Friday, November 27th, 2020

The Unknown Miracle of Chanukah by Jeffrey R. Woolf

December 26, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

A quick survey of the types of lectures, shiurimarticles, and various other discussions of Hanukkah that flood the internet reveals that they focus on two, eminently predictable, motifs: the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Seleucid Greeks and and the miracle of the little cruse of oil, bearing the seal of the High Priest, that lasted eight days instead of one. How do these relate to one another? Why doesn’t the Talmud emphasize the military victory? Why do the First Book of Maccabees (IV, 56-59) and Josephus not mention the miracle of the cruse of oil?

All of these questions are important but, in my opinion, they miss a deeper, more central and more resonant miracle that occurred ‘in those days at this time of year.’ Allow me to explain.

The decrees of Antiochus IV Epiphanes were, in many ways, unparalleled in the history of civilization. Paganism, by its very nature, is extremely eclectic and, by extension, tolerant. The expectation was that everyone would worship and respect everyone else’s gods. After all, there were so many gods around, what difference would one more or less make? Over time, given the phenomenological similarity between the various groups of Gods, they became identified with one another. Amun merged with Ra, Zeus merged with Jupiter, and Jupiter merged with Baal; and so on and so on. There was no push, or need, to force anyone to worship other gods. As a result, moreover, the concept of apostasy was almost non-existent. Apostasy was, by definition, non-existent. (Socrates was executed on a charge of atheism i.e. not believing in ‘the gods.’) The only group in the ancient world that rejected this arrangement was the Jews, who were commanded by God ‘not to have any gods besides Me.’

Historians are sharply divided as to why Antiochus decided to wipe out Judaism, to forbid the worship of the One True God, and to force them to worship Zeus Olympus. Whatever his reasons, it is clear that this was the first time that Jews had encountered an out and out attack on Judaism, in its totality. (The affair described in Daniel 3 were a partial precedent, but not long lived. On that occasion, moreover, the Jews were not asked to abandon Judaism but to bow down to an idol. This was, of course, a heinous sin and constituted grounds for martyrdom. It was, however, not on the scale that Antiochus and his Jewish Hellenizing collaborators conceived.) For the first time, the question of martyrdom arose. Just when and for what infractions was one obligated to die? (The famous determination that one is martyred only when forced to worship idols, murder or submit to sexual immorality was only made in the years before the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Cf. Sanhedrin 74a.)

A. The Beginnings of Kiddush Ha-Shem

There appears to have been little, or no, unanimity on this question. And the initial responses (if we are to trust the stories in I Maccabees) came first from the people:

Ch. 1, 41-50: Moreover King Antiochus wrote to his whole kingdom, that all should be one people, And everyone should leave his laws: so all the heathen agreed according to the commandment of the king. Yea, many also of the Israelites consented to his religion, and sacrificed unto idols, and profaned the sabbath. For the king had sent letters by messengers unto Jerusalem and the cities of Judah that they should follow the strange laws of the land, And forbid burnt offerings, and sacrifice, and drink offerings, in the temple; and that they should profane the Sabbaths and festivals: And pollute the sanctuary and holy people: Set up altars, and groves, and chapels of idols, and sacrifice swine’s flesh, and unclean beasts: That they should also leave their children uncircumcised, and make their souls abominable with all manner of uncleanness and profanation: To the end they might forget the law, and change all the ordinances. And whosoever would not do according to the commandment of the king, he said, he should die.

57-63: And whosoever was found with any the book of the Law, or if any was committed to the law, the king’s commandment was, that they should put him to death. Thus they did by their authority to the Israelites every month, to as many as were found in the cities. Now, on the five and twentieth day of the month they sacrificed upon the idolatrous altar, that is, upon the altar of God. At which time according to the order they put to death certain women, that had caused their children to be circumcised. And they hanged the infants about their necks, and rifled their houses, and slew them that had circumcised them. Howbeit many in Israel were fully resolved not to eat any unclean thing. Wherefore they would rather die, that they might not be defiled with non-kosher meats, that they might not profane the holy covenant: so then they died.

