Chanukah 5779 – Part V: Where the Chashmonaim Right?

IMG_0779.JPGAs Yaakov Avinu lay on his deathbed in Parshas Vayechi, he doles out final brachos to his children. When it comes to his son Yehuda, part of the blessing states that the “the scepter shall not depart from Yehuda.” Ramban explains that this means that when there will ultimately be a king that rules over the Jewish people, that king will be from the tribe of Yehuda. However, the Chashmonaim were not from the tribe of Yehuda, but actually from the tribe of Levi. Their rule over the Jewish people deviated from the bracha given to Yehuda. Were the Chashmonaim right to take over the leadership?

Nachmanides maintains that, even though their victory was a tremendous feat, that the Chashmonaim themselves were very pious individuals, and they caused the Torah to not be forgotten by the greater Jewish population, as they assumed the monarchy, they were in violation of the mandate of Yaakov Avinu. Ramban continues that despite their tzidkus, the Chashmonaim were punished for taking over the kingdom. This is evidenced by four of Matisyahu’s sons being killed by their enemies as they each served as king. Furthermore, the Gemara (Bava Basra 3b) teaches us that anyone who posits that they descend from the Hasmonean dynasty is a slave. King Herod was a “Hasmonean” as he was a non-Jewish slave of the Chashmonaim, and eventually killed the remaining members of the family and usurped the throne.

All of this occurred, according to Ramban, because the “scepter” departed from Yehuda.

Rabbi Menachem Genack in Birkas Yitzchak, points out that Rambam states differently. In fact, Maimonides makes no criticism of the Chashmonaim at all. In Hilchos Chanukah, Rambam seems to infer that since a primary responsibility of the Kohanim was upkeep of the Beis HaMikdash, that only through their taking over the kingship could this kedushah have been maintained.

Chanukah 5779 Part IV – A Time for Teshuvah, Revisited

IMG_8447.JPGWe have discussed previously that Chanukah is a holiday with many different themes and one such overtone is that of teshuvah. Rabbi Elimelech Biderman explains that this notion is alluded to in the Al HaNissim recited on Chanukah. We discuss the miracles of the battle, how the puny army Chashmonaim was triumphant against the stronger, larger Greek army. The text of Al Hanissim states that “You gave the mighty into the hands of the weak; the many into the hands of the few. The impure fell into the hands of the pure, the wicked fell into the hands of the righteous, and sinners fell into the hands of those who study Torah.” The first part, extolling the virtues of the Yevanim falling to the Jews, despite outnumbering them, is understandable. Rav Biderman quotes Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev in explaining that the next few phrases need more elucidation. Why is it considered to be an overt miracle that the impure fell to the pure, the wicked fell to the righteous, and that the sinners fell to those who are preoccupied with Torah study? Can it be that out of the ordinary that tzaddikim reign supreme in war?

Rav Levi Yitzchak answers that not only did the Chashmonaim win the war, but the aftermath of the fighting sparked a tremendous wave of teshuvah among the Jewish people. When the Jews saw the valiant Greek militia suffer defeat from a group of Torah scholars, they did not take this lightly. They began to repent for their shortcomings. It showcased to them that just as one is loyal to God, that He will be loyal to them. Thus, the message in the words of Al HaNissim is that the impure became pure, the wicked became righteous, and the sinners became engrossed in limud haTorah!

 

Chanukah 5779 Part III – Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin

When one thinks about the words “mehadrin” or “mehadrin min hamehadrin” they may immediately think of a hashgacha on food or a restaurant. What they will or won’t eat. Yet, this term traces back to the Gemara in reference to those who light the Chanukah candles.

Shabbat (21b) teaches that there are three distinct levels when it comes to the minimum amount of candles/oils that must be lit for one to fulfill the mitzvah: 1) One light for a person and their entire household; 2) One light for each night for each member of their household (The Mehadrin view); and 3) One light for each member of the household. Beit Shammai records that on the first night, each menorah would have eight lights and light would be diminished from the menorah until the final night. Beit Hillel records, and what is ultimately ruled as the Halacha, that each night we begin with one light, and increase the lights in our chanukiot through the final day of Chanukah. This final presentation is that of the Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin.

Yet, if one were to look inside the Halachic literature on how to conduct the lighting of the chanukiah, the Shulchan Aruch does not list the first two opinions as viable options as part of the protocol. The Halacha, as recorded by Rav Yosef Karo, is that one must light in the way explained as the view of the Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin. Even one who is extremely destitute must get the money to procure acceptable accoutrements for lighting the Chanukah licht.

This idea is perplexing. There are many mitzvos we are commanded to keep that have added ways in which they can be embellished. The idea of hiddur mitzvah, to beautify the mitzvah that we are about to do, is a wonderful way to provide a deeper connection and meaning to the commandment. But nowhere else do we find this extra level of hiddur as part and parcel to the performance of the mitzvah itself. Rabbi Aharon Ziegler explains in The Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik that, such as finding an esrog, the idea of an item or act being mehudar is left to the discretion of the financial ability of the one doing the act or securing the item for use. We do not find any sort of mandatory stringency in regard to any other mitzvah. What is the meaning behind this forced acceptance of hiddur mitzvah?

The answer, one cited by both Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Avraham Schorr, is that this extra hiddur in regard to ner Chanukah is because of the very nature of how the holiday itself unfolded. When the Beis HaMikdash was sacked by the Greek oppressors, the Jews who entered the carnage found many jugs of oil strewn about. Yet, in their scrupulousness to get the menorah lit, they would not settle for lighting with oil that was contaminated by the Yevanim. Miraculously, as we know, there was one jug of oil that still maintained the seal of the Kohen Gadol, not made impure by the Greeks in their siege. Therefore, it is precisely because of the zeal of the Chashmonaim and their stringent quest to only light the menorah with pure oil that we light our own menorahs with that same approach in mind. Because the Jews would only use the purest oil that they could find, an embellishment on the avodah itself, we also continue that trend in our homes every Chanukah.

