aruch does not mention it?

The question is compounded by the fact that in the previous halacha the Shulchan Aruch states: "One must be very careful to perform the lighting of the Chanukah lamps/candles. Even a poor man who is entirely reliant on charity must borrow money or even sell his shirt to buy oil to use for lighting the Chanukah candles."[13] This is immediately followed by the above mentioned halacha that one has to light progressively up to eight candles on the last night. Surely it should be stated explicitly that the poor man may suffice with one candle per night.

Looking forward to your insights,

Chanukah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom

Avigdor Meyerowitz.

[1] 21b.

[2] Beit Halevi, Commentary on Torah; Inyanei Chanukah.

[3]Commentary on Shabbat 21b.

[4] 20a.

[5]Vol.2; Chanukah.

[6]Rashi, Breishit 40;23.

[8]Emunah U'vitachon 2;6.

[9] Sefer Hachinuch; Mitzvah 546.

[10] Rashi, Devarim 26;15.

[11] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 671;2.

[12] Mishna Be'rura ,Orach Chaim 671; 4.

[13] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 671;1.


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