The laws of lighting Chanukah candles include a very unexpected aspect. The Rambam says that it’s a precious mitzvah into which we must invest a lot of effort. But he takes it one step further. He tells us that even a person who is so poor that they cannot afford food is still required to light Chanukah candles. One must beg or borrow, or even sell some of their clothes in order to afford the oil and wicks for this mitzvah.
That’s really surprising, because the halacha provides a framework that guides us on how much we have to sacrifice in order to do a mitzvah. It also gives criteria when it comes to affordability, with the general rule being that if a mitzvah will cost a person more than a fifth of their money and assets, they are exempt from performing it. For example, if a person’s total wealth would be depleted by more than a fifth by the purchase of tefillin, he is exempt from the mitzvah completely. (Obviously, this is a complex halachic issue and any specific question should be posed to a rabbi.) Yet, when it comes to Chanukah candles, the Rambam takes it to the extreme, even requiring a person to sell their clothing in order to be able to afford Chanukah candles. Of course, as a community, we need to help people who are in such dire need and that’s why there are charity funds for these purposes that we support, but this is the concept in theory.
It seems that lighting Chanukah candles requires a greater financial sacrifice than almost all other mitzvot. Now tefillin, for example, is a mitzvah that is written in the Torah, while Chanukah candles were instituted by the rabbis. Ordinarily, a mitzvah instituted rabbinically would not be treated more stringently than a mitzvah that is instituted directly by G-d in the Torah.
How do we understand this? I think the answer lies in another aspect of the mitzvah, which on the surface seems quite puzzling. The point of Chanukah candles is, as the Talmud says, “publicising the miracle” – “pirsumei nissa”. This refers to the miracle following the military struggle between the Jewish people, led by the Maccabees, and the ancient Greek Empire. The Greek Empire occupied the land of Israel and brought their idols into the Temple. When the Maccabees liberated the Temple, they couldn’t find any oil that had not been defiled by the Greeks, except for one jar, which only had enough oil to burn for one day, but in fact, burnt for eight. We light Chanukah candles for eight days in commemoration.
At first glance, this is difficult to understand. We are a people who saw the Ten Plagues strike Egypt, the splitting of the sea, manna falling from heaven; we heard G-d’s voice speak at Mount Sinai. We are a nation of miracles. How does a jar of oil that burns for eight days instead of one constitute such an important miracle that the rabbis institute an annual festival, and not only that, but they require us to publicise it, and the publicising is so important that it requires levels of self-sacrifice and dedication unprecedented in other mitzvot?
I think the gateway to understanding this lies in another mitzvah. In Sefer HaMitzvot, where the Rambam categorises all 613 mitzvot, he defines the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s Name. “It is a mitzvah to sanctify His Name, as the verse says, ‘That I will be sanctified amidst the Children of Israel.’” He explains that the essence of this mitzvah is that we are commanded to publicise our faith and our beliefs to the world, and that we should not be afraid – of any intimidation – and do so with total pride and bravery. He goes on to say that there are even times, under certain extreme circumstances, when we have to give up our lives for that.
He uses the word lefarsem – “to publicise” to explain the mitzvah. It has the same root as pirsumei nissa – “publicising the miracle” of Chanukah.
I think the mitzvah of Chanukah candles is really the mitzvah of sanctifying G-d’s Name – publicising the truth of our beliefs and faith. This goes to the heart of what happened in the struggle between the Maccabees and the Greek Empire. On the surface, it looked like a political struggle for freedom, a military fight. But beneath the surface, what really motivated the Maccabees was a struggle of truth and values.
The ancient Greek Empire brought their ideology, religion and values with them and tried to force them on the population. They came with idolatry and paganism. They came with a belief in the supremacy, prowess and pleasure of the physical body as the ultimate value. They came to destroy Jewish values. That’s why one of the things they instituted was a ban on circumcision. For them it was anathema – how could you do anything to change the body? For us, the concept of circumcision represents the fact that the human body and physicality are to be used with morality and in the service of G-d. They tried to ban the keeping of Shabbat because Shabbat represents the fact that a Creator created this world. This was a struggle between two ways of looking at the world. The Maccabees were fighting for the Torah’s values.
When the Maccabees reconquered the land and liberated the Temple, they found that the olive oil necessary to light the flames of the menorah had been defiled by the Greeks. There was only one jar of pure oil, representing the pure Torah values they were defending. The significance of the miracle was its symbolism. The oil burning for seven extra days was not qualitatively above anything else that we experienced in the course of Jewish history. Judged purely as a miracle, it was of a lower calibre than miracles such as the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the sea and the manna, but symbolically, it was huge. The menorah, the candelabrum, represents the light of G-d’s wisdom in this world, of Torah values. The fact that the pure oil continued burning showed continuity, sustainability of our faith and beliefs and values.
When we light Chanukah candles, we are following in the footsteps of the Maccabees, proclaiming to the entire world that we are proud, committed and willing to sacrifice for our beliefs. We are fulfilling the ultimate mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem – lefarsem – “to publicise” our faith. That is what “publicising the miracle” is all about – publicising what the miracle represents.
This could explain, symbolically, why this mitzvah requires an extra dimension of self-sacrifice. Of course, it is up to us to ensure that no one is forced into that level of sacrifice, but the message here is that the mitzvah of Chanukah candles needs to be one that we are totally dedicated to, with courage, bravery and self-sacrifice, because that is what Kiddush Hashem means.
We bring this message home. The Talmud defines the mitzvah of Chanukah candles as a mitzvah of the home and family. We also “publicise” the miracle. As we light our Chanukah candles, we rededicate ourselves to our sacred task of spreading G-d’s light in the world. The word “Chanukah” actually means dedication. And when we light our Chanukah candles, we commit ourselves with bravery and courage to follow the inspiring example of the Maccabees. The menorah represents lighting up the world with G-d’s wisdom and courageously committing ourselves to making that light part of our lives with bravery, with courage and with a sense of mission.
 Rambam, Hilchot Megillah VeChanukah 4:12  See Rema, O.C. 656:1  Exodus 13:9, 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18  Talmud, Shabbat 21b  See: Talmud, Ketubot 6a; Talmud, Avoda Zara 7a  Talmud, Shabbat 23b  Talmud, Shabbat 21b  I Maccabees 1:47  Talmud, Shabbat 21b  Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 9  Leviticus 22:32  Megillat Antiochus  See Midrash Tanchuma, Tazria 5  Megillat Antiochus  Exodus 20:11  See: Talmud, Bava Brata 25b; Rabbeinu Becheya, Exodus 25:31  Talmud, Shabbat 21b