Now what kind of a question is that?
Let us see…
In Shulchan Aruch Hilchos Chanukah (670:2), we learn that “having special se’udos on Chanukah is optional, as the days of Chanukah were never established for partying and simchah [this is in stark contrast to Purim].” This is seemingly based on a Gemara (Shabbos 21B), where after relating the basic story of Chanukah the Gemara concludes: “The following year [after the miracle occurred], Chazal established these days [of Chanukah] as Yomim Tovim for praise [Hallel] and thanksgiving — hoda’ah.” Rashi explains: “In other words, not as Yomim Tovim in the sense that it is forbidden to do work on these days; rather, as special days in which to say Hallel and Al Hanissim.” (Al Hanissim is said both in Shemoneh Esrei and in bentching in the thanksgiving —hoda’ah — bracha of each; Modim is said in Shemoneh Esrei and Nodeh Lecha in bentching. We add the miracles of Chanukah as part of our general thanksgiving to Hashem.) And so it seems pretty clear that there is no special mitzvah of simchah on Chanukah, as it is not a Yom Tov, and the special obligations are saying Hallel and Al Hanissim (hoda’ah).
Yet, Rambam writes (Hilchos Chanukah 1:3) “And so Chazal instituted that these days be days of simchah and Hallel… and we light lights at the entrance of our houses…” Rambam clearly sees in Chanukah a special obligation of simchah. How is that to be manifested? Rambam makes no mention of a seudah or merrymaking, so what do we do? Is there a mitzvah to eat meat and drink wine, as on Yom Tov? And what is Rambam’s source? The Gemara speaks only of Hallel and hoda’ah, very specifically, apparently leaving out simchah.
But of course simchah is a year-round obligation, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to mean meat and wine! In fact, Rambam himself in Hilchos Yom Tov, after describing the simchah on Yom Tov, says that of course worthy, Jewish simchah will always mean an emotion which leads us — which is — a form of worshipping and serving Hashem, as the possuk takes Bnei Yisroel to task for sinning: “For you have not served Hashem with joy and a happy heart” (Devorim 28:47). Thus we learn that serving Hashem must be b’simchah. Thus Rambam segues from simchah on Yom Tov to “regular ordinary simchah,” teaching us in the process that simchah is an ever-present form of Divine service. Rambam seems to take for granted that simchah can have many aspects, many levels, different intensities.
Which brings us back to Chanukah. How did Rambam understand the Gemara, and how is there a special simchah of Chanukah?
The Gemara actually started the recounting of the story and the miracle with two famous words: maiy Chanukah — what is Chanukah? The Gemara had been discussing lighting lights on Chanukah, talking about other mitzvos vis-à-vis Chanukah, and all of a sudden stops in its tracks and says, What is this Chanukah, anyhow? Rashi learns the question this way: For what nes was Chanukah established? But it is possible that Rambam saw a different question being asked: What is Chanukah, what is the essence of the day, the nature of the day? If Pesach is the time of freedom, if Sukkos is the time of simchah (eating meat, drinking wine), if Shavuos is the time of the giving of the Torah, what is Chanukah? Maiy Chanukah?
According to Rashi, the answer is plain and simple: the question was for which nes, and the answer was the story, and the miracle of the oil. But according to Rambam the question apparently is: What is Chanukah? And the answer is: yemei simchah veHallel — days of joy and praise, i.e. days of happiness in which the happiness we exhibit is not meat and wine, nor is it the everyday avodah of serving Hashem with joy. Rather it is the joy and happiness we find in praising Hashem for the miracles! That is the essence of what Chanukah is: yemei simchah veHallel! And that is why Rambam does not frame what the Gemara says as Rashi does (merely the obligation to recite certain tefillos), but rather in terms of defining the essence of the days. Thus, Rambam states how Chazal created special days (“instituted that these days be days of…”), and concludes by saying, “and these days which are called Chanukah…”
Rambam’s words in Hilchos Chanukah (4:12) can now be fully understood and appreciated: “The mitzvah of ner Chanukah is an extremely precious one; a person must be especially careful to perform it, to publicize the nes [note the singular] and to increase and multiply one’s praise of the Almighty and give thanks to Him for the miracles [note the plural] which He has done for us…” Rambam concludes the halachos with an inclusive, embracing principle: These are days whose essence is to praise and thank Hashem for all the miracles… What Rambam means to say by his phraseology of “to increase and to multiply” is the subject of discussion and debate. And the same holds true for whatever Rambam means to include by his switching from the singular nes to the plural nisim. Regardless, it supports the idea that Rambam is revealing the meaning of the day by defining and expanding the crucial essence of Chanukah — praise and thanksgiving.
I would further suggest that according to this understanding, we can more fully make sense of the Rema (670:2), who, after mentioning a disagreement about whether or not there is a mitzvah to have a seudah on Chanukah, says that the minhag is to sing Hashem’s praises at a seudah and then it certainly is a seudas mitzvah. Now, why is that? The Mishnah Berurah considers it a type of hybrid of the possibility of it being a seudas mitzvah just because of Chanukah, and the singing of Hashem’s praises. But according to our present understanding of Rambam, it is more direct and clear: If one focuses specifically and actually does sit and sing to and praise and tell the praises of Hashem, one has genuinely tapped into the essential nature of the day and, having done so, can certainly consider the seudah a seudas mitzvah.
Im yirtzeh Hashem, next week in Part Two we will explore further the nature of Rambam’s yemei simchah of Chanukah.
A reminder, if I may, that Rav Yehonasan Alpren, shlita, gives a weekly shiur on tefillah at BTYA every Motzei Shabbos at 8:30 p.m. The rav is world famous, and needs not my accolades. This week is PART TWO of a study of Al Hanissim; if you haven’t heard him yet, this may be a wonderful opportunity, a preparation for your Hallel vehoda’a.
Rav Malinowitz is the Rav of Beis Tefillah Yonah Avraham, located in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, at the corner of Nachal Refaim and Nachal Luz. Many of Rav Malinowitz’s shiurim can be heard at www.btya.org. Send your questions to RCZMChadash@gmail.com.