Chanukah Part II – Bringing the Shechina Down

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There is a concept in Judaism that the Divine Presence does not descend lower than 10 tefachim. This derives from the Gemara (Sukkah 5a) which explains that during Matan Torah, the Aron HaKodesh was 10 tefachim in height. The Shechina was above the Aron HaKodesh, above the 10 tefach minimum. However, when it comes to Chanukah we find a unique law: our candles/oils in our chanukiah are to be between 3 and 10 tefachim from the ground (Shabbos 21a).

This seems to fly in the face of the previous point. If God’s Presence will only descend within 10 tefachim from the ground, why do we light our menorahs below that height? We know that Hashem is everywhere and discerns all, but, fire hazards aside, wouldn’t it make more sense to bring our flames closer to the Shechina?

Rabbi Moshe Wolfson explains that Chanukah is of a different nature. He continues that kindling the lights is an act of kindling our souls, bringing them closer to the Ribono Shel Olam. Despite the previously stated idea of the Shechina not dipping below the 10 tefach threshold, God’s Presence descends in order to light the souls of those who need assistance.

There are times when one feels as if they are so low, so far removed from any semblance of holiness or relationship with Hashem. The Kedusha, this fire, is usally too high for this individual to grasp, but on Chanukah, the Shechina comes down to us. This is only referring to one who does not live a life of punctilious mitzvah obersvance, but to those who find themselves stuck in a spiritual rut as well.

To those who exert the energy to take part in the mitzvah of Chanukah candles, the Shechina will come down to them, and aid them getting closer and closer to the Almighty.

Chanukah 5779 Part I – The Forbidden Triumvirate

unnamed.jpgAs the Torah begins in Parshas Bereishis, the second verse tells us that there was a great darkness that encompassed the vast, nascent world. The Midrash explains to us that this darkness is represented by Galus Yavan, as the Greeks sought to darken the eyes of the Jewish people through the restrictive laws they imposed upon them. In particular, the Jews were prohibited from blessing the new month, keeping Shabbos, or performing bris milah.

These three mitzvos are indeed unique, yet all of our mitzvot are. What is special about this particular collection of mitzvos that the Yevanim sought to erase from Jewish life entirely?

First, the mitzvah of kiddush hachodesh is the first that the newly-freed-from-Egypt Jewish people were given. At first glance, that may not make sense in itself. Out of all of the mitzvos in the torah, this is first one. Do we consider this to even be a major commandment? If you were woken up in the middle of the night and were told to name the most important mitzvos we have been given, I’d expect to hear probably one of the Aseres Hadibros. Anochi Hashem Elokecha, Not to have other Gods, Shabbos, honoring your parents, any one of the “Thou Shalt Nots.” While close in proximity, just a few parshios away from the Ten Commandments, that’s really the closest that “Hachodesh Hazeh Lachem” gets to our top ten, so to speak. Sforno explains that this mitzvah provides structure for the Jewish people, something that sets the tone for their existence as a free people. When one is a slave, their time was not their own. Each month had an agenda that was created by their taskmasters. When this would no longer be the case, God instructed the leaders of Klal Yisrael to set boundaries in order to provide them with a structure of time that will set them up for success. 

The second of the forbidden three mitzvos under Greek rule was Shabbos observance. One could easily describe Shabbos as the most important day of the week. Its splendor stems from when the Almighty Himself rested after taking stock of all that He had created during the sheishes yemei Bereishis. The very notion that God rested seems a bit peculiar. The Master of the Universe was fatigued? Not exactly. Just as He rested, we rest. Shabbos itself appears much earlier than the notion of marking Rosh Chodesh in the Torah. Our liturgy extols the unique nature of Shabbos. We recite in Lecha Dodi that this day is the source of all blessing, and later in the Amidah for Maariv that Hashem blessed this day more so than any other, sanctified it more than any other of the zmanim. We honor Shabbos and keep it holy, concepts that trace back to the Torah and that help us become closer with the Ribono Shel Olam. Sometimes the day of rest seems like anything but that. We find menucha in the tefillot and through out Shabbat meals. They say more than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jews. Knowing what we do about the central role of the seventh day to the Jewish experience, we would be a wandering people without it.

Bris Milah was the covenant that Hashem made with Avraham Avinu, and noted as a symbol between God and Bnai Yisrael throughout Tanach. The act itself is a removal of a barrier that hinders our connection to God. Rabbi Nosson Scherman notes in Artscroll’s book on Bris Milah that the term “orlah” is found in Scripture refers to some sort of roadblock in the way of holiness. Some think of orlah as it manifests in reference prohibiting the fruit from a tree within the first three years of its blooming. Additionally, the Torah (Vayikra 19:23) comments that one who is obstinate to doing teshuva is exhibiting “orlas halev”, an orlah on their heart. Without removing this barrier, their is a tremendous lack of kedusha, even on one who is very young.

By penalizing Klal Yisrael for kiddush hachodesh, the Jewish people were not able to consecrate their time to the Almighty. Without the ability to keep Shabbos, the Jewish people would not be privy to the blessings during the rest of the week. By ‘assur-ing” bris milah, the Greeks sought to maintain the physical, yet spiritual barrier between Hashem and His people.