From Minhagei Yisrael, volume 5, by Daniel Shperber.

In addition to all of the specific laws that apply to the various holidays on the Jewish calendar, there are some laws that are common to more than one. Labor is forbidden on Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot, as well as on Rosh HaShana and Yom HaKippurim; extra prayers are said for every special day on the calendar; and, of course, festive meals are eaten in honor of the day (with the exception, of course, of Yom HaKippurim).

This last law is one that is the subject of much debate when it comes to Chanukah. There is no doubt that there is a commandment to have a festive meal on the major holidays, and having a feast is one of the four mitzvot of the holiday of Purim. Does such a commandment exist by Chanukah? While eating latkes has become customary, is there a need to go the extra mile or not in the culinary department during the Festival of Lights?

The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 670:2) rules that while it had apparently become the custom for people to have such meals, these meals are classified as "reshut" permissible but not obligatory or even recommended. Ramo, however, notes that there are those who consider these meals to have some element of a mitzvah about them, since they celebrate the rededication of the altar in the Temple. Thus, the custom was to sing praises to Hashem, which would transform the meal into a formal "se'udat mitzva."

The Mordechai and the Tur point out why, even according to those who suggest that there is some idea of eating a festive meal on Chanukah, it still clearly does not have the status of a full-fledged mitzva. They write that on Purim the Jews were threatened with bodily extinction, and thus it is fitting for the celebration to be of a physical nature. By contrast, the Syrian-Greeks in the Chanukah story were set on destroying the Jewish religion, not the Jews themselves, and thus the rejoicing that we do does not focus on the physical, but rather on the more spiritual aspects of the day. For this reason, we recite Hallel all eight days and speak about the miracle of the oil and the establishment of the practice of reciting the Hallel (l'hodot u'l'hallel).

Nevertheless, there are those who feel that there is on obligation to have such a festive meal as part of the celebration of Chanukah. Among the Ashkenazic Rishonim and earlier Acharonim, there were three schools of thought. Maharam MiRutenberg and his followers felt that there was no mitzva at all to eat on Chanukah. Mordechai (long commentary), Maharal MiPrague, and Ramo feel that there is some mitzva, one that is connected to the rededication of the altar. Finally, there is the view of Maharash of Neustadt, Maharshal, and others who feel that there is a commandment to eat on Chanukah, as it is referred to as a "yom tov," which carries with it a commandment to eat.

In addition to these Ashkenazic decisors, there are also several Sephardic Rishonim who favor the ruling that there is a commandment to eat on Chanukah. Ritz Giat and Rambam both refer to Chanukah as a day of "simcha," a term that some interpret to refer to a festive meal. Rashba, in a responsa, groups Chanukah with Purim in speaking about the need to have a meal on these days. While this evidence is not completely conclusive, it does show a tendency in favor of the notion that one must have some form of a festive meal on Chanukah.

As the halachic status of these meals is never strongly confirmed, there is little if any discussion of the particulars of such a meal (does one have to make such a meal every day or only once, etc.). However, the brother of the Maharal of Prague suggested a compromise between the various opinions. He noted that the word "reshut," while it can refer to something that is not obligatory, can also refer to one's freedom of choice. Thus, he claims, when we refer to the meals on Chanukah as being "reshut," we are in fact referring to the fact that they celebrate our victory over our enemies and thus our regaining of our right to choose to live as Jews. As such, festive meals on Chanukah are fitting and proper to have, and one should stay focused on the fact that the main thrust of the meals should be the praising of Hashem through song and the recitation of Hallel.

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