Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Hanukkah Miracle

The Hanukkah Miracle

Marc B. Shapiro

In an earlier post I mentioned that I hoped to write about the nineteenth-century dispute about the historicity of the Hanukkah miracle of the oil. This dispute broke out after the publication of Hayyim Zelig Slonimski’s article claiming that Maimonides did not believe in the miracle. Fuel was added to the fire when R. Samuel Alexandrov publicly supported Slonimski and argued that the miracle of the oil was intended to be understood in a non-literal fashion, with the oil representing Torah. (He later retracted this view, presumably due to public pressure.) There is no longer a need for me to write in any detail about this matter after Zerachyah Licht’s recent comprehensive Seforim Blog post here, which also includes Slonimski's original article.[1]

However, there are a few points I would like to add.

In my post here I wrote:

To give an example . . . of how [R. Samuel Moses] Rubenstein's later thought broke with tradition, see his Ha-Rambam ve-ha-Aggadah (Kovno, 1937), p. 103, where he claims that the story of the miracle of Hanukkah is almost certainly a late aggadic creation, and like many other miracle stories in aggadic literature was not originally intended to be understood as historical reality:[2]

ספק הוא אם הנס של "פך השמן" הוא אפילו הגדה עממית קדומה, קרוב שהוא יצירה אגדית חדשה מבעל הברייתא עצמו או מאחד מבעלי האגדה, ונסים אגדיים כאלו רבים הם בברייתות וגמרא ומדרשים ע"ד ההפלגה כדרכה של האגדה. ולבסוף הובן נס זה למעשה שהיה. עיין שבת כ"ג א'. [טעם ברייתא זו הובא גם במגילת תענית (פ"ט) אבל כמו שנראה היא הוספה מאוחרת, ועיין (שם) ובפסיקתא רבתי (פיסקא דחנוכה) עוד טעם להדלקת נרות חנוכה[.

During the most recent Hanukkah I was using R. Joseph Hertz’s siddur, the Authorized Daily Prayer Book. Based upon how he describes the holiday and the lighting of the menorah, omitting any mention of the miracle of the lights (pp. 946-947), I assume that he also didn’t accept it literally. Note how he states that the lights were kindled during the eight-day Dedication festival, and this is the reason for the eight days of Hanukkah, rather than offering the traditional reason that the eight days of Hanukkah commemorate the eight days that the menorah miraculously burnt.

Three years to the day on which the Temple was profaned by the blaspheming foe, Kislev the 25th 165, Judah Maccabeus and his brethren triumphantly entered the Holy City. They purified the Temple, and their kindling of the lights during the eight-day festival of Dedication—Chanukah—is a telling reminder, year by year, of the rekindling of the Lamp of True Religion in their time.

Ad kan my words in the prior post. Some time ago I was asked if I know of any other traditional authors who deny the literalness of the Hanukkah miracle. It could be that R. Isidore Epstein should be added to the list, as in his classic work Judaism he describes Hanukkah and the kindling of lights, but mentions nothing about the miracle. However, unlike Hertz whose comments were in a siddur and directed to Jews, Epstein’s book is directed towards a general reader, and can still be used as a college text. Understandably, one would hesitate to include in such a book anything about a miracle. Yet I think it is telling that he does not even say something like, “according to tradition a cruse of oil with enough for one day burnt for eight.” 

Another traditional author who must be mentioned in this regard is R. Zev Yavetz. Here is his picture.


And to remind people of what Slonimski looked like, here is his picture.[3]


And here is a picture of R. Alexandrov.


Yavetz was one of the leaders (and founders) of the Mizrachi movement, and Kfar Yavets, a religious moshav, is named after him. After his death, R. Kook wrote about how Yavetz was able to combine Torah and secular wisdom without being negatively affected and distorting religious values.[4] Yavetz is best known for his writings on Jewish history. His magnum opus is his 14 volume Toldot Yisrael. In volume 4, pp. 89-91, he discusses the Hanukkah story.




As you can see, there is no mention of the miracle of the oil. The eight day holiday is portrayed as a commemoration of the original eight day celebration that took place when the Temple was rededicated. I don’t think there is any other conclusion that can be drawn other than that Yavetz did not regard the miracle of the oil as an actual historical event.

