Chanukah and the Supremacy of Soul Over Body

Chanukah and the Supremacy of Soul Over Body

The Al HaNissim prayer, recited on Chanukah, recounts “the miracles … that You have done for our ancestors in those days, at this time”:

In the days of Matityahu… the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget your Torah and to make them violate the decrees of Your will; You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress…. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few… the wicked into the hands of the righteous…. and you effected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel…. Then Your children entered the house of Your dwelling, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise to Your great name.

Isn’t something missing? Of course! Every child familiar with the story of Chanukah knows of how the small cruse of oil—sufficient to light the holy menorah in the Temple for but a single day—miraculously burned for eight days until new, pure oil could be produced. It is in commemoration of this miracle that we kindle the Chanukah lights each evening of the festival; it is this miracle, much more than the military miracle, that is the defining feature of Chanukah. Yet the Al HaNissim prayer ignores it completely!

[There is a passing mention of “lights” kindled in “Your holy courtyards,” but this does not refer to the lights of the menorah—whose appointed place was not in the courtyard of the Holy Temple but inside the Sanctuary—but to lights kindled in celebration throughout the Temple compound and the city of Jerusalem (which is why Al HaNissim speaks of “courtyards,” in the plural). In any case, even if the lights in question are those of the menorah, there is no mention of the miracles associated with its lighting.]

On the other hand, the Talmud, in its description of the miracle of Chanukah, concentrates solely on the miracle of the oil and virtually ignores the military miracle. “What is Chanukah?” asks the Talmud,[1] meaning, “Over what miracle was it established?”[2] The answer given is:

When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all its oil. Then, when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious over them, they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil that was sealed with the seal of the High Priest—enough to light the menorah for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. The following year, they established these [eight days] as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving for G-d.

Here, there is only a passing reference to the military victory (“when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious…”), but no mention of the fact that this was a battle in which a small band of Jews defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth. The focus is wholly on the miracle of the oil, as if this were the only significant event commemorated by the festival of Chanukah.

In other words, there seems to be a complete separation between the “physical” and “spiritual” miracles of Chanukah, to the extent that the mention of one precludes any mention of the other. When the physical salvation of Israel is remembered and we thank G-d for delivering the “mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few,” we make no reference to miracle of the oil; and when we relate to the spiritual significance of Chanukah—the triumph of light over darkness—it is free of any association with the physical victories that accompanied it.

The Spiritual Festival

The struggles and triumphs chronicled by the Jewish calendar are always more than the struggle for physical survival. The Exodus, commemorated and re-experienced each Passover, was more than a people’s liberation from slavery to freedom; it was their extraction from a pagan Egypt to receive the Torah at Sinai and enter into a covenant with G-d as His “nation of priests and holy people.”[3] On Purim we remember that Haman wished to annihilate the Jews because “they are a singular people… whose laws are different from those of all other nations”[4]; Purim celebrates not only the salvation of the physical existence of the Jew, but of the Jew’s identity and way of life.

But the battle waged by the Hasmoneans against the Greeks was the most spiritual battle in Jewish history. The Greeks were “liberal” rulers: they respected the religions and cultures of the peoples under their dominion, and did not endeavor to convert them to their beliefs. They merely wished to “Hellenize” them—to “enlighten” their lives with the culture and philosophy of Greece. Keep your books of wisdom, they said to the Jew, keep your laws and customs, but enrich them with our wisdom, adorn them with our art, blend them into our lifestyle. Worship your G-d in your temple, but then worship the human body in the adjoining sports stadium we’ll build for you. Study your Torah, but also apply to it the principles of our philosophy and aesthetics of our literature.

