Chanukah: What Are We Celebrating?

The Mishnah (Machshirin 6:4) teaches that there are seven liquids that render an object susceptible to becoming spiritually impure: dew, water, wine, oil, blood, milk and bee honey. Harav Yisroel Reisman points out that the seven annual Yamim Tovim correspond to these seven liquids. On Pesach, we say Tefillas Tal (the Prayer for Dew). Sukkos, when we beseech Hashem to bless us with rain, corresponds to water. There is a mitzvah to consume alcohol on Purim, which represents wine. On Chanukah, we light the menorah with olive oil. We fast on Yom Kippur and ask Hashem to view our reduced blood as if it were offered as a sacrifice. Shavuos, when we eat dairy foods, corresponds to milk. Lastly, on Rosh Hashanah, we dip challah and apples into honey as an omen for a sweet new year.

Rav Reisman adds that five of these seven liquids occur naturally, while wine and oil require our participation to extract them, from grapes and olives, respectively. Thus, they correspond to Purim and Chanukah, which are the two Yamim Tovim that are Rabbinical in nature.

In addition to the fact that these festivals were similarly created through human involvement, Rav Reisman suggests that they are also analogous to wine and oil in the sense that their penimiyus (hidden side) is greater than their chitzoniyus (revealed part). Just as the grape and olive possess significant content concealed within them waiting to be found, so too do Purim and Chanukah require us to discover their latent greatness.

With regard to Chanukah, the external components of the Yom Tov are relatively minor. Other than spending a few minutes each morning saying Hallel and a few minutes every night lighting the menorah, we can easily go through each day of Chanukah like any other weekday, and before we know it, eight days have flown by without us feeling any connection to the deeper meaning of the Yom Tov.

In order to connect to the themes of Chanukah, we must turn inward and focus on deepening our connection to Hashem. Thanking Him and praising Him should inspire us to improve our mitzvah performance, for Chanukah is a time of doing mitzvos in the most ideal manner possible (mehadrin min hamehadrin).

The Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chaim 670:2) that festive meals held during Chanukah are purely optional, for eating and drinking is not an integral part of the Yom Tov. The Rema adds that if those assembled sing songs of praise to Hashem, the meal is elevated and considered a mitzvah. The Rema’s position is difficult to understand. Since joyous meals to praise Hashem can be held throughout the year, why is there a specific emphasis on organizing them on Chanukah?

To appreciate the significance of these festive meals, we must first understand more deeply the nature of our victory over the Greeks. The Greek value system only respected chitzoniyus. They constructed magnificent edifices, created beautiful art and glorified the human body, but the common denominator underlying all their advancements and developments was the pursuit of the superficial. In contrast to the advice of Chazal in Pirkei Avos (4:20), “Don’t look at the vessel, but at what it contains inside,” the Greek approach was precisely the opposite.

Yechezkel prophetically described (7:22) the Greek assault on the Beis Hamikdash as ba’u bah peritzim v’chileluha — wild men will come into it and profane it. Harav Gedaliah Schorr, zt”l, explains that the word chileluha comes from the term chalal — vacuum. The Greeks did not physically destroy the Beis Hamikdash. They specifically wanted it to remain standing, for they appreciated its external greatness. Their goal was to transform it into an empty vacuum by removing its inner beauty, thereby reducing it to being just another tourist destination. Thus, they permitted us to keep the Beis Hamikdash, but only after they defiled it and turned it into a spiritual vacuum.

Rav Reisman suggests that as we commemorate our miraculous victory over the Greeks on Chanukah, we strive to rectify the damage they caused. To undo their attempt to hollow out the inside and leave only a beautiful façade, we do the exact opposite — taking the mundane physical acts of eating and drinking and elevating them. By transforming an ordinary meal into an occasion to sing songs of praise to Hashem, we uplift the food and drink by imbuing them with greater meaning.

Q: In Parashas Mikeitz, 15 different adjectives and titles are used to describe Yosef. How many of them can you identify?

A: The cupbearer told Pharaoh (41:12) that he was in jail together with a na’ar (youth), who was an eved (slave) Ivri (Hebrew). After Yosef accurately interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, Pharaoh remarked to his servants (41:38) that he was an ish asher ruach Elokim bo (man in whom G-d’s spirit is found).

Pharaoh then told Yosef (41:39), “There is nobody as navon (discerning) and chacham (wise) as you.” As Yosef rode in the royal chariot, people proclaimed before him (41:43): avreich (counselor to the king).

Pharaoh then changed Yosef’s name to Tzafnas-Panei’ach (41:45). When the famine began, Yaakov sent his sons to Egypt to purchase grain from Yosef, whom the Torah describes (42:6) as hashalit (ruler) and hamashbir (seller).

In their interactions with Yosef, they referred to him (42:10) as adoni — my master. They then explained to him (42:13) that their father had 12 sons, one of whom was at home, v’ha’echad — and one — who is missing.

When Yosef insisted that that his brothers come back with Binyamin, they commented (42:21) that this was taking place because of their prior lack of compassion toward achinu — our brother.

Reuven then reminded his brothers (42:22) that he had warned them not to sin against the yeled — boy. When his brothers recounted their experiences to Yaakov, they referred to Yosef (42:30) as adoni ha’aretz — lord of the land.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email