I’ve been dancing around this idea for some time. It started when I questioned Rashi. Perhaps my tone was irreverant, but I still think my point was valid. How much deference do we need to give rishonim, just because they’re rishonim?
If you will allow me, I’d like to continue on the theme of questioning the mesorah, particularly the mesorah that does not start at Sinai.
Today’s interesting idea that seems heretical at first blush, but just makes so much sense that you absolutely have to think hard about what it means:
“There is one aspect of frum Chanukah that truly brings this sense of ahistory into sharp relief. Case in point: the Bais Yosef’s Kasha. To those of you lucky enough to be uninitiated in the frum cult, this peculiar obsession of frum Chanukah takes the form of a question. The Bais Yosef asked, “If the oil could have lasted for one day, but lasted for eight, only seven of them can be termed miracles. So why celebrate eight (rather than seven) days?”This “difficulty” occupies a special place in the frum universe; it’s a “true” classic. Gallons of ink were poured to answer this stupid question. Virtually every frum commentator since his time has had a crack at it. There’s even a very large sefer consisting of nothing but answers to this one question. However, every single one of those answers is wrong — completely, utterly, and totally wrong.
Before I get to the correct answer, let’s understand why they’re wrong. Don’t worry, I don’t have to refute them all, one at a time. The reason they’re off-base is simple: it’s a legend. The story of the miraculous oil was made up approximately six hundred years after the events of Chanukah. Of course the rabbinical legend has inconsistencies — it’s fiction. There’s no point in trying to “fix” them. It’s like reading Curious George and trying to explain how so few balloons could lift a monkey of George’s heft.
Now, to the real answer to the Bais Yosef’s Kasha.Due to their aforementioned lack of history sense, most frum people have no idea that there are books written from the era of the Maccabees. Nor do they know that these books make no mention of any miracles. Were you to read the actual history of Chanukah, when you get to the part about the rededication [chanukah] of the Temple, you’d find the following:
10:5 Now upon the same day that the strangers profaned the temple, on the very same day it was cleansed again, even the five and twentieth day of the same month, which is Casleu [Kislev].
10:6 And they kept the eight days with gladness, as in the feast of the tabernacles [Sukkot], remembering that not long afore they had held the feast of the tabernacles [Sukkot], when as they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts.
10:7 Therefore they bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also [lulavim, hadassos, aravos], and sang psalms [Hallel] unto him that had given them good success in cleansing his place.
10:8 They ordained also by a common statute and decree, That every year those days should be kept of the whole nation of the Jews.
That’s right, the very first Chanukah was a delayed Sukkot. Sukkot traditionally required going to the Temple, but on the correct date for Sukkot, the Temple was still under Seleucid control, so it was not celebrated properly. The Maccabees cleverly scheduled the Temple’s grand reopening on the anniversary of its sacking, and celebrated Sukkot like it’s supposed to be. It was especially poignant due to the fact that the transient and ephemeral living embodied in the story of Sukkot was so resonant with them, having just spent so long hiding in mountains and caves. Furthermore, the book opens with a letter to the Jews in Alexandria, telling them to celebrate this new holiday:
1:9 And now see that ye keep the feast of tabernacles [Sukkot] in the month Casleu [Kislev].
That is the correct answer to the Bais Yosef’s Kasha. The reason Chanukah is eight days (instead of seven) is because it was a delayed Sukkot, which has eight days. It was always eight days, and the rabbis made their legend match the extant practice, leading to the slight inconsistency noted by the Bais Yosef.
Before I close this post, I’d like to add a piece of speculation. The Mishna nevers discusses Chanukah, even going so far as to give a grave warning against reading the Books of Maccabees (Sanhedrin 10:1). In the only Gemara to discuss Chanukah, history gets three lines, while ritual minutaie get more than three pages. However, there is one interesting link in this rabbinified version of Chanukah that may hint at their knowledge of its true origins.In the discourse on how to light the Chanukah candles, two opinions are proffered. One says to start with one candle on the first night and add one each night, until you are lighting eight on the final night. The other says to start with eight and remove one each night. Where it gets interesting is the reason offered for the latter position. The justification given is that the candles represent “parei hechag,” the bulls of the holiday. By this he means the bulls offered on Sukkot. As recounted in the Torah, those bulls were offered in decreasing number each successive day.The commentators struggle to explain why that Sukkot practice is relevant to Chanukah lights. Some of them are almost amusing in their tortured logic. I’d like to offer a possibility; that this could be a partial remnant of the earlier explanations for the custom of the Chanukah lights.”
(Redacted from here) (Maybe this is also why we read Hallel on Chanuka and not on Purim? Because we read Hallel on Sukkot?)
Brilliant, no? A little unsettling, too. The idea that Nes Chanuka is a misnomer? That there was no miracle? That the holiday is valid, certainly, but for none of the reasons we think?
But the question is, and where this gets dicey for me, what to do with all that “scholarship” about the Beis Yosef’s question? It’s good learning, and certainly good academically, but if we can learn the story of Chanuka without all the miraculous mumbo-jumbo, kiddy-stories, shouldn’t we? Does it become irrelevant? Worse yet, wrong?
If the Hashmona’im didn’t recognize a miracle in what happened, and didn’t establish the holiday to celebrate the “miracle” then aren’t we wrong to inject that into it? Doesn’t Hashem say not to rely on miracles? Wouldn’t seeing a miracle where there wasn’t one be just as bad?
Again, where does this leave us, in modern times, with the hundreds of years of explanations and rishonim that are wrong? Am I still a heretic for questioning them?