Friday, December 23, 2005

Hanukkah (Rambam)

Eight Days of Joy and Praises

Maimonides devotes the third of the fourteen books, Sefer Zemanim, to special times: Sabbaths, festival days, and other fixed commemorative occasions. The structure of the book follows a logical progression: beginning with the various categories of holiness in time in general: Shabbat, Yom Kippur and festival days (Hilkhot Shabbat, Eruvin, Shevitat Asor, Yom Tov); laws of the special mitzvot characteristic of the major holidays: Hametz u-Matzah on Passover, and Shofar Sukkah ve-Lulav for the festivals of Tishrei; continuing with other special dates: the annual collection of money for the temple (Shekalim), the structure of the calendar itself (Kiddush ha-Hodesh), and fast days (Ta’aniyot); and concluding with the two Rabbinic holidays of Purim and Hanukkah (Hilkhot Megillah ve-Hanukkah). Interestingly, rather then jumping straight in, so to speak, with a discussion of the central mitzvah observed on Hanukkah, the lighting of lamps, Rambam begins with a historical overview of the reason for the holiday. Hilkhot Hanukkah 3.1:

1. During the Second Temple, when the Grecian kings issued edicts against Israel and abolished their law and did not allow them to engage in Torah and mitzvot, and tried to take their money and their daughters, and they entered the Sanctuary and made breeches therein and contaminated the pure things. And Israel were greatly oppressed because of this, until the God of their Fathers took pity upon them and delivered them from their hand and saved them. And the Hasmonean high priests overcame them and killed them, and saved Israel from their hand, and crowned a king from among the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than two hundred years until the destruction of the Second Temple.

2. And when Israel overcame their enemies and destroyed them, it was on the 25th day of Kislev, and they entered into the sanctuary and did not find any pure oil in the Temple save for one vial, and there was only enough to light for one day alone. But they lit the candles of the menorah with it for eight days, until they pressed olives and took pure oil.

3. And for this reason the Sages of that generation decreed that these eight days, beginning on the 25th of Kislev, should be days of joy and reciting praises (Hallel), and one lights lamps therein in the evening on the gates of the houses on each of these eight nights, to show and to display the miracle. And these days are called Hanukkah….

Unlike the popular image of Hanukkah, which stresses the miracle of the oil lamp, Rambam here emphasizes the struggle with the alien, Greek culture, which forcibly prevented the Jews from following their own religious precepts and culture, violated the modesty of their daughters, etc. Both the Temple itself, and the miracle of the oil, are shown here as secondary to the broader framework of Torah and mitzvot. Characteristically, it is the theological framework—the ability to study and observe Torah —that is utmost in Rambam’s mind.

It is interesting to contrast this with the Talmudic passage on the same subject, at Shabbat 21b:

What is Hanukkah? As our rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev [begin] the eight days of Hanukkah, on which one may not say eulogies or fast therein. When the Greeks entered the sanctuary they contaminated all the oils that were in the Sanctuary, and when the kingdom of the Hasmonean house overcame and defeated them, they looked, and found only one vial of oil that was left with the seal of the high priest, and there was only enough to light one day. A miracle was done and they lit from it for seven days eight days. The following year they fixed these and made them festive days, with Hallel and thanksgiving.

The opening here is reminiscent of Megillat Ta’anit, a short book containing a list of minor holidays observed in Second Temple period, whose salient feature was the absence of overtly sad activities. The entry for each day begins with an Aramaic statement (“on such-and-such a day one does not fast a/o eulogize), followed by a scholion, a Hebrew explanation of the origin and meaning of each day. The above Talmudic passage is in this format, and in fact contains snippets from the scholion for Hanukkah, with many deletions and somewhat reworded. (I had hoped to present and discuss that source as well, but exigencies of time prevented me from doing so; perhaps I will return to it at a later date).

