Chanukah and Purim are similar in one respect: they are the two holidays whose observance is not biblically ordained. Rather, the observance of these two holidays was decreed by our Sages, and so we observe them until this day.
Perhaps it is for this reason that we find the two holidays often compared to one another in the writings of many commentators, and even in the Talmud.
The Talmud (in Yoma 29a) tells us that “the story of Esther is the end of all the miracles.” Immediately, a question is posed: “But there is Chanukah?” The response related in the Talmud is that the reference to “the end of all the miracles” referred only to those miracles included in Scripture. The story of Chanukah, we know, is not included in Scripture, and therefore not included in the categorical statement.
Rav Yehonasan Eibshitz explains that the miracle of Chanukah was deliberately not included in Scriptures. In order to understand why that was the case, he explains that one has to truly understand what the “miracle of Chanukah” was. Generally, one would say that the miracle of Chanukah was that a small band of Jews militarily defeated the powerful army of an empire. The victory of the few over the many, the weak over the mighty, is the supernatural event we celebrate. However, Rav Eibshitz posits, this occurrence in reality is not so supernatural. In every era, one can find an instance of an outnumbered, weaker group or country defeating the more numerous and powerful armies of another group or country. This fact, in it of itself, cannot be the miracle we celebrate.
In times of oppression, the nation of Israel has traditionally recognized that salvation comes from one place and one place only: Hashem. When faced with persecution and suffering, the nation repents and cries out to G-d with their hearts and souls. G-d responds in kind, and in His mercy, provides salvation and respite from the oppression. In the time of Chanukah, this did not happen. Yes, there was persecution. There was suffering. But the sinners remained unrepentant and the righteous remained righteous. The Hellenized Jews remained unchanged, and the Chashmonaim remained steadfast in their devotion to G-d. Notwithstanding the failure of much of the nation at the time to repent, G-d allowed the Chasmomaim to achieve victory. Hashem had mercy, a “supernatural” degree of mercy, and he saved the people despite their failure to change.
The miraculous nature of the victory is rooted in the fact that G-d caused it to occur at all. Most of the people failed to recognize the need to repent, and under normal circumstances, would not merit salvation. In a miraculous display of mercy, Hashem saved the people anyway. This type of miracle, as great as it may be, is not one that is worthy of being recorded in Scriptures. It differs from Purim, when the people did repent.
Therefore, the story of Chanukah, with this underlying miracle, was not recorded in Scriptures. However, in other respects, the story of Chanukah contains elements that are viewed more positively than those in the story of Purim. R’ Shlomo Kluger notes that the Talmud tells us (Megilla 14a) that we do not recite Hallel on Purim. Why is that the case? The Talmud says “The verse in Psalms (113) says “Give praise, you servants of Hashem” meaning those who are no longer servants of Pharaoh. But can we say in this case, Give praise, you servants of Hashem and not servants of Achashverosh? We are still servants of Achashverosh!” The Talmud is saying that as we were still servants to Achashverosh, we cannot say Hallel to Hashem, as we can only say Hallel when we are the servants of G-d and G-d alone. But why is this the case? Why is it impossible to be servants of Hashem if we are servants to Achashverosh as well?
The Talmud (Megilla 11a) tells us that at the time of the story of Esther, the nation indulged in slothfulness by not busying themselves with the Torah. They therefore made themselves akin to enemies of G-d. The nation found themselves facing destruction at the hands of Haman. They, until the decree was issued, did not busy themselves with Torah. It was not important. When the evil decree of Haman was issued by Achashverosh, they engaged in the pattern of behavior that Rav Eibshitz described: they repented and cried out to G-d.
However, because of their prior behavior en masse, they did not merit a complete salvation. Yes, their lives were spared. However, they remained servants of Achashverosh, subject to his will and rule. There was a miraculous salvation, but it was not a complete one.
It is evident from how the miracle of Purim occurred that the people were not worthy on their own merit of salvation. G-d, in His mercy, accepted atonement and annulled Haman’s decree. In such a situation, where the underlying merits for the performance of the miracle were lacking, its not appropriate to sing songs of praise.
When we praise G-d for our salvation, we are also praising G-d for the downfall of the evil. When we ourselves are not too far from that category, that of evil-doers, we do not sing songs of praise. Because we had to remain servants to Achashverosh, we cannot say Hallel.
However, in the days of Chanukah, the Chashmonaim were righteous from beginning to end. They were steadfast in their faith and devotion to G-d. Even though a large portion of the nation did not live lives that were Torah-true, and there was tremendous pressure to live a Hellenized life, the Chashmonaim not only persevered, they fought back. They were worthy of having a miracle performed for them. Indeed, they merited the occurrence of that miracle. And because they indeed were always righteous, it is appropriate to say Hallel, praise, upon the downfall of their evil oppressors.
The miracle of Chanukah, on one hand, is one that is not appropriate to record in Scriptures. On the other hand, it is one for which we can appropriately sing songs of praise. Chanukah was a time when, in large part, the nation of Israel remained unrepentant. Yet, it was also a time when those who were devoted to G-d remained so and acted upon that dedication. The holiday of Chanukah is a time that reminds us, both literally and figuratively, that in times of darkness, the illumination of just one light can have effects far and wide.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Yehudah Prero and Torah.org.
The author has Rabbinic ordination from Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, NY.