In 1900 R. Aryeh Leib Feinstein published his Elef ha-Magen. On p. 35b he writes that whereas R. Judah (bar Ilai) believed in the Hanukkah miracle, R. Yose and R. Judah ha-Nasi did not, and that is the reason why R. Judah ha-Nasi did not include the laws of the Hanukkah lights in the Mishnah.

חיוב נר חנוכה עתה אינו בשביל המלוכה רק מפני הנס שנעשה בפך השמן שהדליקו בו שמונה ימים, ואף שגם טעם זה תלוי במחלוקת שבין ר' יודא ור' יוסי בהוריות [יא ע"ב] שלדעת ר' יודא נסים רבים אירעו בשמן המשחה, ור' יוסי חולק עליו שלא היה בו שום נס, ומטעם זה ג"כ השמיט רבי דיני נר חנוכה, ולא הזכירו בשום משנה, רק מזכירו לענין ניזקין בשם ר' יודא שפוטר החנוני, לפי שר' יודא לשיטתו סובר שנר חנוכה הוא מצוה לזכר הנס שאירע בפך שמן המשחה. אבל רבי פוסק כר' יוסי לפי שנימוקו עמו. אך התלמוד אוחז בזה כר' יודא לפי שהנס מהשמן כבר נתפרסם בהאומה.

On p. 36a Feinstein refers to the dispute between Slonimski and the rabbis, and says that many good Jews adopted Slonimski’s position. He tells us that he informed Slonimski that the dispute between him and the rabbis was actually an old dispute.

ואחריו נמשכו עוד רבים וכן שלמים שמהרו ויחליטו כדבריו . . . והראיתיו לדעת שבאמת ענין זה כבר דשו בו רבים, ונחלקו עליו משפחות משפחות, וביחוד ר' יודא ור' יוסי בהוריות. אך בכ"ז רבינו הקדוש אף שנטה למלכות בית דוד ולדעת ר' יוסי, לא ערב לבו לנגוע במנהג ישן שקימו וקבלו עליהם הדורות שלפניו.

Not long ago I was listening to some recordings from R. David Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo. One of them is entitled “The Story of the Macabees, part 2.” You can find it here. In this lecture, beginning at minute 27, R. Bar-Hayim explains that in his opinion there was no miracle of the oil, and it is simply a legend that developed in Babylonia, “because without that Hanukkah makes no sense for a Jew in galut.” Rather than attempt to summarize his perspective, it is preferable for readers to listen to his entire shiur.

Because of his originality, I would not have been surprised had R. Chaim Hirschensohn adopted the same sort of approach. Yet this is not the case, and R. Hirschensohn writes that the Hanukkah miracle was the final open miracle in Jewish history, by which he means that after this Jewish history is to be explained in a more naturalistic way, just like the history of other peoples. However, he adds that it must also be recognized that the very existence of the Jewish people over so many years in exile is itself a miracle.[5]

נר חנוכה הוא חותם הניסים בדברי ימי עמנו, כמלאכי חותם הנביאים.
אחרי נצחון החשמונאים החלו אצלנו דברי הימים כאשר לכל העמים, אם שאין ספק שגם מקודם היה לנו דברי הימים אבל המסופר לנו המה רק מעשה ניסים ובתוכם עלינו לבקש גרעיני דברי הימים, אבל המסופר לנו אחרי מלחמת החשמונאים כלו דברי הימים אבל הדברי הימים בעצמו הוא כלו מעשה נסים כי בארצות הגולה בנס אנו עומדים.