Here, the emphasis is almost wholly on the miracle of the oil. As in the Rambam, the discussion of Hanukkah begins with a recounting of the historical background—itself a rather interesting move, very different from almost any other holiday—but here, it starts specifically with the aspect related to the Temple, the violation of its sanctity, and specifically the miracle of the oil. Why? One could say: since the outstanding symbol of the holiday, differentiating it from all others, is the oil lamps (or candles) lit every night, these need to be explained—but that is almost begging the question. What was so important about the menorah that made it so central as a symbol of the restoration of Jewish autonomy and religious freedom—compared with, say, offering the daily offering, or the incense offered on the inner altar?

As small children, many of us were taught that the central feature of the Jewish synagogue is the lamp kept burning over the Aron Kodesh, the “eternal light” (Indeed, there was even a weekly radio program of that name on WQXR). (But, incidentally, my own experience has been that this is far from true; there are many synagogues, including quite a few very strictly Orthodox ones, which do not in fact have such an artifact. Nor am I sure what the standing of this custom is from a halakhic purview.) In any event, light is symbol of wisdom. “He who wishes to be wise, should turn south”—a saying alluding to the fact that the menorah in the ancient Temple was located on the southern side of the Sanctuary, opposite the shewbread table on the north, representing wealth and material needs.

The struggle with the Greeks was essentially over the nature of wisdom. The Greek culture was a highly sophisticated one, with traditions of philosophy, of science, of historical writing, with a highly developed literature of epic, drama and satire, etc. In truth, though, one must state that the form in which it reached Eretz Yisrael during the second century BCE was a rather bastardized version: “Hellenism,” with its debased, Koine dialect of Greek, rather than the “Hellenic” culture of the homeland. It was a kind of offshoot culture for the colonies, which imitated that of the predominant world power without grasping its inner essence; rather like the ubiquity of MacDonald’s, Baywatch, Coca Cola, and jeans in various far-flung parts of the world, without any real sense of the higher, more serious, worth-while elements of American culture. In any event, the essence of the struggle was over the nature of wisdom.

At an address delivered recently at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev honoring newly awarded doctorates, Prof. Yaakov Blidstein spoke of three understandings of wisdom and the reason for its pursuit. In one view, that of Francis Bacon, wisdom is power—over nature, over the universe, perhaps over other people as well. For Aristotle, the love of wisdom is an inborn human trait, a fundamental drive. In Judaism, specifically in the Maimunidean view, the acquisition of wisdom and knowledge is a form of Avodat Hashem, leading to the knowledge of God. He concluded by referring to Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, whose leitmotif is that “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” He added that the fox is always jealous of the hedgehog, but not vice versa, because there is a constant desire for integrated, unitive wisdom (at the end of his life, Albert Einstein sought to create a unified field theory). The essence of Jewish wisdom is unity: seeing the roots of all things in the One.

Hanukkah and Domestic Harmony

The concluding section of Rambam’s “Laws of Hanukkah” is interesting in a rather different way. On the one hand, he notes the great importance and “preciousness” of Hanukkah; on the other, he brings some laws which place the lighting of Hanukkah candles within a certain relative context, comparing it with other mitzvot. Which mitzvah is more important? The situation posed is one difficult for most of us to even imagine: a situation of such dire poverty that one does not have enough money for Hanukkah candles and Shabbat candles, or for candles and wine for Kiddush on Friday night, but must choose among them. Hilkhot Hanukkah, Ch. 4:

12. The commandment of the Hanukkah light is very precious, and a person must be very careful about it, so as to make the miracle known and to augment the praise and thanksgiving to God for the miracles He did for us. Even if he has nothing to eat except from charity, he must borrow or sell his garment to obtain oil and wicks for the light.

13. If he had only one perutah (i.e., the smallest unit of currency), and he needs to perform both Kiddush and the lighting of Hanukkah lamps, he must give preference to buying oil to light the Hanukkah candle, prior to wine for Kiddush. Since both are Rabbinic ordinances, it is preferable to give precedence to the Hanukkah candle, which involves remembrance of the miracle.

