The Incredible Story of The Miracle Twins

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Why the Hanukah celebration assumes extra special significance in today’s day and age

Hanukah is missing!

No, it’s not missing from contemporary Jewish practice… In fact, it’s probably the most widely known and most widely celebrated Jewish holiday.

But it’s missing from the first written halachic text – the Mishnah.

The Mishnah was compiled by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi (“Judah the Prince”) around 150 years after the destruction of the second Bet Hamikdah.  Until then, our halachic tradition was transmitted orally, as was Gd’s intent when He gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.  We were given the text of the Torah, with an oral tradition of how the text is to be interpreted and practically implemented.  This oral tradition is critical for a proper understanding of how to observe the Torah’s commands.  However, over the course of the turbulent centuries of exile and persecution, many disagreements arose, and people’s capacity to retain material diminished.  Rabbi Yehuda realized that unless the oral tradition was written down, it could easily be forgotten – and this would spell the end of Jewish practice, Heaven forbid.  And so, he compiled all of halachah, including the disputes among the different sages, into a six-volume body of text, known as the Mishnah.

The Mishnah covers the entire gamut of Jewish practice – the agricultural laws that apply in the Land of Israel, the laws of prayers and blessings, the laws of Shabbat and the holidays, the laws of marriage and divorce, monetary laws, the laws of sacrifices in the Bet Hamikdash, and the laws of ritual purity. 

But there is one thing missing – Hanukah!

Ironically, the holiday that is pretty much all that many people today know about Judaism, is conspicuously omitted from the first and most important text of Jewish practice.  There is no discussion in the Mishnah about the laws of Hanukah.  These laws are discussed in detail only later, in the Gemara, in Masechet Shabbat, tangentially as part of its discussion of the Shabbat candle lighting.

How could this be?  Why would Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi include the laws of all other Jewish holidays – including Purim, which, like Hanukah, was enacted by the rabbis, well after the giving of the Torah – but not the laws of Hanukah?

A technical answer is suggested by the Hida (Rav Haim Yosef David Azoulay, 1724-1806), in his work Devarim Ahadim.  He notes that the Hanukah story was already told in a book that predated the Mishnah – a book called Megilat Ta’anit, a brief account of the miraculous events that transpired during the period of the second Bet Hamikdash.  And therefore, Rabbi Yehuda felt no need to include Hanukah in the Mishnah.

It would seem, however, that there is a deeper reason for this omission.

The “Darkness” of Translation

Let us begin by examining a different question: what did the Jews of the Second Commonwealth do to deserve the crisis brought on by the Greeks?

The Gemara (in Masechet Megillah) addresses this question about the Purim story, asking why the Jews at the time were, initially, deserving of annihilation, before having Haman’s edict annulled through their prayers.  The answer, the Gemara says, is that the Jews had bowed to a statue erected by the Babylonian emperor.

But we do not find the Gemara ever asking this question about the Hanukah story.  Why did the Jews deserve to have the Greeks come and enact decrees against them, banning religious observance, requiring their prayers and courageous battles to regain their freedom?

This question was asked by Rav Tzadok of Lublin (1823-1900), in his work Resiseh Laylah.  And his answer might surprise us.

Rav Tzadok points to the first translation of the Bible.  During the early period of the Greek occupation, before the edicts banning religious observance, King Ptolemy, the king of Egypt under Greek rule, summoned 70 rabbis and had them translate the Torah into Greek.  This event is regarded by our tradition as a tragic one.  It is said that the sun did not rise for three days after the translation was written, and the Shulhan Aruch lists the 8th of Tevet – the day of this event – as one of the days when some especially pious individuals observe a fast as an expression of mourning.

We must ask, what is wrong with translating the Torah?  Today, there is an entire industry of translations of Torah texts, with the emphatic support and blessings of leading rabbis.  These translations make the wisdom and sanctity of the Torah accessible to those who are unfamiliar with Hebrew, and helps clarify the meaning of the text even for those who do know Hebrew.  What could be wrong with translation?  Why did this event bring “darkness”?

The Assault on Rabbinic Tradition

The Hatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839) explained that translating the text of the Torah into a foreign language has the effect of negating the Torah she’ba’al peh– the halachic interpretative tradition of the text.