Since Slonimski claimed that Maimonides did not believe in the Hanukkah miracle, I think it is worth noting that although Maimonides could have stated that Hanukkah commemorates the military victory or the rededication of the Temple, he actually appears to say that the entire holiday is in commemoration of the lighting of the Menorah.[6] There are many sources[7] that state that the real miracle commemorated by Hanukkah is not the oil but the military victory, but this does not seem to be Maimonides’ perspective. Here is what he writes in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Hanukkah 3:2-3[8]:

ב. וכשגברו ישראל על אויביהם ואיבדום בחמישה ועשרים בחודש כסלו היה ונכנסו להיכל ולא מצאו שמן טהור אלא פך אחד ולא היה בו להדליק אלא יום אחד בלבד והדליקו ממנו נרות המערכה שמונה ימים עד שכתשו זיתים והוציאו שמן טהור.
ג.  ומפני זה התקינו חכמים שבאותו הדור שיהיו שמונת הימים האלו שתחילתן מלילי חמישה ועשרים בכסלו ימי שמחה והלל ומדליקין בהן הנרות בערב על פתחי הבתים בכל לילה ולילה משמונת הלילות להראות ולגלות הנס וימים אלו הןן הנקראין חנוכה.

In fact, this is the talmudic perspective as well. Shabbat 21b asks what is the reason for the holiday of Hanukkah (מאי חנוכה), and rather than speak about the military victory or rededication of the Temple all it mentions is the miracle of the oil. Many will find this strange, since can this really be the reason for the holiday? It is one thing to say that this is the reason for the eight days of celebration, but can this be the reason for the holiday itself? The Sheiltot of R. Ahai Gaon[9] preserves another version of the talmudic text. Instead of מאי חנוכה it reads מאי נר חנוכה. With this as the question, the answer which explains about the miracle of the oil makes much more sense.[10]

Slonimski did not argue that Maimonides’ philosophy does not leave room for the Hanukkah miracle. He simply pointed out that when Maimonides records the talmudic story of the miracle he leaves out three words: נעשה בו נס. Here is the relevant section of the talmudic text in Shabbat 21b. I have underlined the crucial words:

וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה.

Here is what Maimonides writes in Hilkhot Hanukkah 3:2, and as you can see the underlined words do not appear.

וכשגברו ישראל על אויביהם ואיבדום בחמישה ועשרים בחודש כסלו היה ונכנסו להיכל ולא מצאו שמן טהור אלא פך אחד ולא היה בו להדליק אלא יום אחד בלבד והדליקו ממנו נרות המערכה שמונה ימים עד שכתשו זיתים והוציאו שמן טהור.

According to Slonimski, the omission of the words נעשה בו נס indicates that Maimonides does not believe that there was any miracle. Rather, Maimonides is telling us that since there was not enough oil to last for more than one day, they used a little of the oil on each of the eight days, until they were able to get more oil.

A weakness in Slonimski’s argument, which of course was pointed out, is that in the very next halakhah, 3:3, Maimonides appears to explicitly mention the miracle.

ומדליקין בהן הנרות בערב על פתחי הבתים בכל לילה ולילה משמונת הלילות להראות ולגלות הנס

It is hard to see the underlined words as referring to anything other than the miracle of the oil.

Needless to say, Slonimski would have been very happy to learn that these underlined words, although they appear in the standard printed editions of the Mishneh Torah going back to early printings, do not appear in manuscripts and are not authentic (and have thus been removed from the Frankel edition). Presumably, these words were added by someone to “correct” Maimonides’ omission of the miracle of the oil.[11] (Slonimski, who did not know that להראות ולגלות הנס was a later addition, was forced to claim that these words referred to the military victory.[12])

If this was all we had to go by, I might agree that Maimonides is hinting to us that he did not accept the historicity of the miracle of the oil. However, if we examine Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Hanukkah, chapter 4, we find that Maimonides mentions "the miracle," and again, the miracle he refers to appears to be that of the oil.[13]

In 4:12 he writes:

מצות נר חנוכה מצוה חביבה היא עד מאוד וצריך אדם להיזהר בה כדי להודיע הנס ולהוסיף בשבח הא-ל והודיה לו על הנסים שעשה.
In 4:13 he writes

הרי שאין לו אלא פרוטה אחת ולפניו קידוש היום והדלקת נר חנוכה מקדים שמן להדליק נר חנוכה על היין לקידוש היום הואיל ושניהם מדברי סופרים מוטב להקדים נר חנוכה שיש בו זכרון הנס.