The Hasmoneans fought for independence from Hellenic rule because the Greeks sought to “make them forget Your Torah and make them violate the decrees of Your will.” They did not fight for the Torah per se, but for “Your Torah”—for the principle that the Torah is G-d’s law rather than a deposit of human wisdom which might be commingled with other deposits of human wisdom. They did not fight for the mitzvot as the Jewish way of life, but for the mitzvot as “the decrees of Your will”—as the supra-rational will of G-d, which cannot be rationalized or tampered with. They fought not for any material or political end, not for the preservation of their identity and lifestyle, not even for the right to study the Torah and fulfill its commandments, but for the very soul of Judaism, for the purity of Torah as the divine word and its mitzvot as the divine will.

So when the Talmud replies to the question, “What is Chanukah?” it defines the festival solely in terms of its spiritual miracles—the discovery of the pure, undefiled cruse of oil and the rekindling of the divine light which emanated from the Holy Temple. Since this is the festival which commemorates our most spiritual battle, its spiritual content predominates to the extent that it completely eclipses its physical aspect. Although the military miracles preceded, and made possible, the lighting of the menorah in the Holy Temple, they are completely ignored when we speak of the miracle that defines the essence of Chanukah.

This is why the prayer instituted by our sages to give thanks to G-d for the military salvation omits all mention of the miracle of the oil. For only when it is regarded on its own can the military miracle be emphasized and appreciated; were it to be discussed in relation to the miracle of the oil, it would fade to insignificance. Within the super-spiritual context of Chanukah, it would be reduced to a minor detail scarcely worthy of mention.[5]

The Lesson

Man is comprised of a soul and a body, of a spiritual essence that is “literally part of G-d above”[6] and the physical vehicle via which it experiences and impacts the physical world.

The body was designed to serve the soul in its mission to develop the world in accordance with the divine will. Of course, man has been granted freedom of choice. The body might thus rebel against the dominion of the soul; it might even subject its rightful master to its own desires, making the pursuit of material things the focus of life and exploiting the soul’s spiritual prowess to this end. But in its natural, uncorrupted state, the body is the servant of the soul, channeling its energies and implementing its will.

There are, however, many levels to this submission, many degrees of servitude of matter to spirit. The body might recognize that the purpose of life on earth lies with the soul’s aspirations, yet also entertain an “agenda” of its own alongside the greater, spiritual agenda. Or it might selflessly serve the soul, acknowledging the spiritual as the only goal worthy of pursuit, yet its own needs remain a most visible and pronounced part of the person’s life, if only out of natural necessity.

Chanukah teaches us that there is a level of supremacy of soul over body that is so absolute that the body is virtually invisible. It continues to attend to its own needs, because a soul can only operate within a functioning body; but these are completely eclipsed by the spiritual essence of life. One sees not a material creature foraging for food, shelter and comfort, but a spiritual being whose spiritual endeavors consume his or her entire being.

For all but the most spiritual tzaddik, it is not possible, nor desirable, to perpetually maintain this state; indeed, it is Chanukah for only eight days of the year. But each and every one of us is capable of experiencing moments of such consummate spirituality. Moments in which we so completely “lose ourselves” in our commitment to our spiritual purpose that our material cares become utterly insignificant.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Chanukah 5726 (1965) and 5734 (1973)[7].

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.


[1]. Talmud, Shabbat 21b.

[2]. Rashi, ibid.

[3]. Exodus 3:12; 19:6.

[4]. Esther 3:8.

[5]. The spirituality of Chanukah is also emphasized by the festival’s principal mitzvah, the kindling of the Chanukah lights. We are physical beings, enjoined to anchor our every experience to a physical deed: on Passover, we celebrate our freedom with matzah and wine; on Purim, we read the megillah, give money to the poor, send gifts of food to our friends, feast and drink. Chanukah, too, has its “ritualistic” element, in which a physical act and object embody the festival’s significance. But here the vehicle of choice is the most spiritual of physical phenomena—light. On Chanukah, the overriding emphasis is on the spiritual essence of our struggle, so that even its physical face is an ethereal flame dancing in the night.

[6]. Job 31:2; Tanya, ch. 2.

[7]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXV, pp. 235-242.

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