Let’s give one simple example.  In the Torah’s discussion of the mitzvah of living in a sukkah during Sukkot, it spells the word “sukkah” in an unusual fashion, without the letter vav, such that the word could be read in the singular form – “sukkat.”  The Talmud derives an important halachah relevant to the observance of this mitzvah based on this reading of the word. 

Another example: When Moshe tells the people about the command to observe Shabbat, he introduces the command by saying, “Eleh hadevarim” – These are the things” that Gd commanded (Shemot 35:1).  The word “eleh” has the gematria (numerical value) of 36, and the word “hadevarim” (“the things”) implies an additional 3 – thus alluding to the 39 categories of forbidden activity on Shabbat.

These are just two of countless examples where subtle textual nuances form the basis of very important halachot that dictate the way the Torah is to be practiced.  The Hatam Sofer explained that these inferences can only be made from the original Hebrew text.  When the text is converted into a different language, it becomes “locked,” and completely divorced from the oral tradition.  It ceases to be the source of traditional Jewish practice.

This is why the translation of the Torah is considered a tragic event, and this is why, Rav Tzadok proposed, the Jews were deserving of persecution – because they agreed to translate the Torah into a different language, isolating it from the traditional interpretation of the text.

And this is precisely what the Greeks wanted.

Unlike some other villains who persecuted the Jews throughout the ages, the Greeks had no interest in killing Jews.  They fought Judaism, not Jews.  This is why there is no technical obligation to feast on Hanukah, as there is on Purim.  Purim celebrates our triumph over Haman, who wanted to physically eliminate the Jewish People, and we celebrate with our bodies, by feasting.  Hanukah, by contrast, celebrates our triumph over the Greeks, who wanted to extinguished the “light,” the wisdom and sanctity of Torah, and so we celebrate not by feasting, but by lighting candles.

But more specifically, the Greeks cleverly realized that the best chances they had of achieving their sinister aim was by extinguishing the “light” of the Torah she’be’al peh, our oral halachic tradition.  They had no problem with the Jews’ Bible – as long as it was translated into Greek, so it could not be understood according to our tradition.  They perceptively recognized that the secret to our nation’s spiritual survival is the Torah she’be’al peh– and so this was the focal point of their assault.

This also explains the Greeks’ handling of the Bet Hamikdash.  When the Babylonian Empire captured Jerusalem many years earlier, and when the Roman Empire captured Jerusalem many years later, they set the Bet Hamikdashablaze.  But when the Greeks took control of Jerusalem, they had no intention at all of dismantling or destroying the Bet Hamikdash.  Instead, they brought in their statues.  They had no problem with the Jews having a Bet Hamikdash– just as they had no problem with the Jews having a Torah.  But they insisted that the Bet Hamikdashwould not be run according to the Jews’ tradition – just as they insisted that the Torah would not be studied and understood according to the Jews’ tradition.

The Underground Flask

This might explain the conduct of the Hashmonaim(Hasmoneans, who led the revolt against the Greeks) after their miraculous triumph.

The Gemara famously tells that all the oil in the Bet Hamikdash had been defiled by the Greeks when they desecrated the site.  When the kohanim cleared the idols out of the Bet Hamikdash and reinstated the service, they wanted to light the menorah, but they found only one flask of oil that still bore the special seal indicating that it had not been tampered with.  The oil in this flask sufficed for the candles of the menorah to burn for just one day, but miraculously, they burned for eight days, until a fresh supply of pure oil was available.

The Tosafot commentary raises a halachic question about this story.  Elsewhere, the Talmud tells us that the sages enacted a decree conferring a state of tum’ah (ritual impurity) upon anything that a non-Jew touches.  This means that the object cannot be used with anything associated with the Bet Hamikdash, or with sacred food.  The sages enacted this law in an effort to avoid excessive socialization with non-Jews. 

In light of this prohibition, Tosafotwondered why the Hashmonaim were allowed to use the flask of oil with the seal.  Even though the jug was not tampered with, still, it was likely handled by the Greeks, such that it was impure and hence invalid for the kindling of the menorah.  Why did the Hashmonaim assume that this oil was valid, given the likelihood that it was touched by the Greeks?

Tosafotanswers that the jug was found buried underground, in some kind of protected hiding place, and so the Hashmonaim were confident that it was untouched, and hence suitable for the kindling of the menorah.