Isn’t the most likely understanding that these two halakhot refer to the miracle of the oil? In 4:12 he first mentions “the miracle,” which I believe refers to the miracle of the oil, and then mentions “the miracles” in plural, which would also include the military victory. I don’t believe that Maimonides generally leaves esoteric hints in the Mishneh Torah, so I don’t think leaving out the words נעשה בו נס are intended to hint to us that he rejects the historicity of the miracle. In fact, since Maimonides denies the historicity of some events recorded in the Bible, regarding them as dreams or visions, it would not have been a theological problem for him to do so with the miracle of the oil, the source of which is a talmudic aggadah. However, as we have seen, he seems to explicitly affirm this miracle in the Mishneh Torah. Therefore, one who wants to claim that Maimonides did not believe in the miracle (despite what he says in the Mishneh Torah), will have to base this claim on an interpretation of Maimonides’ approach to miracles as set out in the Guide.

As mentioned, Slonimski’s rejection of the miracle of the oil created a great controversy, but what appears to be unknown is that he was not the first of the Hebrew writers to bring this matter to the fore. The newspaper Ha-Magid published articles by both maskilim and traditional Torah scholars. On December 9, 1868[14] Nahum Bruell[15] published an article which states: “In truth, the story of this miracle is not accepted by all sages of the Talmud and Midrash.” He then cites Pesikta Rabbati, ch. 2, which asks why we light נרות on Hanukkah. Its answer is not the story of the miracle but that after the Jews entered the Temple they took eight spears and put נרות on them.

נכנסו לבית המקדש מצאו שם שמונה שפודין של ברזל וקבעו אותם והדליקו בתוכם נרות.

Bruell also cites the medieval tosafist R. Isaac ben Judah ha-Levi who in his Pa’neah Raza,[16] in explaining why the Hasmoneans decreed lighting of the נרות, mentions nothing about the miracle:

נסמכה פרשת נרות לחנוכת המזבח וע"ז סמכו בית חשמונאי לתקן נרות בחנוכה

Although Bruell cited this text to show that not everyone accepted the Hanukkah miracle, I find it impossible to believe that R. Isaac (or any other medieval Ashkenazic sage) did not accept the traditional story of the miraculous burning of the oil. If I am correct that R. Isaac’s explanation is not in place of the Hanukkah miracle but only to offer an additional explanation, then perhaps even a text like Pesikta Rabbati cites the explanation it does, not because it did not know or accept the story of the miraculous oil, but because it wanted to offer another explanation, perhaps one not as well known.

Bruell further suggests that the talmudic aggadah about the Hanukkah miracle was never meant to be taken literally:

ואפשר גם בתשובתם על השאלה מאי חנוכה רמזו לנו כעיון גדול ועמוק כי אין מעצר לד' להושיע ברב או במעט ואם גם נמשכו כל כוכבי התקוה ורבים חללו את ברית קדש מ"מ מפך שמן טהור המונח בחותמו של כה"ג דהיינו משארית הצדיקים אשר יחזיקו במעזם ויבטחו בד' נעשה נס, יבא עזרם מעם ד' עשה שמים וארץ ועוד יזרח להם אור התשועה.

One more point worth noting is about the number 8. According to the traditional story of the miracle of the oil, what is special about the number 8? Most people have probably heard the reason, also accepted by Maimonides, Hilkhot Hanukkah 3:2, that in the days of the Hasmoneans this is how long it would take for those in Jerusalem to get new olive oil.[17] I never understood this explanation as why should getting new oil be a problem. It is not like olive trees are a rare thing in the Land of Israel. In any event, this explanation does not appear in the Talmud but is first found in a geonic responsum.[18]

למה אנו עושין שמונה ימי חנוכה מפני הנס שאירע שטמאו יונים וכו'. ומה טעם יש לשמנה לילות ולא הספיקו ממנו פחות או יותר.

מפני שהשמנים באים מחלקו של אשר כדכתיב (דברים לג, כד) וטובל בשמן רגלו ומקום היה לו שנקרא תקוע כדאמרינן תקוע אלפא לשמן שממנו השמנים יוצאים ומשם עד ירושלים היה מהלך שמנה ימים בין הליכה וחזרה והכי אמרינן במנחות ולפיכך המתין להם עד שיביאו משם שמן טהור וזה שנעשה להם נס לשמנת ימים.

