5761 - #13

The Torah of Chanukah

The Syrian-Greek persecution was not a physical persecution but an attack upon the spirit. It was not the body of the Jew that was the target but rather the Jew's religious commitment. Specifically, the Greeks1 challenged Torah. Maharal, Ner Mitzvah explains that the battle of Chanukah essentially was a battle of reason and revelation. Hellenist thought could not accept revelational knowledge, a revealed Divine knowledge beyond the knowledge attainable by reason.2 Chanukah was a victory in establishing the supreme validity of Revelation and revelational knowledge. Chanukah, ultimately, marks a victory of Torah.
Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg
3 further explained that it is specifically Torah she'b'al peh, the Oral Torah, that is marked on Chanukah. He argued that the Greeks actually had a respect for the written Torah, for the works of the Bible. This is evidenced by the Septuagent, the Greek translation of the Torah, which reflected the Greek desire to read the Jewish holy works. Rabbi Weinberg further explained that this may in fact be the reason why Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi4 excluded the laws of Chanukah from the Mishna.5 Rebbe felt, even as he recognized the need to write down parts of the Oral Torah, that the laws of the holiday that mark the Oral Torah should remain, as long as possible, in its pure oral state. Thus, he felt, the laws of Chanukah should continue to be transmitted orally and therefore he excluded them from the Mishna.
Rabbi Moshe Sternbach, Mo'adim U'Zmanim 2:137, note 3 expresses what can be considered a similar sentiment. Rabbi Sternbach argues that the essence of Chanukah is support for Rabbinic legislation. Indeed all the laws of Chanukah are Rabbinic and their observance, their observance mihadrin min hamihadrin
,6 is an indication of allegiance and faith in the Rabbis. This connects with the Oral Torah for it is the Oral Torah which is the ultimate province of the Rabbis. Essential to the very concept of the Oral Torah is that it is the person, not the text, that is the vessel, the conveyor and the protector of Torah. Chanukah honours the Oral Torah and, as such, must mark the human connection to Torah which is the realm of the Rabbis.7
The human connection to Torah, the human involvement in Torah analysis and decision making, has always been an area subject to attack by outsiders. The early Christians initiated their attacks against Judaism by attacking the Rabbis and the "man-made law." To the Christian, human involvement in the process of Revelation can only cloud the Divine Word by mixing the human will with the Divine Will. Within the realm of Greek logic, similar sentiments could have also been found; concrete definitions and demarcations had to be described. The Oral Torah and the human involvement in Torah challenges this concrete formulation. Is a halachic decision the word of man or the Word of God? the answer is that it is both. The Greeks could not understand this answer. To the Jew, this answer is the essence of Torah.
It is the flame of the candles which is the symbol of Chanukah. When a new flame is lit, the old flame is not diminished. As God revealed His Torah and passed it on to the Jewish People to be its torch bearers
,8 the essence of Torah as the Word of God was not diminished in the least. Torah is like a flame that lights new flames but does not diminish its essence. As Torah enters into the people and unites with human being, the Divine Presence and Torah's Divine essence is not lessened. New flames emerge as the human bonds with Torah, expanding its nature and connection to the world. The perception that the human will and the Divine Will cannot co-exist is only a parameter based upon Greek thought. The perception that the human being must negate his/her will in order to accept the Divine Will is ultimately foreign to the one who accepts the Oral Torah. The preservation of the Oral Torah, in fact, demands the fullness of the human being. It is the human being's very will that opens up the Torah through questioning, analysis and interaction with the ideas of Revelation. Through the Oral Torah, the human will is not negated but it shines forth - and we see the Divine Will in the human will. It is not a choice of Divine Will or human will. Through the Oral Torah, the Divine Will is seen in all its Glory because of the co-existence of the human will.
This is the lesson of Chanukah. When a flame creates a new flame, there is no diminishment of light but only increased light. When God created the human will, there was no diminishment of His Will but only the potential for an increase in the light of His Will. Through the Oral Torah, as the Divine Will touches the human will, the flame increases as the Divine Will and the human will both expand. To the Greek, this is paradoxical and impossible. To the Jew, this is the axis around which life revolves.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 This idea is reinforced by the fact that in actuality the battle of Chanukah was originally a civil war between Jews wishing to adopt Greek culture and Jews loyal to Torah. The Syrian-Greek forces were brought in at a later time at the request of and to support the former.

2 Of course, within Jewish thought, reason still has value and must still be considered a source of knowledge.

3 heard orally in a shiur.

4 The compiler of the Mishna, referred to simply as Rebbe.

5 See Ta'amei HaMinhagim U'Mekorei HaDinim 847 which presents the Chatam Sofer's more well known reason for Chanukah's exclusion from the Mishna based upon the usurpation of the monarchy by the Hasmoneans.

6 i.e. most distinguished form of performance. This is a reference to the prevalent custom which is to add a candle each day, which is considered not only a fulfillment of the commandment but the finest method of fulfillment. See T.B. Shabbat 21b and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 671:2.

7 See interestingly T.B. Yevamot 90b which refers to the death penalty being applied for violating a Rabbinic law during the times of the Greeks.

8 Reference is made to the famous verse of lo beshamayim hi, it is not in Heaven, (Devarim 30:12) and the discussion in T.B. Baba Metzia 59b.

Return to top