What’s surprising about Tosafot’s answer is not the answer itself – but rather the answer that is not given. 

At first glance, there seems to be a very simple answer to Tosafot’s question.  As far as Torah law is concerned, oil that was touched by a gentile is perfectly acceptable for the menorah.  It was the rabbis who enacted the law disqualifying such oil.  It would stand to reason that under the unique circumstances, after the Bet Hamikdash was finally freed from the hands of the Greeks, and only a single jug of pure oil was found, this oil should be used despite the rabbinic law disqualifying it.  Since Torah law permits the use of this oil, we might assume that under the extenuating circumstances, it should be used, so at very least the mitzvah can be fulfilled on the level of Torah obligation.

This would seem to be a very simple answer to Tosafot’s question: the Hashmonaim used this oil because they had no alternative, and according to Torah law, it was suitable.

But Tosafot, apparently, did not find this answer satisfactory.  They went so far as to say that the jug was found underground – because they could not countenance the Hashmonaimusing oi that was disqualified due to a law enacted by the rabbis.  Why?

The reason might be because the entire struggle of the Hashmonaim focused on the Torah she’be’al peh – our oral rabbinic tradition, which includes the laws enacted by the sages.  Lighting with oil that was acceptable by Torah law but not acceptable by rabbinic law would have undermined the essential meaning of this victory.  This battle was all about preserving our halachic tradition, and so the rekindling of the menorahneeded to satisfy every detail of this glorious tradition.

With this in mind, maybe we can suggest a reason for why Hanukah is “missing” from the Mishnah. 

We don’t sufficiently appreciate something until we don’t have it.  And so perhaps Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi wanted to “deprive” us of a discussion of Hanukah in the Mishnah to give us a sense of what the Greeks set out to do.  By not having a text of Torah she’be’al peh about Hanukah, we experience, if only slightly, the loss of the tradition which the Greeks wanted to take away from us.  This enhances our appreciation of the importance and significance of the Hanukah miracle, and enhances our joy and our celebration of this crucial victory.

The Uniqueness of Hanukah in Our Generation

If so, then we should be celebrating Hanukah today, in our generation, with special joy and intensity, more so than in any age since the Hanukah miracle.

The Greeks set out to wage war on the Torah she’be’al peh, and in our generation, baruch Hashem, we are witnessing an unprecedented resurgence of study of Torah she’be’al peh.  There are more full-time students today poring over the pages of the Talmud, its commentaries, and the halachic codes than at any other time in history.  And there are more laymen who devote time to serious Talmud study each day that at any other time in history.  The Daf Yomi study program – which will soon be celebrating the completion of its 13th cycle – has inspired thousands upon thousands of Jews throughout the world to take time each and every day to delve into the complex, intricate discussions of the Talmud.  Of course, the Jewish Nation always had towering scholars.  But the sheer number of people studying Gemara today, and the sheer number of works of advanced Talmudic and halachic scholarship that are written today, are unprecedented.

It might be no exaggeration to say that our generation is dealing the “final blow” to the Greeks.  The proliferation of Talmud study in our day marks the completion of the victory courageously scored by the righteous Hashmonaim many centuries ago.  The light which the Greeks tried to extinguish shines brighter than ever in our day and age.

Moreover, our society, like the Bet Hamikdash, has been “defiled,” overrun by contaminating forces, by “impure” values, norms, and conduct.  And yet, miraculously, our nation managed to salvage enough “purity” and holiness to not only rekindle the light of Torah, but to make this light shine brighter than ever.  Our generation has truly, and in a very real sense, experienced the Hanukah miracle anew.

We have much to celebrate and to be thankful for on Hanukah.  We must not get distracted by the contemporary “frills” that have been attached to the Hanukah celebration – gifts, parties, donuts, and potato pancakes.  There is certainly nothing wrong with any of these – as long as they do not obscure the real message of Hanukah, the vital importance of our halachic tradition, the spectacular resurgence of which in our age should make our celebration of Hanukah especially meaningful and especially significant.

Let us be mindful of the extraordinary modern-day Hanukah miracle, and joyfully celebrate the rekindling of Torah and commit ourselves to do everything we can to ensure that the beautiful  lights of Torah wisdom continue to burn brighter and stronger each and every day.