There are a number of difficulties with this responsum. To begin with, we are told that olive oil came from the area of the tribe of Asher which is in the extreme north of the Land of Israel. This information is based on the fact that in Moses’ blessing for the tribe of Asher in Deuteronomy 33:24, he states, “let him dip his foot in oil.” This means that there would be lots of olive trees in Asher’s territory, but since there were plenty of olive trees closer to the Temple, why did they have to travel all the way to the land of Asher which, we are told, would require an eight day round trip. Even if one supposes (without any evidence) that normally they would go there since that was where the best olive oil was to be found, if they only had enough to light the menorah for one day, it is hard to imagine that they would not set out to find olive oil closer to the Temple.

The next point in the responsum is that there was a specific place in Asher’s territory called Tekoa, and that was where the oil came from. It cites Menahot 85b where the Mishnah states that “Tekoa ranks first for the quality of its oil.” Yet as I’m sure most people reading this know, Tekoa is near Jerusalem in the territory of Judah, not in the land of Asher. II Chronicles 11:5-6 states: “And Rehoboam dwelt in Jerusalem, and built cities for defense in Judah. He built even Bethlehem, and Etam, and Tekoa.”

As proof for the statement that it would take eight days to travel to the north and back in order to get the olive oil, we are told והכי אמרינן במנחות. Yet nowhere in Menahot is this information found. In Sefer Abudarham, Seder Hadlakat Ner Hanukkah, this geonic passage is quoted, but instead of referring to Menahot, we are told that the information is found in the Jerusalem Talmud. The same reference to the Jerusalem Talmud also appears in Hiddushei R. Yehonatan mi-LunelShabbat 21b, and Sefer ha-Eshkol, ed. Auerbach, vol. 2, p. 20. For those who assume that Auerbach’s edition of Sefer ha-Eshkol is a forgery, this reference is just another example of the work incorporating passages from other writings.

I don’t have an answer as to why anyone assumed that the oil had to come from the land of Asher, but as for the city of Tekoa, it could be that there was another city also named Tekoa, in addition to the one we know about in the territory of Judah. The Soncino Talmud, Menahot 85b, informs us that both Graetz and Bacher think that the Tekoa mentioned there is in the Galilee, which could be said to include part of the territory of Asher.[19] Furthermore, Samuel Klein, the leading geographer of the Land of Israel, also argues that there was a city named Tekoa in the Galilee.[20]

What about the Tekoa that Amos came from? If you look at R. David Kimhi’s commentary to Amos 1:1, he tells us that Tekoa was a large city in the land of Asher (see also his commentary to Amos 7:10). In his commentary to II Samuel 14:2, he writes, quoting the Talmud in Menahot 85b (except for the first four words):

העיר בחלקו של אשר דכתיב ביה וטוב בשמן רגלי שמושך שמן כמעין

The biblical story Radak is commenting on is when Joab fetched a wise woman from Tekoa and told her to go to King David and pretend to be a mourner. I am surprised that Radak would assume that Joab was summoning a woman from all the way in the territory of Asher. In his response to Radak, R. Profiat Duran (Efodi[21]) states that it is obvious that the story is dealing with a city near Jerusalem.[22]

והשכל הישר ישפוט כי תקוע היה קרוב לירושלם כי איך ישלח לקרות אשה מארץ אשר היה רחוק מירושלם.

Again we have to ask, just because a city named Tekoa happened to be known for its olive oil, why should anyone assume that it is in the territory of Asher? The fact that the tribe of Asher was blessed with having a lot of olive trees in its territory does not mean that the other tribes did not also have a good supply. In fact, it appears to me that the peshat of Menahot 85b, where the Mishnah speaks of Tekoa as having good olive oil, is that it is speaking about the Tekoa near Jerusalem.[23] It is true that in the talmudic discussion Tekoa and the land of Asher are mentioned regarding olive oil, but their only connection would seem to be this, not that Tekoa has anything to do with Asher’s territory.[24]

