Festive Meals on Chanuka
Question: Is one supposed to celebrate Chanuka with festive eating? How and why is it different from Purim?
Answer: There is no set obligation to have a meal in honor of Chanuka (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 670:2) as there is on Purim (ibid. 695:1). First we will discuss why there is a difference.
The broadly accepted general distinction between the holidays in this regard has to do with the type of danger involved. In the Purim story, there was danger of physical annihilation. In contrast, in the Chanuka story, the Jews’ ability to keep the Torah was attacked, but had they given in, there would not have been a physical danger. According to the Taz’s (670:3) understanding of the Levush (670:2), the Chanuka salvation was, therefore, less important and did not warrant as much festivity. The Taz disagrees with the Levush, based on the idea that one who causes someone to sin is worse than one who kills him.
The Taz himself says that physical salvation, in this world, is most appropriately celebrated with physical celebration, whereas spiritual salvation is to be celebrated in a spiritual manner (lights). This idea seems inconsistent with other sources. For example, on Shavuot, a festive meal is required because it is the day the Torah was given (Pesachim 68b). Also, the Taz himself (along with the Rama and others) says that the reason for some festivity on Chanuka is that it was the time of the dedication of the mizbe’ach (altar), which was spiritual. (It is unclear whether the celebration relates to the mizbe’ach in the Mishkan in the desert or the one retaken and purified at the time of the Hasmoneans - see Darchei Moshe, OC 670:1; Pri Megadim, Eshel Avraham 670:2).) Perhaps he means that the preservation of life deserves physical celebration, but for spiritual matters, it is only if there is something new, as occurred on Shavuot and with the mizbe’ach. Mishnat Yaavetz (Orach Chayim 79) adds halachic reasoning, pointing out that if Chazal would have created a full obligation of a meal, there could have been problems of bal tosif (the prohibition of adding on to the mitzvot of the Torah).
The Rambam refers to Chanuka as “days of simcha (joy) and hallel (songs of praise),” a term that usually relates to festive eating. At the very least, this includes a prohibition on fasting during Chanuka (Shabbat 21b). The Shulchan Aruch (ibid.), who says that there is no obligation to have festive meals, implies that there is, nonetheless, a practice to have them, but that they are reshut (voluntary). The Rama (OC 670:2) cites an opinion that there is a slight mitzva to have special meals for Chanuka, with the reason relating, as above, to the mizbe’ach.
The Rama adds that the practice is to sing and praise Hashem at special meals made in honor of Chanuka, and then the meal is a seudat mitzva. There are two points of possible significance to a seudat mitzva. One is the mitzva to have the meal. The other is the meal’s religious significance when one has it. For example, on Yom Tov or after a brit mila (according to the minhag - see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 265:12), one is required to have a festive meal. In contrast, if one completes a unit of learning that warrants a siyum, he is not obligated to make a celebration. However, if he does, it has a special status, which, for example, allows one to eat meat during the Nine Days. On Chanuka, one does not have an obligation to have a seuda, just not to fast. If he does have a special seuda, it is quite clear that he has fulfilled a mitzva by so doing (see Torat Hamoadim (D. Yosef) 9:(10)) if there is some sort of praising of Hashem. The reason for this condition is as follows. If one does not praise Hashem, what makes it a Chanuka party (would it be heretical to say that latkes and dreidel playing do not qualify)? Since, as the Rambam writes, these are days of simcha and hallel, a simcha that is not accompanied by some sort of hallel lacks significance.
Rav Daniel Mann, Eretz Hemdah Institute
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