2Maccabees 6,7-19: And in the day of the king’s birth every month they were brought by bitter constraint to eat of the [idolatrous] sacrifices; and when the fast of Bacchus was kept, the Jews were compelled to go in procession to Bacchus, carrying ivy…. And whoso would not conform themselves to the manners of the Gentiles should be put to death…For there were two women brought, who had circumcised their children; whom when they had openly led round about the city, the babes handing at their breasts, they cast them down headlong from the wall. And others, that had run together into nearby caves, to keep the Sabbath day secretly, being discovered by Philip, were all burnt together, because they made a commitment to help themselves for the honor of the most sacred day. Now I beseech those that read this book, that they be not discouraged for these calamities, but that they judge those punishments not to be for destruction, but for chastening of our nation. For it is a token of his great goodness, when evil doers are not tolerated for long, but are quickly punished. For not as with other nations, whom the Lord patiently waits to punish, till they be come to the fulness of their sins, so He deals with us, Lest that, being come to the height of sin, afterwards he should take vengeance of us. And therefore he never withdraws his mercy from us: and though he punish with adversity, yet He never forsakes His people. But let this that we at spoken be for a warning unto us. And now will we come to the declaring of the matter in a few words. Eleazar, one of the principal scribes, an aged man, and of a well favored countenance, was constrained to open his mouth, and to eat swine’s flesh. But he, choosing rather to die gloriously, than to live defiled with such an abomination, spit it forth, and came of his own accord to the torment.

B. Warfare on Shabbat

The challenge of religious persecution was not the only unparalleled challenge that faced the Jews of Eretz Yisrael. An even more striking example is described in I Maccabees, 2: 31-38:

Now when it was told the king’s servants, and the army that was in Jerusalem, the city of David that certain men, who had broken the king’s commandment, had gone down into secret places in the wilderness, a great number pursued them, and having overtaken them, they besieged them, and made war against them on the Sabbath day. And they said to them, Let that which you have done hitherto suffice; come forth, and obey the commandment of the king, and you shall live. But they said, We will not come forth, neither will we do the king’s commandment, to profane the Sabbath day. So then they gave them the battle with all speed. Howbeit they [i.e. those in the cave] answered them not, neither cast they a stone at them, nor blocked the places where they lay hidden. Rather, they said, “Let us die all in our innocence: Heaven and Earth will testify for us, that you put us to death wrongfully.” So the Greeks rose up against them in battle on the Sabbath, and they slew them, with their wives and children and their cattle, to the number of a thousand people.

This behavior is problematic, to say the least. What happened to the iron-clad rule that פיקוח נפש דוחה שבת; that saving a human life trumps Sabbath observance? Did the Jews, at the time, think that Kiddush Ha-Shem required dying and not fighting? Did they think that there was a difference between saving a life medically and fighting? Did they think (as one scholar has suggested) that using weapons was forbidden on Shabbat? Or, had it never happened that Jews fought on Shabbat? (This is not so farfetched since, until the nineteenth century, wars were formal affairs carried out in set piece battles by relatively small armies.)

Whatever the explanation, it is clear that many pious people (including rabbis) thought that fighting on Shabbat was forbidden. Something had to be done, and Mattathias acted:

39-42: Now when Mattathias and his friends understood hereof, they mourned for them severely. And one of them said to another: “If we all do as our brethren have done, and fight not for our lives and laws against the heathen, they will now quickly root us out of the earth.” At that time therefore they decreed, saying, Whosoever shall come to make battle with us on the Sabbath day, we will fight against him; neither will we die all, as our brethren that were murdered in the secret places.

I believe that Mattathias’ action was quite extraordinary. In order to understand why, we need to turn to yet another religious challenge that was posed by a happy occasion, the re-dedication of the Temple.

