5755 - #7

From the language of T.B. Shabbat 21b, it would seem that our celebration of Chanukah is in recognition of the miracle of the oil that should only have burnt for one day yet lasted eight. It is therefore most interesting that the essential prayer of Chanukah, al hanisim, includes no mention of this miracle. From the language of this tephilla, it seems that Chanukah was actually established in celebration of our victory over the Greeks. Mo'adim U'Zmanim 2:149, noting this apparent difficulty, explains that the celebration is, indeed, for the victory over the Greeks, yet victory alone would not suffice as a reason to establish a holiday; after all, many times the Jewish people were victorious even against enemies who were stronger and had greater numbers. The miracle of the oil is what made this victory unique, clearly demonstrating that the victory was through the involvement of G-d and thereby drawing us closer to Him. The miracle of the oil answers not the question of why we should celebrate Chanukah but rather why we should celebrate this victory. Yet the miracle of the oil is the very clarification of the essential meaning of the victory - should it not be mentioned in al hanisim?

There is also the inherent difficulty in the very concept of celebrating a miracle. Mo'adim U'Zmanim 6:80 himself questions why we should mark the miracle of the oil - after all, many miracles occurred, especially in the Temple, for which there are no celebrations. He answers that it was the public nature of the miracle of the oil - clearly demonstrating G-d's closeness to Israel - that calls for the holiday. His perception of the miracle of the victory as the true base for the holiday, it would seem, would have to be approached similarly. It is the public nature of this miraculous victory that calls for this victory to be marked, yet it is the miracle of the oil that endows this victory with its public nature - but then al hanisim should clearly mention the miracle of the oil? In rejecting the Mo'adim U'Zmanim's answers, his questions stand strong before us. Why is this miracle celebrated? Why this victory? Why does al hanisim not mention the miracle of the oil?

Too many people in modern times understand the battle of Chanukah to be a battle for freedom of religion. This is incorrect for the Maccabees had as much intolerance for idolatry as the Greeks had for Judaism. This is evidenced by the actions of Matityahu who not only attacked the Greek persecutor but also the Jew who worshipped the idol. See Encyclopedia Judaica 11:1128. As Maharal, Ner Mitzvah explains: the real battle of Chanukah was a battle of philosophies between the supernatural wisdom of the Torah and the natural wisdom of the Greeks. The Greeks did not attack the Jews but rather the philosophy of the Jews, demanding that the Jews not follow Torah. Greek thought could not tolerate the thought of Torah - and, it would seem, Torah could not tolerate Greek thought. Yet, Bereishit 9:27 implies that Torah does not totally reject Greek wisdom, demanding not singularity but dominance. There is purpose in Greek wisdom if Torah wisdom dominates. See, further, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bereishit 9:27. And, in fact, it also seems that the Greeks saw wisdom in Torah, demanding that the Five Books of Moses be translated into Greek. So the battle was actually, at first and in essence, not one of obliteration but rather of dominance - but if so, why did the Greeks eventually set their goal at eradication? Furthermore, the Greeks generally did not persecute the ideology of defeated nations. Why did they do so with the Jews?

We live in a world of limits; wisdom, though, challenges these parameters. As the Maharal points out, humanity should be at the mercy of the animal kingdom; it is wisdom that delivers the animals, stronger physically, into our hands. It seems that wisdom allows us, at times, to accomplish the impossible, to reach and go beyond perceived limitations - and humanity inherently wishes to soar beyond the limitations of boundaries. Yet natural wisdom also has its parameters, its rules - the laws of nature, science, reality. We can push boundaries to their limits but there are still boundaries. For much of humanity, though, any boundary is unacceptable, so many continuously postulate a world beyond reality, a world of the supernatural, of magic. In this world all is possible - there are no limits, no constraints of reason. There is also no wisdom.

The Greeks lived in the world of wisdom, rejecting that which contradicted reason, rejecting the conjectures of magic. But they felt no need to challenge and attack those who followed the world of magic for they knew that reason, in the end, would triumph -and thus they tolerated the religions of those whom they defeated. These religions had no connection to wisdom -there was no reason, no thought. They were built on faith in gods without even a minuscule amount of proof; they were followed in fear or in hope because people did not want to accept reality. There was no theory, no analysis, no investigation or justification of ideas. There was simply "I believe and therefore it is"; one could believe anything, accept anything. These religions were so much the antithesis of thought that the Greeks did not even think they were worth the effort of challenge. But Torah was different, completely different, and of Torah the Greeks were afraid.

Torah is not supernatural conjecture; it is wisdom. Even the Greeks understood that - but Torah is the unique wisdom of the Divine. Human natural wisdom has its parameters in the boundaries of physical reality, but Torah operates beyond these limitations for G-d rests above the laws of nature. Torah is wisdom - it contains thought, reason, analysis and ideas; Torah also rejects foolishness, conjectured magic. See most powerfully Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 11:16. Yet Torah's parameters are the supernatural, the Divine. The Greeks could not accept this dichotomy. To the Greeks, postulating a supernatural was a road away from wisdom. A world of the supernatural, a world of all-powerful gods, was the theory of the foolish that had no connection with thought. But before them was placed a wisdom called Torah that clearly demonstrated thought and whose adherents were wise - yet its foundation was a world beyond and its essence was Hashem. They could tolerate simplistic faith and magic for they did not challenge Greek wisdom; Torah, Divine wisdom, though, challenged the very essence of their being.

The Maharal points out that it is the number "8" that symbolizes the supernatural knowledge of Torah. The number "7" is deemed to indicate nature as evidenced by the seven days of Creation. Eight, the number beyond seven, is therefore perceived to represent that which is beyond nature - Torah, the qualitatively different knowledge not bound by the rules of nature. Yet the same way that eight builds from seven, Torah wisdom builds from natural wisdom. It is not make-believe, created in dreams of what one would like to be true. It demands thought, analysis, the travails of our mind - and in that way it relates to the wisdom of nature, but it stretches beyond natural wisdom's limitations. It is this stretch beyond natural wisdom - Torah's place as a greater wisdom than that which the Greeks had - that challenged the Greeks. On Chanukah, we celebrate not simply a victory, not simply a miracle, but the essence and supremacy of Torah thought and wisdom. This is symbolized in the miracle of the oil but al hanisim need not refer to this miracle for it simply need describe the very essence of this holiday - the victory of Torah wisdom.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

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