Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Chaim Mordechai Hakohen ben Natan Yitzchak, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Avraham Yechezkel ben Yaakov Halevy, Shayna Yehudit bat Avraham Manes and Rivka, the refuah shlaimah of Devorah bat Chana, Yitzhak Akiva ben Malka, Shoshana Elka bat Etel Dina and Chaya Mindel bat Leah Basha, and the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
Hanukkah and Purim, the two rabbinically based chagim (festivals) of the Jewish calendar, are joyous days of celebration and giving thanks to Hashem. My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (1903-1993), known as “the Rav” by his students and followers, described their similarities in the following manner:
Purim and Hanukkah represent man’s active involvement. There is no prohibition of work. G-d chose Mordechai, Esther, and the Maccabees not as onlookers but as actors. He demanded from them sacrificial, heroic action. He told them to plan the strategy and execute it. Man is the fulfiller of G-d’s will. Hence, when triumph was achieved, G-d willed man to celebrate a day of love and sympathy, a day of sharing and togetherness. Hanukkah and Purim revolve around the merger of the individual with the community, promoting an open, sympathetic existence. (This, and all Rav Soloveitchik quotes, are from Days of Deliverance: Essays on Purim and Hanukkah, Eli D. Clark, Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler editors, pages 121-124, brackets my own)
The Rav’s understanding of the parallels that obtain between Hanukkah and Purim stresses that Mordechai, Esther and the Maccabees were active agents in the salvation of the Jewish people. They engaged in “sacrificial heroic action” based upon their personally conceived strategies and chosen modes of deployment. In this way, they fulfilled Hashem’s will, and, “… when triumph was achieved, G-d willed man to celebrate a day of love and sympathy, a day of sharing and togetherness.”
If we carefully examine the Al ha-nissim (For the Miracles) prayer of the siddur that is recited on both Hanukkah and Purim, however, we immediately find a number of significant disparities regarding their form and content. I have always found it fascinating that the text of Hanukkah’s Al ha-nissim is 92 words in length, whereas Purim’s is a mere 52 words. Perhaps, the most direct way to understand this difference is to highlight the essential purpose of the prayer, namely, to tell the stories of Hanukkah and Purim. We must rememeber that Purim has its own sefer, namely, Megillat Esther that is included in Tanach, wherein its events are extensively narrated over the course of 10 chapters. As such, it does not need an elaborately articulated Al ha-nissim. Hanukkah’s chronicle, however, is not found anywhere in Tanach; as such, its “megillah” is none other than its extensive Al ha-nissim formulation.
Rav Soloveitchik focuses upon an additional fundamental conceptual difference that obtains between Hanukkah and Purim as illustrated in the Al ha-nissim:
If you compare the Al ha-nissim that we recite on Purim with the Al ha-nissim we recite on Hanukkah, you will find an important distinction. In the Al ha-nissim of Purim, there is nothing mentioned of Mordechai and Esther’s role in the unfolding of the dramatic events about which the Megillah tells us. We know from the Megillah that Mordechai took the initiative and Esther was ready to sacrifice herself. But in the Al ha-nissim, the names of Mordechai and Esther are mentioned only as an indication of the period during which the events transpired: “In the days of Mordechai and Esther.” It should have said: “And Mordechai cried out, and Esther entered the chamber of the king (4:1; 5:1)
Herein, the Rav underscores the role of Mordechai and Esther as historical markers instead of historical actors. In fact, Purim’s Al ha-nissim completely de-emphasizes the singular import that human intervention played in bringing about the deliverance of the Jewish people at this moment in history. The Rav formulates this notion by stating, “Though the Megillah depicts the human role and human action, these are completely ignored in the Al ha-nissim of Purim.” Thus, we find in Purim’s Al ha-nissim: “But You [Hashem], in your abundant mercy, nullified his counsel [i.e. Haman’s] and frustrated his intention and caused his design to return upon his own head, and they hanged him and his sons on the gallows.”
The Rav points out that the situation is entirely reversed when we read the Al ha-nissim for Hanukkah, wherein the Maccabees’ instrumental role is the point of focus:
You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah…Thereafter Your children came into the shrine of Your house, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled the lights in the courts of Your holiness…
Rav Soloveitchik buttresses this line of reasoning by reminding us of the prominent role given the Maccabees in the Ha-nerot hallalu (These Candles) prayer that recited after lighting the chanukiyah (menorah): “… [the] miracles and wonders that You performed for our forefathers, by means of Your holy priests [i.e. the Maccabees].” The Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) echoes this prayer’s text in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Hanukkah when he states: “The children of the Hasmonean High Priests overpowered them [i.e. the Syrian-Green legions], and killed them, and saved Israel from them.” (3:1) In sum, each of these Hanukkah sources emphasize the Jewish people’s role in achieving victory, whereas, as we have seen, in the case of Purim, the deliverance from evil is attributed solely to the Almighty.
What is the underlying reason for this glaring disparity between Purim and Hanukkah? Once again, the Rav offers his illuminating insights:
We learn from this that when the fight is spiritual, G-d invites the Jew to participate. When spiritual survival is at stake, man must take the initiative. Even though man is under the guidance of the Almighty, man takes the initiative, and therefore his role is recorded… Antiochus was interested in destroying the Jews spiritually. When the menace is of a spiritual nature, then the initiative belongs to man. Man engages in the struggle for spiritual survival. For this reason, the Hasmoneans took the initiative, and we rememeber their efforts when we commemorate their victory on Hanukkah.
In stark contrast, however:
When it is only a question of physical struggle [as in the case of Purim wherein Haman’s goal was to murder our people,] G-d acts differently. When there is a physical menace or the threat of physical destruction, G-d uses the human hand as an instrument of His will. He recruits man. He uses human energy, human resources, to implement the plan that He has devised. But Judaism has said that in this case, the man who is the messenger of G-d should not be credited with the salvation… On Purim we celebrate a physical victory. [Therefore,] in the liturgy we make no mention of Mordechai and Esther’s deeds because, if the achievements are in the realm of military conquest and of material nature, victory should be attributed to the Almighty.
As different as Purim and Hanukkah are from one another, we must never forget one essential parallel: Just as the Maccabees took the spiritual initiative and rekindled the lights of the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), so, too, did Hashem bring light to our people on Purim to commemorate the physical salvation He undertook on our behalf. As Megillat Esther so powerfully attests: “The Jews had light and joy, and gladness and honor.” (Megillat Esther 8:16, translation, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach)
With Hashem’s protection, may we never again face the physical trials and tribulations represented by Purim, nor the spiritual challenges that Hanukkah portrays. Instead, may we ever be zocheh (merit) to experience the light and joy of Hanukkah and Purim. V’chane yihi ratzon!
Shabbat Shalom and a joyous Chanukah!
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Talmid of Rabbi Soloveitchik zatzal