Have you ever tried to find a detailed discussion of Chanukah in Talmud? You shouldn’t try too hard: it’s not there. Yes, a few highlights of the history and some brief discussion of the Menorah-lighting are mentioned on a few pages. However, there is no “in-depth” discussion, let alone a tractate, devoted to Chanukah and the laws applicable on the holiday.
The Talmud (Yoma 29a) discusses another “omission” concerning Chanukah. “It is written (Tehilim 22), ‘For the Conductor, on the Ayeles HaShachar (brightening of dawn, according to one interpretation).’ Rav Assi said: Why was Esther compared to the dawn? To tell you that just as the dawn is the end of the whole night, so too is the story of Esther the end of all the miracles. What about Chanukah? – we refer only to those included in Scripture.”
The story of the miracle of Chanukah, as this passage in the Talmud notes, is not included in Scriptures, while the story of Purim is, in Megillas Esther. Chanukah is omitted from discussion in the Talmud, while the discussion of Purim in contained in an entire tractate. Clearly, there must be a reason for this stark difference between Chanukah and Purim. Rav Yehonasan Eybshitz comments that this difference highlights an underlying historical difference between these two holidays.
In the Talmud (Shabbos 88a), we learn that “Raba said . . . they re- accepted it (the Torah) in the days of Achashverosh, for it is written (in Megillas Esther), [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.] – they confirmed (at the time of Purim) what they had accepted long before. (by Mt. Sinai). The spiritual problem that existed in the days of Mordechai and Esther was a fundamental one: the Jewish people were lacking in their faith. People openly flaunted their disdain for the precepts contained in the Torah and dabbled in idolatry. Upon the threat of physical annihilation, Mordechai rallied the nation to repent. The people saw the errors of their ways, repented, and a miraculous turn-around of fortune occurred. The nation of Israel was saved from the murderous hands of Haman and his willing minions. The nation, as the Talmud states, then reaccepted the Torah upon themselves, reaffirming the acceptance of the Torah that occurred at Mount Sinai.
However, not all was well and good with the spiritual status of the nation of Israel after the events of Purim. Granted, no one desired any longer to worship idols. However, a new form of heresy emerged. Groups formed that denied fundamental Jewish beliefs. Rav Eybshitz explains that at the time of Chanukah, there were three distinct segments of the populace: the Perushim – those who faithfully upheld the Torah – both the Written and Oral Laws; the Tzedukim – those who, although accepting the validity of the Written Law, disavowed any notion of a World to Come or Resuscitation of the Dead; and lastly, the Baytusim – those who, although accepting the validity of the Written Law, denied the validity of the Oral Law. Greek philosophy had infiltrated the belief system of a segment of the population, and those who adhered faithfully to the teachings of generations previous were in the minority.
The Chashmonaim were part of this minority group. They had to battle the Greeks and their non-believing brethren. As we know, in the end, they were victorious. The Chashmonaim were able to uphold the honor of the Oral Law. In fact, the very miracle of the Menorah’s oil is an illustration of one of the precepts of Oral Law: nowhere in the Written Law do we find any prohibition on lighting the menorah with impure oil. That law is learned in the Oral Law, and because of the strict adherence to this precept, the nation of Israel merited the miracle of one flask of oil lasting for eight days, a miracle we celebrate to this day.
The Oral Law is just that – Oral Law. It was not to be written down. Only because of dire circumstances did our Sages allow for Mishna and then Gemora to be transcribed and ordered. Because Chanukah is the holiday that commemorates the reestablishment of the primacy of the Oral Law, it was not to be recorded in the Written Law, in Scriptures. Purim, however, was written in Scriptures as it celebrates the renewed acceptance of the entire Torah, Written Law primarily. Perhaps, similarly, the amount of folios dedicated to discussion of these holidays in Talmud is reflective of this dichotomy. The Oral Law was only meant to be an aid to remembering the entirety of the Oral Law. All of the Oral Law was not explicitly stated therein. It was therefore appropriate that the very holiday that commemorates the Oral Law be kept in that form of transmission to the greatest degree possible: limited legal and historical discussion is all that is found in the Talmud. Purim, however, does not carry with it his same significance, and therefore it is discussed in the Talmud with the same degree of detail as any other holiday.
Chanukah, as we know, commemorates a victory of the weak over the mighty, the few over the many, the pure over the impure, the righteous over the wicked, and the diligent students of the Torah over the wanton. However, the holiday also celebrates purity – not just of the requisite olive oil that was needed, but of tradition. The integrity of the Oral Law was upheld by the Chashmonaim in the face of those who did all they could to diminish it. Tradition was upheld in the face of philosophical arguments advocating modernity and change. Chanukah commemorates the strength the Chashmonaim had, not only on the physical battlefield, but on the spiritual battlefield as well. It is now up to us to live up to the ideals for which the Chashmonaim fought, and to safeguard those ideals for generations to come.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Yehudah Prero and Torah.org.
The author has Rabbinic ordination from Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, NY.