Mesorah: More Than Just a Camp in Pennsylvania?

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?


8 responses to “Mesorah: More Than Just a Camp in Pennsylvania?

  1. Mesorah is actually in New York. Guilford, NY to be exact. Close enough though.

  2. You’re not only a heretic – You’re the Grinch that stole Chanukah.

    The only way I would agree with your shita is if it means that we should get 8 days of presents on Succos as well.


  3. So many issues to touch on, I don’t have time to address them all, and I hope I will make a coherent argument. Bear with me.

    I would like to comment on your source, however. I couldn’t figure out what website that was or who wrote that article. As you may know, the Book of Chashmonaim was never accepted into Tanach, the term, I believe, is Apochrypha. So before we take its writings as truth, and then question later Halachic discussions , why not ask the reverse question?

    I think what you are really getting at is the gap that seems to exist between Torah and halachic practice as we know it, and the history that actually happened as quoted by various sources. (Big example, dinosaur fossils vs being at the year 5766.) Or the example of Chanukah you quote.

    So, what question should we ask? Not whether the rishonim had any clue, or whether our practice is grounded in reality. No. Perhaps things really happened in a way different than we perceive. Its hard to really know. What we should be asking as how does the halachic practice as prescribed go toward improving us as Torah Jews.
    If Beit Shammai knew about the concept of a late Sukkot and hence suggested the decreasing candle method, then why is Halacha like Beit Hillel? Maybe, b/c the historical precedent is not the most important aspect of the holiday, but rather, what our halachic practice reflects about us as Torah Jews is the most important.

  4. The post was written to a blog, that has since been taken down. I copied it from a comment thread on a different blog, where it was reposted. I linked to it.

    With regard to the point of your argument, let me say that there is a significant difference between reconciling the scientific record of pre-history with the creation story in Torah and reconciling recorded history and what seems to be a halachic myth.

    For someone who has spoken harshly about lying to children about things like the Tooth Fairy (and the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus) isn’t telling them the story of “nes chanuka” just the same? Isn’t the miraculous jug of oil our Santa Claus, coming to every house on one night to deliver presents?

    Beit Shammai’s reasoning refers to the origins of the Chag. Beit Hillel’s, mind you, does not dispute that, but simply puts forth another halachich principle by which to decide (ma’alim ba’kodesh v’ain moridin).

    Why is it easy for us to discount as “made up” Santa Claus and his ability to do the “miraculous” and very, very hard for us to do the same by nes chanuka?

  5. First, you are right, reconciling prehistory is not the same as reconciling Halacha and history, but I still think you missed my general point. Also, comparing Santa to Nes Chanukah is spurious as well. (And do you really think I speak harshly about ‘lying’ to kids about the tooth fairy, etc? I am not sure where that comes from. Anyway…)
    I was trying to address your more general point about reconciling Halacha with history. I don’t know enought about Chanukah to say where the Rishonim found sources, what are the Nisim we are actually publicizing, etc. But clearly, there is a Nes here, and there is a halachic principle derived herein….lighting the candles, publicizing the miracle…etc. So, why assume Sefer Chashmonaim is right? Maybe there is more to the story? And even if the halachic principles don’t follow historical reality, does that make them invalid? Is the Torah a history book? Are the halachot of he Rabanan only about history?
    The great Rabbis, whom you seem to dismiss easily, had alot more knowledge and wisdom at their disposal than we do. They were alot closer to the events, and had a deeper understanding of these events and their relation to Torah and the Jewish people. If you can’t agree with this premise, end of discussion. If you can, then as I have said before, I think you are asking the wrong questions.

  6. Comparing Miraculous Oil to Santa Claus is only spurious because you believe with conviction in one, and not the other.

    An independent, rational observer would put the two on equal planes. What I find interesting is the inability to think about this rationally.

    And where I think I differ from you, is that I think that even if you accept the Sefer HaChashmonaim as true (and really, why wouldn’t you? It hadn’t been canonized as a function of it’s historical time frame), and you accept the premise that Chanukka’s origins are as a celebration of the rededication of the Bayit and the ability to finally once again celebrate Sukkot (a FAR, FAR more important holiday) doesn’t detract in any way from Chanukka. In fact, I think it legitimizes it.

    And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with coming to a conclusion on the origins of Chanuka that’s different than the one come to by everyone else who’s tried to answer the Bais Yosef’s question.

    Sure they were learned in Tanach. But can you include apocryphal books in that? Or was the learning limited to the Canon? Is it absurd to suggest that Rashi didn’t learn Sefer HaChashmonaim, and didn’t have access to it in 10th Century France? Not at all. Furthermore, all it takes is one misunderstanding (the Gemara’s answer to “mai chanuka”) and everything else gets built on that. A tower of learning built on a foundation of a mistake is still a mistake. Like I said in the post. The learning is certainly worthwhile. But can’t it still be a mistake?

  7. I only have a few minutes before Shabbat.
    What I meant by spurious is that Santa is a made up family story with no basis in reality, at least none that I am aware of. Nes Chanukah is just that…a nes. Yes it involves belief in G-d but that belief stems from my own independent rational observations. You don’t have to be an agnostic or atheist to be rational.
    But you keep missing my point. I am not saying there is anything wrong with learning new history, new sources. But you must know your primary sources, too. Of course Rashi knew Sefer Chashmonaim, just as you pointed out. But, if the Gedolim chose to treat the Sefer Chashmonaim as apochryphal, doesn’t that tell you something? Is it so easy to believe an entire Gemara is based on wrong evidence? My point is that would be the last conclusion I would come to, not the first.
    Gotta go….Shabbat Shalom

  8. First things first…

    The anonymous author keeps making mention of they “Bais Yosef’s Kasha”. To which type of kasha is he referring? A kasha k’nish? Kasha Varneshkes? Does it come with cole slaw & pickles?

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