Maimonides’ Purim and Chanukah Message of Peace
Connecting the Laws of Megillah and Chanukah
Maimonides combines the laws of Purim and Chanukah into one section, with two chapters on each holiday. A number of reasons may have motivated Maimonides to treat Chanukah together with Purim in the same section. On a practical level, it could be that each was quite short and did not warrant its own section. The status of Chanukah is also like Purim in as much as they are both holidays mentioned in Megillat Taanit, in which it is forbidden to mourn or eulogize, as Maimonides himself states (“Megillah and Chanukah” 3:3):
והן אסורין בהספד ותענית כימי הפורים.
Eulogies and fasting are forbidden on these days (Chanukah), just as they are on Purim.
Additionally, the fact that both are post-Pentateuchal holidays connects them on a halakhic level (ibid.):
והדלקת הנרות בהן מצוה מדברי סופרים כקריאת המגילה.
The lighting of lamps on them is a commandment based on the authority of the Scribes, analogous to the commandment to read the Megillah.
Maimonides further includes another technical connection between these two holidays (“Megillah and Chanukah” 3:4):
כל שחייב בקריאת המגילה חייב בהדלקת נר חנוכה
Everyone obligated to read the Megillah is equally obligated to light a Chanukah candle.
These are also the two holidays in which the prayer al hanissim is added into the Amidah prayer and grace after meals. Nevertheless, beyond these technical-halakhic similarities between the holidays and their respective mitzvot, Maimonides, as we shall see, manages to draw them together with a substantive connection as well.
The Surprising Ending to the Laws of Chanukah and Purim
The laws of Chanukah and Purim each end on an unusual note for a halakhic work like the Mishneh Torah.
Maimonides ends the section on the laws of Chanukah chapters by stating that a poor person should even resort to begging in order to buy oil for a Chanukah lamp, and emphasizing the importance of this mitzvah in comparison with other mitzvot that could cost money such as saying Kiddush over a glass of wine. But Maimonides continues:
היה לפניו נר ביתו ונר חנוכה או נר ביתו וקדוש היום נר ביתו קודם משום שלום ביתו שהרי השם נמחק לעשות שלום בין איש לאשתו,
If such a poor man has to choose between oil for both a house lamp [on the Sabbath] and a Chanukah lamp, or oil for a house lamp [on the Sabbath] and wine for the Sanctification benediction, the house lamp should have priority, for the sake of peace in the household, seeing that even a Divine Name might be erased to make peace between husband and wife.
גדול השלום שכל התורה ניתנה לעשות שלום בעולם שנאמר דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבותיה שלום.
Great indeed is peace, forasmuch as the purpose for which the whole of the Torah was given is to bring peace upon the world, as it is said, Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace (Prov. 3:17).
This strange ending uses the law of Chanukah candles as a foil to emphasize the importance of having a lamp lit in one’s house on Shabbat, so that people are able to see, since a dark house would cause strife in the family. Maimonides strengthens this point by making recourse to the aggadic explanation of the sotah ritual (when the bitter waters are administered to a suspected adulteress) and then ends with an encomium to peace, a non-halachic point that seems entirely tangential to the substance of this section.
Maimonides does something analogous at the end of the laws of Purim, which he ends:
כל ספרי הנביאים וכל הכתובים עתידין ליבטל לימות המשיח חוץ ממגילת אסתר הרי היא קיימת כחמשה חומשי תורה וכהלכות של תורה שבעל פה שאינן בטלין לעולם,
In messianic times all the Prophetic Books and the Writings will be abolished except the Book of Esther. For this will continue to endure, just as the five books of the Torah and the laws of the Oral Torah will never be abolished.
ואף על פי שכל זכרון הצרות יבטל שנאמר כי נשכחו הצרות הראשונות וכי נסתרו מעיני, ימי הפורים לא יבטלו שנאמר וימי הפורים האלה לא יעברו מתוך היהודים וזכרם לא יסוף מזרעם.
And although all memory of ancient troubles will disappear, in accordance with the verse, “Because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hidden from mine eyes” (Is. 65:16), the days of Purim will not cease to be observed, as it is said, “And that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed” (Esther 9:28).
The assertion is surprising given Maimonides’ general insistence on the permanence of halakhah and his concerns lest his views be used to support antinomian tendencies.Admittedly, Maimonides derives this from Resh Lakish’s position as recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud, but it is surprising that he chooses to use this source in this context, considering its possible antinomian undertones.
More importantly for our purposes, this passage has no halakhic significance as it focuses only on Messianic times. The same question we asked with Chanukah applies here: why does Maimonides choose to end these laws with an aggadic statement?
War and Peace
The key to both endings appears to be Maimonides’ invocation of the theme of peace. The story of the megillah of Esther is that of the Jewish struggle to survive in the diaspora. It ends with a bloody battle between the Jews and the followers of the anti-Semitic Haman. Maimonides adjusts the meaning of the story by suggesting that it has an eternal message even during a time in which anti-Semitism and war are no longer part of the world.
Removing the Miracle
The importance of the theme of peace in explaining Chanukah becomes clearer when we look back at the beginning of his discussion of the holiday (3:1-3), in which Maimonides leaves out a key phrase in his retelling of the Talmudic story (b. Shabbat 21b) of the oil that lasted eight days.
וכשגברו ישראל על אויביהם ואבדום בחמשה ועשרים בחדש כסלו היה ונכנסו להיכל ולא מצאו שמן טהור במקדש אלא פך אחד ולא היה בו להדליק אלא יום אחד בלבד והדליקו ממנו נרות המערכה שמונה ימים עד שכתשו זיתים והוציאו שמן טהור.
