The Gemara in Shabbos (21b) poses a famous question: Why do we celebrate Chanukah? Why was this holiday established? Rashi there explains the Gemara’s intent with this question as wanting to know for which miracle, specifically, Chanukah was established to commemorate. From the continuation of the Gemara, it would see the answer to Rashi’s understanding of the Gemara’s question is that Chanukah was established to commemorate the miracle of oil lasting for eight days.
If this understanding is complete, though, it is curious why the Al HaNisim prayer makes no mention whatsoever of the miracle of oil. To the contrary, Al HaNisim focuses almost exclusively on the miracle of the military victory of the Jewish people over the Greeks. To add to our problem, Rambam (Chanukah 3:1) not only draws our attention chiefly to the military victory, but further mentions that one of the most positive outcomes of the events of Chanukah was the restoration of the Kingship to the Jewish nation until the time of the Churban HaBayis.1
This all leaves us with the question of why, exactly, Chanukah was established, and what, specifically, it was meant to commemorate.
Examining Megillas Ta’anis begins to shed light on our topic. While at first it makes things seem even more perplexing, it in fact holds the answers to our questions. The Gemara in Shabbos quoted above seems to be a “botched” version of what appears in Megillas Ta’anis in reference to Chanukah — the language and style are almost perfect mirrors of one another, but there are some enormous differences. Megillas Ta’anis states that Chanukah was established for eight days because that is how long it took to reconsecrate the Beis HaMikdash. Hallel is said just as we do any other time we, as a nation, were saved from affliction. And, finally, the menorah is lit to commemorate the miracle of the oil. All of these extra details are a radical departure from the Gemara in Shabbos which only mentions the miracle of oil, and nothing else. Still, these added explanations and details begin to pull things into sharper focus.
Perhaps the main reason for establishing Chanukah was the miraculous military victory over the Greeks (as reflected in Al HaNisim and the passages from Rambam mentioned above). However, once the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, the celebration of the military victory lost most of its significance. What was there to celebrate any longer? The Gemara in Rosh HaShanah (18b) states that nothing in Megillas Ta’anis still applies save for Chanukah and Purim. Given what we just suggested about the celebration of Chanukah post-Churban HaBayis, it would seem more logical that Purim alone would still be applicable. Why, then, did Chazal establish Chanukah for all time?
More Than A Military Victory
Establishing Chanukah for all time, even after the Churban HaBayis, shows without question that the military victory was not the only thing Chazal sought to commemorate. While it may have originally been the main reason for the celebration of Chanukah — especially since the miracle of oil would not have been visible to the average person (as it was exclusively visible to the kohanim privy to work in the Beis HaMikdash) — Chazal also seem to have understood a deeper significance to the events. They saw that the light of the menorah represented the light of the Torah, and they understood the continuation of Jewish Torah study brought about by the Chashmonaim. They understood that had the Chashmonaim not won the war, with the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash over 200 years later would have also come the destruction of Torah study. This strengthening of Judaism and Torah study needed to be commemorated and celebrated, and further strengthened and meditated on, every year, indeed for all time.
Perhaps we can explain further that our Gemara in Shabbos was not so much asking why Chanukah was originally celebrated — that is quite obvious — but why Chanukah was established and kept as a holiday even after the Churban HaBayis. (Or why it was somewhat reestablished after the destruction.) The answer, then, is indeed because of the miracle of oil — the representation of the flourishing of Torah that continues until this day.2
1. Incidentally, this statement of Rambam lists many wicked kings such as Yannai, Herod, and so forth. Still, Rambam sees a wicked Jewish kingship as better than no Jewish kingship at all.↩
2. Al HaNisim was left in its original form, focusing on the military victory, as we do not change established prayers.↩