C. The Defiled Stones of the Altar

After the conquest of Jerusalem in Kislev, 165 B.C.E., the author of I Maccabees reports (42-47):

So he (i.e. Judah) chose priests of blameless conversation, such as had pleasure in the law: Who cleansed the sanctuary, and bare out the defiled stones into an unclean place. And when they consulted what to do with the altar of burnt offerings, which was profaned; They thought it best to pull it down, lest it should be a reproach to them, because the heathen had defiled it: wherefore they pulled it down, And laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, until there should come a prophet to show what should be done with them. Then they took whole stones according to the law, and built a new altar according to the former.

The altar had, albeit, been destroyed by the Babylonians but it had never been profaned. Two questions had arisen: 1) Can one continue to use the original altar, built in the Days of the Return to Zion? 2) Did the defiled stones retain any sanctity, and thus require respectful disposal, or not? The decision was to rebuild the altar with new stones. However, they could not decide what to do with the old ones. So they put them aside ‘until there should come a prophet to show what should be done with them.’ If they decided the one question, why not the second? And why wait for a true prophet? (Most of the Talmudic questions that are left over for Elijah’s coming are theoretical.)

One could object that the question of the final disposition of the old altar was not a burning concern, so that it could be delayed. Later in I Maccabees, however, we find a passage that sheds a different light on the desire for a ‘true prophet.’

After finally defeating the Greeks, and attaining national autonomy as a client state of the Seleucid Empire, I Maccabees 14, 35-41) reports:

The people therefore sang the acts of Simon, and unto what glory he thought to bring his nation, made him their governor and chief priest, because he had done all these things, and for the justice and faith which he kept to his nation, and for that he sought by all means to exalt his people….Also that the Jews and priests were well pleased that Simon should be their governor and high priest forever, until there should arise a faithful prophet.’

The combined role of rule (ethnarchos) and High Priest was unprecedented and controversial (cf. Kiddushin 66a and Ramban, Gen. 49, 10 s.v. וזה היה). Notice, though, that even the Jews were unsure of their actions and made them conditional upon the arrival of a true prophet, who would decide whether their action was legitimate, or not.

D. The Miracle of תורה שבעל פה

The Hanukkah story occurred less than three hundred years after the cessation of prophecy, in the time of Malakhi. Up to that time, it appears that (with all due respect to the Rambam) prophets played an integral role in interpreting the Torah, and did not confine themselves to exhortations and predictions. Consider, when the Jews wanted to know whether they should continue to fast on the Tenth of Tevet, the Ninth of Tammuz, the Ninth of Av and the Third of Tishrei, they asked the prophet Zekhariah (Zekh. 8, 19). Once prophecy ceased, Judaism became totally a religion devoted to the interpretation of the record of Revelation, i.e. the Torah, as a way of knowing what God desires of man. This, apparently, worked well during the fourth and third centuries.

In the second century, however, questions arose and decisions had to be made for which there was no precedent, no obvious verse, and no Divine guidance. Mattathias and his generation had to courageously step forward and take responsibility; to try to discern what the Torah teaches when one is required to eat non-kosher food, desecrate the Sabbath, delay circumcision, dispose of the sacred stones of the altar, create a form of government never seen in Israel prior to that time, and yes, to create a new holiday with absolutely no Divine mandate (direct or indirect).

They were well aware of the risks involved. They yearned for the appearance of a true prophet in those unparalleled, troubled times. Yet, they knew they must be courageous and act for Torah, out of the conviction that the Torah must have an answer for each new circumstance. To deny that would be nothing short of blasphemy.

The unknown miracle of Hanukkah, then, is the spiritual courage of the Sages of that generation to stand up and be counted. They didn’t cower in Battei Midrash and say that they can’t decide, they aren’t worthy and so on. The times demanded heroism. God and His Torah demanded heroism. So they stood up and acted heroically, all the while aware that the True Prophet might disagree. In his absence, though, they would do their best for Fear of God and Love of God.

The Rav זצ”ל used to say that Hanukkah is the holiday of Torah she-b’al Peh. I never really understood why.

I think that now I do.

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