(Jews Love Hanukah) Sensible Excess (Maimonides)

Jews love Hanukah, but not because of the story.

The story itself has 2 sides. The one relates to Jews and Syrian-Greeks (and between Jews and Jews) (or Judeans if you prefer). The other relates to God and the Hanukah miracle. Modern Jews, not exclusively Zionists, emphasize the former rather than latter. I’m not sure when this started. I’m guessing it goes back to 19th century liberal German Judaism and Jewish Wissenschaft (academic Jewish Studies). It’s well known, indeed, that German Judaism looked back to the Golden Age in Spain, and I’m also betting that German Jewish modern Hanukah draws on Maimonides, who also had almost nothing too much to say about the miracle.

In chapter 3 of Hilkhot Megilah v’Hanukah of the Mishne Torah, the discussion of Hanukah opens with a historical preamble about Greeks and Hasmonean priests and the struggle over the Temple, great victories, and the restoration of kingship to Israel. The story about the one jar of oil is without any reference to God or to the word “miracle” (3;1-2). This is the way Maimonides set up the laws of the holiday, on the human plane, as history. Without much by way of explanation, there are only three references to the miracle, and these only in relation to the practice of lighting Hanukah lamps, not in reference to the story or to anything having to do with God (3:3, 4:12, 4:13).

Long before the competition with Christmas in modern American Judaism, the “real” reason why Jews love Hanukah always had what to do with excess. For Maimonides, the excess is “sensible,” being both rational and sensual.

The first point of excess is song. As if he wanted to make a point, Maimonides notes that the Hallel service (the singing of psalms integrated into the liturgical calendar) is recited 18x a year, indeed, he makes it a point to say, on “days of excessive joy” (יְמֵי שִׂמְחָה יְתֵרָה) (3:6). In the blessing for the Hallel, the language Maimonides prescribes reflects the same quality. God’s name is praised with glee. God’s name is good to praise and pleasant to sing, etc., etc. (3:10). It is not beside the point that Maimonides make it a point to note that according to the custom of the early sages, for each and every thing, the word “hallelujah” would repeat 123x during the course of a single recitation of the Hallel (3:12).

The lighting of Hanukah lights or oil lamps (נֵרוֹת) enjoy for Maimonides the same quality of excess. The more light being the better, adding lamps is integral to the beauty of the mitzvah, and to making it still more beautiful. “One who beautifies [it] further than this and performs the commandment in the choicest manner lights a lamp for each person on the first night and continues to add one lamp on each and every night” (4:1; transl. altered). It is entirely to the point that Maimonides makes it a point to note that in a household of ten, men and women, that would be 80 lamps by the last night (4:2). He also makes it a point to note that this was the custom in all the cities in Spain (4:3). One appreciates in Maimonides the sense of luxury and taste.

Maimonides comments that the mitzvah of lighting the lamps is “exceedingly precious” (חֲבִיבָה הִיא עַד מְאֹד) (4:12). Even the poor should go to great lengths to purchase the necessary oil,, and it is more important, if forced to choose, to buy lights for Hanukah than Kiddush-wine for Shabbat. No matter what, “The lighting of [a person’s] home takes priority, so as to sustain peace in the house, since even the divine name was erased [in the oath of purgation—Numbers 5:12-31] to make peace between [a jealous] husband and his wife. Great is peace, since the entire Torah has been given to create peace in the world, as it is written: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17)” (4:14)

If Maimonides is right, then the “real” reason Jews love Hanukah has to do with excess, and the “true” excess of Hanukah is “sensible.” The meaning of the act is internal to the act. It has nothing to do with narrative as such, except insofar as people like to tell stories. For the rationalist, Hanukah refers to human things and to human pleasure. Between ancient Jerusalem and medieval Spain, between the time of the early sages and his own, God’s name is simply good to sing and even better in excess, while special lights, especially the excessive lighting of lamps, mark both the Jewish home as a place and the virtue of peace.

[[translations grabbed from the Mishne Torah site at Sefaria]]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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