14. If he needed to light the lamp for his home [i.e., Shabbat candles] and Hanukkah candles, or the lamp for his home and Kiddush for Shabbat, lighting the lamp for his home takes precedence, because of domestic peace—for even the Divine Name is erased to make peace between a man and his wife. Great is peace, for the entire Torah was given to increase peace in the world, as is said, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” Prov 3:17].

Two criteria come into play here: on the one hand, when comparing two Rabbinic mitzvot (both of which are also commemorative: the Shabbat, and especially its Kiddush, commemorate Creation; Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of God’s redemptive intervention in history), preference is given to that mitzvah that relates more to an overt miracle. On the other hand, when both of these are compared to the Shabbat lamp, or candles—which are lit, not only as a symbol of Shabbat, as they are for most modern Jews, but to provide actual illumination for the family table on Friday night (do not forget that this was long before the advent of electricity)—the element of “shalom bayit” comes into play. If the house is dark, and people need either to eat their meal hurriedly to exploit the waning rays of daylight, or to sit in the darkness and stumble around, the Shabbat can hardly be a day of joy—and quarrels are likely to break out. “You shlemeil,” the wife may nag her husband, “You can’t even earn enough to buy a few drops of oil for the Shabbat lamp. What good are you?” To avoid such a situation, greatest priority is given to oil for the Shabbat lamp. (The reference to the Name being erased to make peace between a man and his wife refers to the ritual of the bitter waters, a trial by ordeal to determine whether a woman had committed adultery [Num 5:11-31]. Hopefully, she will be proven to have been virtuous, thereby assuaging the husband’s suspicions and restoring harmony between the two.)

This passage concludes, not only Hilkhot Hanukkah, but the Book of Times as a whole. It is interesting that Rambam concludes every section of the Yad with a festive peroration, bringing out some moral, theological or spiritual point. Indeed, he deliberately organized his material in such a way as to place suitable material at the very end. For example, this passage, based upon a rather marginal point within the Talmudic sugya of Hanukkah, is here brought at the very end in order to emphasize the point about domestic peace. The Talmudic discussion (Shabbat 23b) saves the more difficult dilemma at the end: “It’s obvious that domestic peace is more important, but how is one to decide between the fixity of Shabbat kiddush and the publicizing of the miracle of Hanukkah?” Here, shalom bayit takes the place of honor.

There is another aspect as well. According to the late Prof. Yaakov Levinger of Tel Aviv University, whom I had the pleasure of knowing personally, the perorations at the end of each book serve a double purpose: to bring the book to a close with a moral message, and to serve as a transition to the next book, by providing a thematic tie-in to the next book. Hence, the reference to domestic harmony is a perfect introduction to the entire discussion of marriage and family life that forms the subject of Sefer Nashim. Even cursory examination of the perorations of the other books will show this to be the case throughout: the discussion of the love of God at the end of Teshuvah paves the way for Sefer Ahavah, the book of mitzvot that express ongoing love of God; the conclusion of Shemitah ve-Yovel, discussing the special role of the Levites as paradigmatic of all those who “thrust off the yoke of mundane cares” serves as transition from the Book of Seeds (agricultural law) to Sefer Avodah, the book of the Temple service performed by priests and Levites. And so on.

* * * * *

I find a certain irony in the fact that the dominant musical mode of this holiday, which symbolizes rejection of Hellenism, is so “goyish.” The nearly-universal melody for Maoz Tzur is based on a Lutheran hymn, while for change of pace, there is Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus or some rather puerile children’s songs about latkes and dreidels—as if the holiday were only for children. I once heard that some Hasidic rebbes were accustomed to introducing a new melody for Maoz Tzur every year, or even every one of the eight nights, but I have not heard any of these. Perhaps this is best understood as a “lifting up” of the sparks of holiness in the mundane, in Hasidic fashion.


Blogger Daniel & Anat said...

beautiful! I googled "hanukkah priority friday night" to find an exposition of the kiddush - candles trade-off and enjoyed the way you framed it.
Chanukka Sameach to you and your family from NYC,
Daniel Coleman

9:25 PM  

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