The day on which the Israelites were victorious over their enemies and destroyed them was the twenty-fifth day of Kislev. When they re-entered the Temple, they found within its precincts only one cruse of ritually pure oil, enough to burn for but a single day. Yet they kept alight with it the required number of lamps for eight days, until they could press some olives and produce new ritually pure oil.
שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל, וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום, בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול, ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד, נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים.
For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days.
The phrase “a miracle was wrought,” which appears in the Bavli in both the printed and manuscript editions, does not appear in the manuscript editions of the Mishneh Torah, or in the updated, academic, printed editions.
Maimonides’ decision to leave out these words accords with his well-known and barely concealed antipathy to interruptions in the regular order of nature. His phrasing seems to leave open the possibility that the oil lasted based on parsimonious usage or, at most, due to an unexplained lucky break that could or could not have been miraculous.
Celebration of War
This leaves the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks as the main reason that the Sages established Chanukah, something also easily explained in naturalistic terms, especially since Maimonides does not mention anything about “the few versus the many.” If so, then like Purim, Chanukah is a holiday celebrating the Jewish defeat of gentile enemies in battle. This makes the ending of these halakhot, which focus on the importance of peace, all the more striking.
A Universalist Message for Particularist Holidays
Maimonides takes the opportunity provided him by the laws of Purim and Chanukah, two holidays that hark back to wars between Jews and gentiles, to teach a lesson about the value of peace. It is the point of the whole Torah to bring about peace in the world. In both his ending to the laws of Purim and his ending to the laws of Chanukah, he reminds us that the messianic era is to be a period of peace, not of domination. This is consistent with Maimonides’ intellectualist and universalist account of the messianic era, with its emphasis on peace.
The Sotah Ritual – Making Peace between Husband and Wife
To make his point about the importance of peace in the Chanukah laws, Maimonides adds an aggadic flourish. He begins by codifying the Talmudic law (b. Shabbat 23b) that the Shabbat candle trumps the Chanukah candle because of the importance of domestic harmony.
נר ביתו ונר חנוכה – נר ביתו עדיף, משום שלום ביתו.
A house lamp or a Chanukah lamp, the house lamp is preferable because of the need for peace in the home.
Maimonides then “proves” this law by codifying an aggadic text from Deuteronomy Rabbah (5:15):
א”ר עקי[בא] תדע לך כמה כחו גדול של שלום, שאמ[ר] הקדוש ברוך הוא בשעה שאדם מקנא לאשתו, השם הקדוש שנקדש בקדושה ימחה על המים כדי להטיל שלום בין סוטה לבעלה.
Rabbi Akiva said: “You should know how powerful is peace, since the Holy One, blessed be He, said that when a man feels jealous rage against his wife, the holy name of God, which is sanctified in holiness, may be erased in water in order to make peace between the accused woman and her husband.
Maimonides applies this aggada in a “kal ve-chomer” (a fortiori) style by arguing that if even the sin of erasing God’s name can be performed to make peace between husband and wife, certainly peace in the home trumps the rabbinic, positive commandment to light a Chanukah candle.
R. Akiva’s interpretation in Devarim [Deuteronomy] Rabbah is rather counter-intuitive. In the sotah ritual of Numbers 5:11-21, a jealous husband brings his wife before the priests because he suspects her of adultery. To determine whether she has had an affair or not, she must drink a concoction which includes the erased name of God, which will cause her bodily harm if she is guilty. R. Akiva’s statement implies that she always comes out innocent, that she was never really in danger of harm from the ritual.
It is likely that this interpretation appealed to the rationalist Maimonides, since he could never accept that the ritual is because of the magical properties of God’s name. Perhaps he did not believe the ritual worked at all, but that it was designed to impress the husband and reconcile him to his wife.
Peace in the World
But Maimonides does not stop at peace between spouses and moves on to the larger image of world peace, choosing to close his discussion of Purim and Chanukah in particular, and the Book of Seasons as a whole, with the following statement:
גדול השלום שכל התורה ניתנה לעשות שלום בעולם שנאמר דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבותיה שלום.
Great indeed is peace, forasmuch as the purpose for which the whole of the Torah was given is to bring peace upon the world, as it is said, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Prov. 3:17).
Maimonides’ interpretation of this verse appears to be original, not one borrowed from earlier sources.
World Peace in the Laws of Kings
Maimonides’ universalist reading of Prov. 3:17 is emphasized in the only other place where he cites it in the context of a discussion of Jewish-Gentile relations (“Laws of Kings,” 10:12):
אפילו גוים צוו חכמים לבקר חוליהם, ולקבור מתיהם עם מתי ישראל, ולפרנס ענייהם בכלל עניי ישראל, מפני דרכי שלום, הרי נאמר טוב ה’ לכל ורחמיו על כל מעשיו, ונאמר דרכיה דרכי נועם וכל נתיבותיה שלום.
Even with respect to heathens [goyyim], the Rabbis bid us visit their sick, bury their dead along with the dead of Israel, and maintain their poor with the poor of Israel in the interests of peace, as it is written: “The Lord is good to all; and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Ps. 145:9). And it is also, written, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Prov. 3:17).
The Torah was given not only to bring peace between husband and wife, but also among all human beings. In his creative use of the verse to cap the laws of Purim and Chanukah, Maimonides takes two holidays that are clearly associated with Jewish-Gentile warfare and turns them on their head, making their ultimate message one of peace among all human beings.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
December 15, 2016
October 11, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Menachem Kellner is faculty at Shalem College’s Interdisciplinary Program in Philosophy and Jewish Thought. He is Emeritus Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa, where, among things, he held the Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Chair of Religious Thought. He did his B.A, M.A. and Ph.D. at Washington University. Kellner is probably best known for his book, Must a Jew Believe Anything?
Essays on Related Topics: