The question has been asked by many commentators “Why do we not find discussions in the Mishna about the mitzvah of neiros Chanukah?” It is only mentioned in passing regarding the liability of a storekeeper who kept a fire lit outside his store, which subsequently ignited the load of a passerby. The halacha tells us that if it was lit for the mitzvah of Chanukah, the storekeeper would be exempt because he was permitted to keep that type of fire outside his store. To me it seems strange for this to be the place to mention Chanukah, even in passing (even if the halacha may be true). There must be some lesson that Chazal are trying to teach us by mentioning Chanukah specifically in this regard.
The Avodas Yisroel discusses our question of why Chanukah is not mentioned in the Mishna. He compares and contrasts it with Purim: Though there is an entire Mesechta called “Megillah”, much of this mesechta has nothing to do with Purim. The mishnayos of “Megillah” only discuss the reading of the megillah and not the other mitzvos of Purim such as mishloach manos and metanyos le’evyonim. He answers our question by explaining that these two Yomim Tovim d’Rabbonan correspond to auxiliary aspects of Yiddishkeit. Therefore they would not necessarily be part of the classical “Torah sheb’aal peh.” However, reading the megillah is different because there is an aspect of limud hatorah in performing this mitzvah d’rabbonon, upgrading it to a part of torah sheb’aal peh.”
I would like to give some interpretation to this by explaining the idea of mishteh v’simcha, which the Shulachan Aruch deems as optional on Chanukah. The Shulchan Aruch goes on to tell us how one can turn a meal into a seudas mitzvah. On other holidays the meals themselves are part of the celebration of the day and feature very prominently in the observance of the holidays. Why on Chanukah are the meals lowered in their importance, and in fact are almost superfluous?
As Jews struggle during their 2000 year galus, it is not against the gentiles that we fight. Rather, it is against ourselves. We struggle to bring holiness and purity into all our actions no matter how mundane they are. Possibly the symbolism of the storekeeper with his Chanukah lights outside his store symbolizes that when a person goes to work he also must remember that he is working in the service of Hashem. If it were to be a direct commandment to go to work, we would not have the opportunity to upgrade this mundane action into a mitzvah – it would already be a mitzvah! Thus, during Chanukah in particular, the mitzvah is only alluded to in the Mishna and we have to struggle, via the Gemora, to bring it to the forefront of our lives.
I can only guess that many of the Hellenists actually performed the cultural mitzvas of the Jews—not as something holy but as something that was warming to the heart. They then passed down these “wonderful traditions” from generation to generationt. That is not our job – to take the holy and make it mundane. We must do the reverse and upgrade the mundane to holy. Even when the Shulchan Aruch discusses the lighting of the Chanukah candles, it does not begin with the standard (and mundane) way to light one candle for one home, but instead begins at the highest level – mehadrin min hamehadrin—making the holy even better. Out of all our holidays, possibly Chanukah has the must cultural symbolism to it. Our job is to bring out the hidden light.