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    What was the Chanukah miracle?

    November 29th, 2021

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 28 November, 2021.

    The eight days of Chanukah are colourful, exciting and immensely popular, ranking with Purim in carnival spirit. Every type of talent is recruited toward the festival: art, music, drama, cookery. The games are absorbing. The songs centre on Ma’oz Tzur, with the annual debate as to whether the Chasof Z’ro’a Kodshecha stanza is genuine, and attempts to bring the song up to date with a final verse about the Holocaust and the emergence of Israel.

    The lights are lit, with the proponents of oil lights pitted against those who prefer candles. The donuts have a range of recipes (never mind how little they signify in the usages of the occasion). The chanukiyot also come in a plethora of shapes. Some chanukiyot are elegant and magnificent; in the Bayswater Synagogue in London years ago we organized a dazzling display ranging from a chanukiyah carved out of a potato, another made of bullet shells, a third built out of toy chairs.

    In the Hampstead Synagogue, our grand chanukiyah was pressed into service one winter when we had an electricity blackout and the shule had no lights. All this was Chanukah in the northern hemisphere winter. In summary, Australia, where I spent many years, Rabbi Mendel Kastel organized a Chanukah fair in Hyde Park opposite the Great Synagogue, with a public lighting of the chanukiyah.

    It wouldn’t do for a holiday to be without its heroes and its villains. It wouldn’t do for there to be any miracles; but which miracles? The Talmud asks in Tractate Shabbat, “What is Chanukah [what is the main essence of the festival]?” There is one approach in Tractate Yoma, and a different one in Tractate Shabbat. Yoma gives a nationalistic answer, saying the festival marks the conclusion of a brilliant military campaign led by Judah the Maccabee against the Syrian Greeks. Tractate Shabbat gives a spiritual, not a nationalistic explanation: “When the Hasmoneans became strong and overcame the enemy, they searched and could only find one bottle of oil with the seal of the high priest. It only contained enough oil for one day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with it for eight days.”

    The menorah problem was only one issue. The traditionalists “took counsel about the altar of burnt offering, which had been defiled.”

    Maimonides’ Laws of Chanukah say, “When Israel prevailed over their enemies and destroyed them, it was the 25th of Kislev. They entered the sanctuary but did not find any pure oil except for one jar in which there was only enough for one day. With it, they lit the lights of the menorah, which continued to burn for eight days until they could crush olives to produce pure oil.”

    Why did the oil need to keep burning for eight days? The following are some of the theories:
    1. To get a fresh supply of pure oil took four days of journeying from Jerusalem, and four days to return.
    2. The experts able to produce fresh oil had become ritually impure and had to wait for the defilement to pass. They could then prepare the fresh oil on the eighth day.
    3. Seven days were needed to rebuild the altar and the sacred vessels of the sanctuary. Only then could the seventh day be devoted to preparing fresh oil.
    4. There were actually two miracles. One is the discovery of the one-day supply of oil, the second the continuation of the day’s supply for a further week.

    In a Chanukah shiur, Rav JB Soloveitchik does not deny either miracle, the nationalistic or the spiritual. But he holds that the festival serves another purpose, the rededication of the altar. If the main thing is the miracle of the oil, it is hard to understand why the Torah readings on Chanukah recall the dedication of the altar by the princes of the tribes. If the main thing is the oil for the menorah, we would read Torah passages about the construction and use of the menorah.

    The passages about the dedication of the altar imply that the miracle of the oil was not an end in itself but a stage in the overall rededication, which was where the Maccabean effort was leading. “Chanukah” means “dedication,” and the festival derives its name not from the oil but from the restoration of the altar.

    The Soloveitchik approach, like the story of the jar of oil, exemplifies the rabbinic insistence that Chanukah was a battle for the soul of the Jew. When challenges need to be addressed, what should a Jew think and feel; how does a Jew express Jewish identity? The Jewish spiritual and cultural tradition must be preserved. If Jews focus on battles and not blessings, on fighting and not faith, a crucial dimension is missing.


    Was Antiochus a red herring?

    November 28th, 2021

    The Chanukah issue of the Jewish Chronicle on 1 December, 1961, carried an article by Raphael Loewe on the subject, “Did Greece harm Judaism?”

    Professor Loewe questioned the widespread view that Chanukah was merely a fun festival or a populist celebration of heroism. He argued that it was a serious moment for national reflection.

    He brushed Antiochus aside as an egotistical nobody who played for time for political reasons, hoping to prevent the engulfing of his realm into the Roman empire.

