The Music of Halacha: Chanukah: Miracles
There is a category of Halacha that is called “Pirsumei Nissa,” or, “To Publicize the Miracle.” This category has laws and demands of its own. Publicizing a miracle is more important in some ways than consistency. For example,
buying oil for the Chanukah menorah takes precedence over purchasing wine for Kiddush on Shabbat. Although, “Tadir, v’sh’eino Tadir, Tadir kodem”, or, if one has two Mitzvot to perform, the more regular Mitzvah is the priority, it is not true for someone who can only afford either the oil for his menorah or the wine for Kiddush. Pirsumei Nissa, Publicizing the Miracle, is the greater religious imperative.
There is a general principle in Jewish thought that it is better to make one’s Shabbat less holy than to accept charity and become dependent on others. This idea is suspended if the Mitzvah to be performed is for the sake of publicizing a miracle, such as the wine for the Four Cups on Passover.
We read the Megillah on Purim in order to publicize the miracle. We drink the Four Cups on Passover in order to publicize the miracle. We add mention of Chanukah, a rabbinic holiday, to Grace After Meals, a biblical mandate, in order to publicize the miracle. We light the Chanukah menorah in a place and time when people can see it in order to publicize the miracle. Why is it so important to publicize a miracle that everyone already knows? Why is it so fundamental an idea that it can override other laws and principles?
The Maharal of Prague explains (Gevurot Hashem, Chapter 47) that there are three forms of faith so fundamental to our relationship with God that without any one of them, our connection will be broken: 1) The faith expressed by Israel after crossing the Red Sea, God is the only Power, 2) The faith experienced at Sinai, that the Torah was given to us by God, and 3) The faith of the slaves in Egypt, when they believed no matter how desperate their circumstances, that God would save them through Divine Providence. (I urge you to study the text of the Maharal to see how each of the three major festivals corresponds to one of these three examples.)
When we publicize the miracles of Passover, Purim and Chanukah, we are declaring the form of faith experienced by the Jewish slaves in Egypt. We declare that God is not only present in the world, but He is also actively involved in History and our lives.
We do not light the Chanukah candles in order to remember what happened so long ago. We light the menorah to celebrate God’s participation in our growth, our development and our lives.