The Gemara [Shabbat 21b ] describes how (in the years after the miracle) Chanukah became a holiday: “L’shana acheret kva’um v’asa’um yamim tovim b’hallel u’v’hoda’ah—A subsequent year, they established the days as holidays through hallel and hoda’ah.” The Sefat Emet [Sefat Emet, Sefer Bereishit, Vayeshev, 638 D”H K’va’um] points out that the Gemara presents hallel and hoda’ah not as how the holiday expresses itself, but as how it was established (b’hallel).
Though the Gemara mentions both hoda’ah and hallel, hoda’ah is what makes Chanukah unique. Hallel is recited on every yom tov; hoda’ah is central only to Chanukah. This is why Al Hanisim (which we add to the berachah of hoda’ah) lists hoda’ah as Chanukah’s first goal: “V’kavu shemonat y’mei Channukah eilu l’hodot u’l’hallel.” Additionally, Chanukah’s psalm, [Tehilim 30] Mizmor shir chanukas habayis, also emphasizes hoda’ah: “V’hodu l’zecher kadsho… Hayod’cha afar… Hashem Elokai l’olam odekah.”
Why this focus on hoda’ah? A better understanding of hoda’ah and of Chanukah will help us appreciate the relationship between them.
Hoda’ah: Thanks And Admission
Hoda’ah’s essence lies in the word’s dual connotation: both thanks and admission. This duality accounts for the word’s recurrence in Modim: “Modim anachnu lach she’ata Hashem Elokeinu… l’dor vadro nodeh lecha u’nesapeir tehilotecha.” We begin the prayer by using the word “modim” to acknowledge Hashem as our support and savior. The prayer then uses the word “nodeh” to thank Hashem for this role.
A meaningful thank-you not only shows appreciation for what one has received, but also recognizes the capability of the one who assisted us. In addition, our thank-you implicitly admits our limitations and (thus) dependence upon others.
This aspect of admission is especially relevant to our hoda’ah to Hashem. Our very existence hinges on Hashem’s Will and assistance. We admit this absolute dependency every morning when we open our eyes and say, “Modeh ani lifanecha melech chai v’kayam shehechezarta bi nishmati.” Without Hashem constantly renewing our existence, we would cease to exist. This awareness should influence how we live the entirety of each day of our lives: “kol z’man she’haneshama b’kirbi modeh ani lifanecha.”
When we recite Modim later in Shacharit (and throughout the day), we reinforce our hoda’ah with histachavayah (bowing)  This integration of hoda’ah with histachavayah is unique to Judaism. Aleinu highlights this as a difference between how Jews and other nations give thanks: “Sheheim mishtachavim l’hevel varik… va’anachnu kor’im u’mishtachavim u’modim lifnei Melech malchei hamelachim.” Our hishtachavayah is more than a ritual formality because we are modeh along with it..
Chanukah: A Time For Admission
The combination of hoda’ah and hishtachavayah appears on Chanukah as well. The mishnah [Midot 2:3] mentions that the Chashmonaim instituted thirteen hishtachavayot and hoda’ot [See Rambam et al and Shekalim 17a ] to offset the thirteen Grecian breaches of the Beit Mikdash’s soreig (the fence that marked the line beyond which gentiles could not proceed). When those entering the Beit Hamikdash passed one of these repaired holes, they would bow and thank Hashem. Why did the Chashmonaim institute this?
Our explanation of the significance of hoda’ah and hishtachavayah can help us answer this question. The breaches were the Hellenists’ way of denying Hashem’s (and, by association, the Jewish people’s) unique holiness. The Greeks celebrated man. Their astronomy placed Earth (and thus man) at the center of the universe, their deification of the human body (in its natural form) celebrated man’s perfection, their veneration of art sanctified man’s sense of beauty and their anthropomorphic mythology viewed the gods as reflections of themselves. The Hellenists believed that man was as great as, if not greater than, G-d himself.
The Chashmonaim sought to restore man to his proper place within Hashem’s world by instituting hoda’ah and hishtachavayah in the Mikdash and hoda’ah as the foundation for Chanukah. We commemorate our victory over the Greeks and Hellenism by recognizing our dependency on Hashem and thanking Him for his assistance. Though we recite Hallel on every yom tov, Chanukah’s Hallel is unique in the fact that it is rooted in the submission generated by our hoda’ah.
The Chanukah Candles
For this reason, the Gemara (Shabbat 21b) formulates the prohibition of benefiting from Chanukah candles as a (unique) issur hishtamshut. As opposed to the standard issur hana’ah, which prohibits any and all types of benefit, the issur hishtamshut prohibits specifically redirecting the Chanukah lights towards one’s personal use. Though we are allowed to—and, in fact, meant to—enjoy Hashem’s world, we need to remember that the world is not about us and our pleasure. We are not the focus.
Haneirot Halalu succinctly summarizes this prohibition’s nature and intent. “Haneirot halalu kodesh heim v’ein lan reshut l’hishtameish bahem, ela lirotam bilvad kdei l’hodot u’l’hallel lishimcha hagadol.” The Chanukah lights are holy; they are not there for our pleasure. Instead, seeing them should remind us of Hashem and His role in our lives and inspire our hoda’ah and hallel.
Ba’yamim Ha’hem, Ba’zman Ha’zeh
The Chanukah lights commemorate the miracles Hashem performed on behalf of our ancestors who were too few and weak to help themselves. May our seeing those lights remind us of our need to express our appreciation of Hashem and our dependence upon Him.
May doing so merit miracles like those experienced: ba’yamim ha’hem, ba’zman ha’zeh. n
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.
1. Bava Kama 16a asserts that the spinal cord of one who avoids bowing at Modim transforms into a snake—the first to suggest that man deny his dependency on G-d.