    According to Loewe, the Jews found themselves caught up in the struggle, but the real problem was neither the feelings of the Jews nor the pretensions of Antiochus. It was a cultural tug-of-war between Judaism and Hellenism. Loewe says the two cultures were not such implacable enemies as people imagine. The choice was how much or how little Hellenism to adopt.

    Was Hellenism something new? Unlikely: Jews had long been tempted by other civilisations. Was it that Greek culture promoted idolatry? The Bible was full of idolatrous episodes. Was it that human characteristics were ascribed to the Greek pantheon? Again nothing new. Judaism had long been concerned about human terminology applied to God (the arm of God, the hand of God, the mouth of God).

    Was immorality the problem? The Greeks did not invent immoral orgies or unethical excesses, and the Hebrew prophets had been attacking moral lapses for centuries. Was the problem a lack of ethics? The fact is that Greek ethical teaching had its commonalities with Jewish ethics.

    Did Hellenism threaten Jewish nationalism? The truth is that Jews had been tolerant of other ethnicities for generations. But now what Loewe called “a dramatic danger signal” shocked the Jews – perhaps the representational art of the Hellenistic world which challenged the strict Jewish sense of the nature of God. After all, the Greeks liked to be surrounded by statues and pictures, and they admired physical handsomeness. Judaism saw all this as an expression of avodah zarah, graven images.

    What Judaism valued was not physical man but non-physical God, not avodah zarah but avodah shebalev, inner virtue. What mattered was not looks but books. What mattered with God was His message.

    Solomon Schonfeld’s book The Universal Bible says the Greeks appreciated beauty as an end in itself, whereas Jews believed in beauty for goodness’ sake. The sages say that when the Torah speaks of Yefet dwelling in the tents of Shem (Gen. 10:27) it is making a statement that the beauty of Greece must not overwhelm the ethics of Israel. Samson Raphael Hirsch said Yefet beautified the world whilst Shem enlightened it.

    Loewe was wrong to belittle the hurt that Antiochus caused the Jews. He was wrong to brush aside the symbolism of the Greek adulation of art. The Jewish objection was not to art itself but to how it reduced Divine truth from Revelation to Reason.


    The lifting of the dreams – Mikketz

    November 28th, 2021

    This sidra and last week’s tell us a great deal about dreams.

    The dreams are mostly concerned with events and phenomena in Egypt and reflect times of slavery and oppression. Living all day in circumstances of persecution the Hebrews almost automatically dreamed of persecution.

    But the hard times are never the end of the story. No-one merely dreams that the future will always be a black nightmare. There is always the glimmer of hope, of the eventual coming of light when the darkness will roll away and a great destiny will unfold. That is Jewish history – the gloom that lifts and the glory that emerges.

    The situation today is that Jewish population figures are on the rise, Jewish observance is increasing, and Jewish loyalty is deepening. This is our response to antisemitism and anti-Israelism. Chief Rabbi Hertz used to say, “The answer to more antisemitism is more Semitism.”


    He forgot the suffering – Mikketz

    November 28th, 2021

    When Joseph’s son Manasseh was born he gave him a name that derived from a verb that means to forget.

    Gen. 41:51 tells us that Joseph forgot the years of suffering that made his earlier life so hard and harsh. Yet if the suffering was so true and so terrible, how could Joseph forget it? It sounds inhuman and quite impossible!

    The explanation must be that the hardship was such a reality that it could never be erased from Joseph’s memory, but Joseph could say to himself, “Because it happened, I am going to make sure that my child – and other people’s children – never have to undergo an experience like mine, and what I am going to try to do is to build up an environment in which children know only fun and fairness, when fear and desperation will be eliminated for ever!”


    Was Joseph an avrech? – Mikketz

    November 28th, 2021

    When Joseph went by in his chariot in Egypt, the court officials called out Avrech!

    If this word comes from berech, a knee, it is a call for homage, “Kneel in obeisance!” (cf. Gen. 24:11).

    The view of the Talmud (BB 4a), together with Onkelos and Rashi, is that it means “Father (av) of the king (rach)” suggesting “a royal statesman”.

    Rabbinic usage in the halachic Midrash, the Sifrei, says avrech is a Talmudic student; in that sense the word combines “young in years, old in wisdom” – av b’chochmah, rach b’shanim.

    There are two categories of yeshivah student, the unmarried bachur and the married avrech. The second category act as role models for the first. One of the great achievements of the contemporary Jewish world is the proliferation of yeshivot and the constant increase in numbers of bachurim and avrechim.

    The alarmists who snoot about how bad things are on the Jewish scene have not realised (or prefer to deny) that our great growth industry is Jewish learning.