Jeremiah 6:1 states: “Gather the sons of Benjamin from the midst of Jerusalem, and blow the horn in Tekoa.” Here Jeremiah is telling the tribe of Benjamin, who lived near Jerusalem, to blow the horn in Tekoa in order to warn the people about the danger from the approaching enemy. Malbim on this verse comments that Tekoa is part of Asher. I don’t understand how Malbim could view this as peshat. Why would the people of Benjamin travel to the territory of Asher to blow the shofar? This territory was occupied by foreign troops, the local inhabitants having been deported a long time before. Here are Malbim’s words:

העיזו אתה בני בנימין התאספו מקרב ירושלים, כי בני בנימין לא היו מבני העיר ורצו לחסות שם בירושלים, אומר כי יתרחקו משם, וגם בתקוע שהוא בחלק אשר, תקעו שופר.

Based on Jeremiah 6:1, Efodi states that Tekoa is actually in the territory of Benjamin and not, as I mentioned before, in Judah’s territory.[25]

Returning to our discussion of the Hanukkah miracle, R. Sharon Shalom recently published a very interesting book entitled Mi-Sinai le-Ethiopia (Tel Aviv, 2012). This book, which is a code of halakhah for Ethiopian Jews, has haskamot from R. Nachum Rabinovitch and R. Shabtai Rappaport. It is significant in that it takes into account that it is not so easy for the older generation of Ethiopian Jews to entirely reject their traditions in order to become modern rabbinic Jews. As such, R. Shalom permits certain things that would not make sense in the larger Jewish world but are part of what he terms “Ethiopian halakhah.” For example, R. Shalom permits Ethiopian Jews, especially of the older generation, to carry items regarded as muktzeh when this is related to holy matters, for example, bringing money to synagogue on the Sabbath for charity. This was not regarded as prohibited in Ethiopia and R. Shalom allows the practice to continue today (pp. 170-171).

This is a fascinating book as it attempts to slowly ease the Ethiopian community into the wider halakhic community rather than requiring an immediate abandonment of long-standing practices, something that would certainly be demanded by haredi poskim. You can see R. Shalom discuss his book here, and he is introduced by R. Rappaport.


While the book deserves detailed analysis, I only want to call attention to one additional point that is relevant to this post. Here is R. Shalom’s discussion of Hanukkah, from pp. 214-215 in the book. There is no mention of the Hanukkah miracle in explaining why we celebrate an eight day holiday.








I would like to call readers’ attention to a short essay by R. Nosson Fried on Megilat Antiochus.[26] Here is the title page.


R. Fried points out that in the version of Megilat Antiochus that he published in Kovetz Beit Aharon ve-Yisrael[27] there is no mention of the miracle of the oil. He is quite surprised by this for as he says, “this is the central miracle in commemoration of which they established the lighting on Hanukkah.” He adds that this miracle is not mentioned in Al ha-Nisim or in Pesikta Rabbati which has a good deal to say about Hanukkah. He then notes that all of the Eretz Yisrael paytanim, which includes Yanai and R. Eleazar ha-Kalir, and some of the European paytanim also do not mention the miracle. (Other European paytanim, such as R. Menahem ben Machir, do mention the miracle.) How can this be explained?

R. Fried’s answer is quite unexpected (p. 8): “The sages of the Land of Israel in the time of the Talmudim and Midrashim knew nothing about the miracle of the cruse of oil.” He explains that the story of the miracle is a Babylonian tradition and thus was not known in the Land of Israel, or even by some of the early European paytanim. He writes (p. 9):

שכל אותן המקורות הקודמים, החל מספרי החשמונאים וכלה בפייטני א"י ומקצת מפייטני אירופה הקדמונים, לא ידעו כלל שאמנם היה נס בשמן . . . [הנקודות במקור] לשיטתם נקבע חג החנוכה לזכר הנצחונות והנסים שאירעו לבני חשמונאי במלחמותיהם נגד היונים.

Coming from a haredi writer this is quite surprising, and let me explain why. All of the scholars who have argued against the historicity of the miracle of the oil have pointed out that none of the oldest texts dealing with Hanukkah mention this miracle. This includes 1 and 2 Maccabees, the earliest version of Megilat Ta’anit, tannaitic texts, and Josephus. Josephus even suggests a different explanation for why the holiday is called “Lights.” Those who defend the historicity of the miracle have to explain why these sources chose not to mention it.

