Must one celebrate Hanukka with a feast?

While other holidays have Talmudic commandments to have a celebratory meal, no such demand is made for Hannuka.

Marinado in the Port 521 (photo credit: Efrat Kaner)
Marinado in the Port 521
(photo credit: Efrat Kaner)
While we all enjoy the potato latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) that pervade our cafes and homes on Hanukka, it is striking that the holiday uniquely lacks an established festive meal. The three major pilgrimage festivals – Passover, Succot and Shavuot – all include festive meals based on the requirement of simha (rejoicing) on the festivals (Sefer Hamitzvot 54). Many early medieval scholars believed that trepidation from Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, precluded such happiness and some even encouraged fasting. Yet an opposing strand of scholars declared that one must rejoice on this day with festive meals, as with all holidays (OC 597), even if it remains appropriate to temper the scope of luxurious foods (Magen Avraham). While one obviously may not eat on Yom Kippur, many scholars deemed the preparatory meal beforehand as a festive meal in celebration of the holiday and the atonement it promises (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:8-9).
As such, it remains unsurprising that the sages included a festive meal among the requirements for the holiday of Purim. Yet the Talmud makes no mention of a similar declaration regarding Hanukka, the other holiday created by the sages. (The custom to commemorate the miracle of the oil by consuming foods fried in oil, like latkes and doughnuts, emerged later and remains optional.)
According to Maimonides and other scholars Hanukka does contain an element of simha to be fulfilled through a festive meal (Hanukka 3:3). Rabbi Shlomo Luria forcefully endorsed this position, arguing that a festive thanksgiving celebration properly publicizes the miracle (Yam Shel Shlomo BK 7:37). However, many authorities, including Rabbi Yosef Karo, contend that there is no mitzva of eating on Hanukka (OC 670:2). They note that in the Talmudic passage that delineates the essence of the holiday, the sages only assert that this is a day of hallel vehoda’a, praise and thanks, and never mention the obligation to have a festive meal (Shabbat 21b).
In support of this position, Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe (Levush) noted that on Purim our enemies tried to physically annihilate us and thereby prevent us from the ability to enjoy the tangible pleasures of existence. To celebrate this physical salvation, the sages decreed that we have a physical, festive celebration to go along with the spiritual actions we perform to give thanks and praise to God. On Hanukka, however, the Greeks did not aim to physically destroy us, but to compel us to give up our spiritual heritage and become hellenized. As such, this is a holiday of spiritual salvation for which no festive meal – a mark of physical redemption – is required. Others have suggested that a festive celebration is inappropriate for Hanukka since, in contrast to Purim, the Jews suffered heavy casualties during these hostilities (Yosef Lekach).
A MIDDLE-GROUND position adopted by some Ashkenazic scholars, including Rabbi Moshe Isserles, asserted that there is a “small mitzva” of festive meals on this day because the holiday marks the rededication of the Temple altar. Moreover, he added, “We are accustomed to singing songs of happiness and praise at these meals, and thereby they become seudot mitzva (festive meals that are authorized as celebrations).” In other words, the possibility of seudot mitzva exists on this holiday, yet they can only take place through human initiative. When these meals include praises of God that clearly manifest the religious significance of the day, they become mitzvot. Without these spiritual ingredients, they are just a regular meal.
As Prof. Meir Rafeld has noted, many hassidic masters emphasized this opportunity to sanctify the mundane (Minhagei Yisrael vol. V). The Munkatcher rebbe, for example, held special dinners on Hanukka to transform these meals into holy feasts, while others emphasized the unique opportunity to initiate a spiritual experience.
This position highlights an important message of the holiday. Following the Maccabean victory, the Jews needed to recognize that the glorious military victory came from the hand of God. To this end, the Maharal of Prague asserted, God created (and the sages emphasized) the miracle of the oil so that the people would recognize that both of these wondrous miracles – the war victory and the candle lighting – came from Him. As such, one of the themes of the holiday is the sanctification of the mundane via the recognition of God’s omnipresence and His ability to affect the world, whether on the battlefield or in the Temple.
Hanukka feasts allow us to manifest our appreciation of this lesson. Every time we eat we have the ability to transform a normal meal into a seudat mitzva through songs of praise and thanks. Just as the Jews of old understood their physical accomplishments as divine intervention, we turn our holiday parties into religious events. Festive meals might not be obligatory, but the ability to create a seudat mitzva reflects the opportunity to internalize this central lesson of Hanukka.
The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.  [email protected]