Esther Vs. Antiochus

Now here’s an interesting difference between Chanukah and Purim: Both holidays have a small scroll—called a megillah—that tells their story. Purim has the Megillah of Esther. Chanukah has the Megillah of Antiochus.

On Purim, we are required to read that megillah publicly at night, and again in the day. But on Chanukah, there’s no such requirement. Yes, there have been communities that read the Megillah of Antiochus in the synagogue on Chanukah. Indeed, some Yemenite communities still keep this custom. But it’s done without a blessing, since all agree that it was never instituted by any rabbinical authority.

Another distinction between these two megillahs: The Talmud tells that Esther requested from the Men of the Great Assembly, which included prophets together with sages, that they “write my story for all generations.” And indeed, the Megillah of Esther was inducted into the exclusive set of twenty-four books of Tanach.

The Megillah of Antiochus, on the other hand, is not considered a sacred work. Rav Saadia Gaon, the foremost authority for Jews in the 10th century, held it in high esteem. He wrote that the Hasmoneans, Judah, Shimon, Johanan, Jonathan, and Eliezer, sons of Mattathias, wrote this megillah about their own experiences, and similar to the book of Daniel, they wrote it in the language of the Chaldeans (Aramaic). He translated it into Arabic along with his translations of other books of Tanach. Nevertheless, it was never inducted into Tanach, as was the Megillah of Esther.

The distinction gets yet sharper when we consider the names of these two megillahs. The Megillah of Esther is named after the heroine of the story. The Megillah of Antiochus is named after the villain!

None of this is coincidental. Something is going on over here that represents a deep distinction between the dynamics of Purim and Chanukah.

The stories of both Purim and Chanukah are about taking a real dark situation and turning it around for the good. But there are two ways of effecting this transformation.

Purim, Chanukah, and the Transformation of Darkness

In the story of Purim, the royal decree to eliminate the Jewish population was transformed into royal support for a Jewish victory over those that desired their elimination. The house of Haman became the house of Mordechai.

In the story of Chanukah, the dictatorship of a foreign, insane megalomaniac who forbade Jewish practice and demanded he be worshipped led to the liberation of the Temple in Jerusalem and a miracle of light.

Yet, while Purim pulls inward, Chanukah radiates light outward.

On Purim, the Megillah of Esther is read in the synagogue. The Purim feast and exchange of foodstuffs, as well as the gifts to the poor, is done principally within the Jewish home.

So it makes sense that the story of Haman and King Achashverosh is also pulled inward, to become a sacred book of Torah named after a righteous Jewish heroine, and read each year by decree of the sages. The telling of the machinations and greed of these villains becomes a mitzvah, just as the house of Haman became the house of Mordechai. Pulled into the Torah and declared a mitzvah, they are transformed.

The miracle of Chanukah, on the other hand, is about shining light outward, and to the outside. The original requirements for the Chanukah menorah stipulate that it be lit only once it is dark. And where? “At the door of your house, on the outside.” Why? As the Talmud states, “to publicize the miracle.”

Who are we publicizing it to? That becomes obvious from another requirement: Until when can you light it? Until the marketplace is quiet. Until all the stragglers have gone home, including, the Talmud says, the Tarmodai.

Who are the Tarmodai? Merchants from the Syrian city of Tarmod (a.k.a. Tadmur, a.k.a. Palmyra) who were known for staying late in the market at night, collecting leftover wood. They were also known for having rebelled against King Solomon, and for having acted as mercenaries in the destruction of both Temples.

And it’s with these people that we measure the ultimate darkness that Chanukah can reach!

Chanukah and the Outside

Which means: The celebration of Chanukah is meant to reach all those people out there as they are out there. Where Purim deals with the dark characters of this world by transforming them into players in a holy book of Torah, the light of Chanukah reaches into the thick darkness of night, as darkness remains darkness, outside of the holiness of Torah, and shines even there. Nothing is excluded, and nothing is changed.

That’s why we absorb the message of Purim by being pulled into the words of a megillah, while the message of Chanukah is broadcast out there by shining the light of a menorah.

Even the megillah for Chanukah remains an outsider. It’s named after the enemy, written entirely in Aramaic, and remains in a realm the sages of Israel called “outside writings”—meaning, outside the realm of the sacred works of Tanach. And so, of course, reading it is not a mitzvah—just a permitted act.

What is the point behind all this “outsideness?”

Because this light is the light of divine wisdom, for which there is no “outside.” As the Baal Shem Tov taught, “G‑dliness is everything. Everything is G‑dliness.” We just need light to see it there.

And there is no better light for that than Chanukah light.

Hitvaduyot 5750, vol. 2, pg. 43ff.