Of all the different festivals mandated by the Torah and by Rabbinic fiat, there are only two holidays which last for exactly eight days: The Festival of Sukkot and Chanukah. This simple fact implies that there is a special connection between the essences of these two holidays. Some even explain that Chanuka was originally instituted as a substitute for the Festival of Sukkot because in the year of the Maccabean victory, the Jews were unable to celebrate Sukkot. Regardless, the shared number of days which these holidays last certainly alludes to a shared principle behind both of them.
Let us begin by searching for the deeper meaning behind the holiday of Sukkot. There are several different commandments associated with the holiday of Sukkot, including taking the Palm branch and Citron, dwelling in a Sukkah, special happiness, reading the Torah once every seven years, pouring special water libations, circling the altar with Aravot, and more.
Why, then, does the Sukkah element lend its name to the holiday, while none of the other elements of the holiday are expressed in the name Sukkot? Why do we not call the holiday Chag Ha-Etrog in homage to the commandment of the citron, or Chag Ha-Simchah in recognition of the special commandment to rejoice?
Moreover, the Talmud (Sukkah 11b) teaches that the commandment to dwell in a Sukkah on the holiday of Sukkot serves as a reminder for the Clouds of Glory within which the Jews were engulfed while they traveled through wilderness after the Exodus.
Why does the Torah specifically call for a special holiday to commemorate the miracle of these Clouds of Glory, but not for any of the other miracles which G-d performed daily in the wilderness, such as the manna which fell from the heavens or the rock which gave forth water?
To answer this last question, Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef of Trani (1505-1585), known by his acronym as Mabit, offers a fascinating insight. The manna and rock-water were indeed great miracles which G-d continually performed on the Jews’ behalf, but those miracles were necessary for the Jews’ continued survival in the desert. Without those miracles, the Jews would have perished from lack of food or water. Because those miracles were so integral, they do not warrant a special commemoration. The miracle of Clouds of Glory, on the other hand, were technically unneeded.
The Jews could have survived their journey through the desert without special Clouds of Glory. Nonetheless, G-d gave them special Clouds of Glory as an extra. This special miracle showed that G-d was not performing miracles simply to ensure the survival of the Jewish people, but rather he performed these miracles because He loves the Jewish nation. The extra miracle is a special sign of love.
For this reason, the Torah calls for a special holiday to remember the Clouds of Glory, but not to remember the other miracles of the desert. We may add that the importance of recognizing this extra miracle is so overpowering, that it gives the name Sukkot to the holiday—overshadowing all other aspects of the festival.
We may now turn our attention to the holiday of Chanukah. The Talmud (Shabbat 21a) famously asks, “What is Chanukah?” and proceeds to answer this question with a Tannaic teaching about how the Rabbis instituted the holiday of Chanukah to remember how the candles of the Menorah miraculously lasted for eight days. After the Maccabees successfully fought for their independence from the Seleucid Greeks, they went to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in order to rededicate it, and sought to light the Menorah.
Yet, they could not find any un-defiled jars of oil with which to light the candles. After much searching, they finally found one untouched jar which had enough oil to light the candles for one day. They lit the candles, and, miraculously, the candles stayed alight for eight days.
In this, the Talmud tellingly glosses over what would seem to be the main impetus for instituting the holiday of Chanukah: the military victory over the Greeks. A small rag-tag militia led by a family of Kohanim was able to defeat one of the most prominent kingdoms of the time. This monumental triumph (described in the Al Ha-Nissim prayer) could only have been a miracle. Then why does the Talmud choose to focus on the lesser miracle of the candle which lasted eight days, instead of on the greater miracle of the Maccabean victory?
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902–1979) provides a penetrating answer. The miracle of the Maccabean victory over the Greeks was integral to the survival of the Jewish people. Without it, the Jews would have succumbed to brand of Hellenism espoused by the Greeks and likely would have eventually been subsumed by the paganism of their Greek overlords.
The victory of the Maccabeans and the establishment of Hasmonean rule was truly a historical landmark. However, the miracle of the Menorah was even more special. In the miracle of the Menorah, G-d showed that He was willing to perform miracles for the Jewish people not only to guarantee their existence, but to show them how much He loved them.
Rabbi Shmuelevitz offers a parable to illustrate this concept: Imagine if a family loses a precious gem which they had in their possession. They spend days searching and searching for the gem—but to no avail. Finally, after some time, one of the children finds the missing stone to the great joy of his parents. When the child will present the gem to his father, not only will the father rejoice in the jewel’s reappearance, but he will also give his young child a special “kiss.” Of course, that kiss pales in comparison to the value of the precious stone; but, in truth, some things are priceless. The extra kiss shows the child how much his father loves him.
In the same way, the Maccabean military victory over the Greeks alone is indeed a reason to celebrate, but the special “kiss” which we received from Above, is an even greater reason to celebrate. The miracle of the Menorah is that special kiss.
Just as the holiday of Sukkot is named after the technically-unneeded miracle, so is the holiday of Chanukah named after the technically superfluous miracle. When the Talmud asks “What is Chanukah?” the answer is that the kiss is Chanukah. Nothing else. All other aspects of the holiday, like the miracle of the military victory, pale in comparison to the kiss. In this way, the essence of Chanukah echoes the essence of Sukkot. Both holidays celebrate the extra-special miracles which G-d does for us.