Chanukah and the Power of the Oral Torah

Nov 24, 2014

Seven and Eight
Rabbi Yehoshua Hartman

Darche Noam/Shapell’s senior lecturer Rav Yehoshua Hartman is one of the foremost experts on the writings of the Maharal. The following essay is adapted from the introduction of his just-published edition of the Maharal’s Ner Mitzva.

Ner Mitzva
The title of the Maharal’s book on Chanukah, “Ner Mitzva”, not only poetically refers to the Chanukah candles, but captures the essence of the holiday. The Greeks, representing wisdom devoid of holiness, stand in special opposition to two things: the holy Beit Hamikdash and the Divine wisdom of the Torah. The expression, “ner mitzva veTorah or (Mishlei 6:23),” includes both “the mitzva candle” – the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash – and the “light of the Torah,” numerically symbolized by the eight days of the miracle. The Menorah burning for eight days tells the whole conceptual story of Chanukah: the triumph of the Mikdash and G-d’s Torah.

The picture is not so simple, however, for in the Beit Hamikdash itself the Menorah is separated from the Aron Kodesh, containing the two Tablets, the embodiment of the Torah. The contrast between them is further developed by the Maharal himself, in the Mishnah in Avot (3:5): “Anyone who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah has the yoke of Malkhut and Derekh Eretz removed from him; and anyone who removes the yoke of Torah has the yokes of Malkhut and Derech Eretz placed on him.” The Maharal explains how the yoke of Torah, symbolized by the Aron Kodesh, stands above the yoke of Derekh Eretz – natural life – symbolized by the Menorah’s seven branches, and the yoke of Malkhut – royalty – symbolized by the Shulchan. The Menorah seems to actually symbolize nature as contrasting with Torah!

The answer to how in the Chanukah miracle this Menorah-Torah rift broke down will also help us gain a new understanding into the above Mishna.

The Greeks, explains the Ramban, only accepted the existence of observable and comprehensible nature, leaving no room for miracles and transcendence. The Torah approach, says the Ramban, sees even nature as expressing hidden Divine miracles (nisim nistarim). The Divine Hand constantly directs nature. For the Greeks even miracles were natural and for Israel even nature is miraculous.

Even though, in general, the Menorah with its seven branches stands in contrast to the Aron and Torah, on Chanukah the separation was lifted. It was necessary for nature to be revealed as miraculous, only a tool in the hands of the Divine. Hence, the Chanukah miracle: the seven-branched (natural) Menorah burned for a (supernatural, Torah-like) eight days. The Kodesh Kodashim (Holy of Holies) temporarily jumped into the Heichal (Holy).

The Mishna in Avot can now be reunderstood. When one accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah, the world of Derech Eretz, of nature, is his messenger and not his ruler. However, when, G-d forbid, the world of nature is seen as existing independent of Torah, it enslaves the person with its yoke.

Chanukah and the Oral Torah
This “unity of seven and eight” manifests itself within two aspects of the Torah itself. Maharal (see introduction to his Tiferet Yisrael) sees the Written Torah as associated with the number eight and the Oral Torah with the number seven. Chanukah, where the seven unites with eight (the seven branched Menorah burning for eight days), is a holiday of the redemption and elevation of the Oral Torah (see Pachad Yitzchak Chanukah at the end of Maamar 4). the secret of the Oral Torah is that the wisdom of the sages can transcend standard human wisdom and tap into the Divine intention.

This seems to be at the heart of a passage in the Midrash Tanchuma (Naso 29). The Midrash begins with the rules of lighting Chanukah candles with the previous day’s leftover oil, and the prohibition of using Chanukah oil for other purposes. It then continues, “Do not say, I will not follow the mitzvoth of the Sages, for they are not from the Torah. G-d says, ‘You cannot say that. For what they decree has force . . . and I agree with their words . . .” Yaakov recalls the Midrash and then blessed Efraim before Menasheh (even though Menasheh was older). Later on in the desert, the prince of Efraim offered his sacrifice on the seventh day and Menasheh on the eighth. Two points are strengthened through this Midrash. One, it is concerning a law of Chanukah that we are told that G-d agrees with the words of the Sages of the Oral Torah. Second, the power of the Sages is expressed on the seventh and eighth days of the dedication of the Mikdash.

The Oral Torah seems to also be singled out in “Al Hanisim.” We say that the Greeks both “tried to make them forget Your Torah and to cause them to veer from the laws of Your Will.” Forgetting the Torah, says the Pachad Yitzchak (Chanukah, beginning of Maamar 4), must be more than the decree against Torah learning. That would have been included in, “to cause them to veer from the laws of Your Will.” Perhaps forgetting the Torah specifically refers to the Greek attempt to destroy the Oral Torah. The Maharal (Tiferet Yisrael chapter 68) shows that “forgetting” only applies to the Oral and not to the Written Torah (see Kiddushin 66a, and also Shabbat 138b, and Sanhedrin 35a). The foiled attempt by the Greeks to dim our memory of the Oral Torah, one of their main ideological battles against Israel, merits separate mention in Al Hanisim. [I said this last idea over to Rav Hutner zt”l in my youth and he praised it.]

Chanukah is a holiday of the unity of seven and eight. The natural (seven) is elevated to the miraculous (eight), as the seven branched Menorah burns for eight days. It also celebrates the triumph of the power of the Oral Torah, as the natural wisdom of the sages, when applied to Torah, merges with and anticipates the Divine Will. The Oral Torah (seven) rises to the level of the Written Torah (eight).

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