Before Fried, no traditional author had ever suggested that the miracle story was unknown to the tannaim and later rabbinic authors, and that is for an obvious reason. If you say that the tannaim did not know the miracle, to say nothing of the authors of the Book of Maccabees 1 and 2, the earliest version of Megilat Ta’anit, and Josephus, how is it possible that someone who lived a few hundred years later in Babylonia would know about the miracle? By saying that the people who lived in the Land of Israel close to the time of the events did not know the miracle, Fried is providing an argument that the miracle never happened and that the much later story recorded in the Babylonian Talmud is an aggadah which is not to be regarded as historical but rather teaches a lesson as many aggadot do. In other words, Fried’s argument leads to the same conclusion as Slonimski and R. Alexandrov, and for some reason he doesn’t see it.

R. Tuvyah Tavyomi has another approach to the matter.[28] He claims that since the miracle of the oil was only seen by a small group, the leaders of the generation were afraid that the masses, many of whom were hellenized, would not believe the story and thus not adopt the holiday. Therefore, they ordained the lighting of נרות without giving a reason, hiding the real reason from the people. The masses would believe that it was because of the military victory, while those who knew that holidays are only proclaimed for “out of the ordinary” miracles, they would find out about the story of the oil and would certainly believe it. According to R. Tavyomi, this explains why in the Al ha-Nissim prayer which is to be said by all people there is no mention of the miracle of the oil.

Finally, I was surprised that an article by Avraham Ohayon could be published in Shenaton Shaanan, the annual of Shaanan, a religious teachers college.[29] Ohayon’s article not only critically examines the story of the Hanukkah miracle, which he calls מיתוס נפ"ה (נס פך השמן)  (p. 59), but concludes that that it is most likely that the miracle never happened and was invented by the Sages for religious reasons. On pp. 58-59 he writes:

שתיקתם של המקורות ההיסטוריים, ובמידה מסוימת גם של חז"ל ומקורות הלכתיים בעניין נפ"ה – מעוררת שאלות בקשר למשמעות העובדתית של נס זה: האם הנס התרחש, וכתוצאה ממנו קבעו חז"ל את סממניו ההלכתיים, או שכדי לקבוע הלכות לדורות היה צריך קודם לסמוך להם נס?
חלק הארי של המקורות דלעיל – מחזק יותר את קיומה של האפשרות השנייה. . . .
חז"ל החילו שני שינויים במהותו של החג, ושניהם קשורים זה בזה:
האחד – שינוי עיקרו של הנס, מסגידה לניצחון הצבאי – לנס על-טבעי שהוא נפ"ה.
השני – הענקת צביון דתי לחג על-ידי קביעת איסורים שונים, תפילות מיוחדות ומצוות הדלקת הנרות שמונה ימים – כזכר לנפ"ה.

In a note on this passage, Ohayon cites Gedaliah Alon who explains what would have led the Sages to invent the Hanukkah miracle:

[אלון] תומך בדעה השנייה מן הטעם, שחז"ל רצו להשכיח את שם החשמונאים וגבורתם מזיכרון האומה, ואולם לא יכלו לעקור את חג החנוכה גופו. לכן קבעו טעם אגדי ובדרך זו "קיפלו" בו את תקופת החשמונאים, שהרי סיפור נפ"ה התחיל ממקורות חז"ל בלבד. הוא מביא גם נימוקים ליחס זה של חז"ל לחשמונאים.

Nothing Ohayon writes would be surprising if it appeared in a general academic journal, but as mentioned, his article appeared in a religious journal and that is what I find significant.

Returning to R. Samuel Alexandrov, who as mentioned at first supported Slonimski, Geulah bat Yehudah has a nice article on him[30] as does Ehud Luz,[31] and there is a master’s dissertation on him by Tsachi Slater.[32] Yet I would like to call attention to a few things that these authors have not mentioned. To begin with, R. Alexandrov reports that after the death of R. Shemariah Noah Schneersohn he was asked to take the latter’s place as rav of Bobruisk (R. Alexandrov's place of residence), yet he refused this offer.[33]

In Mikhtevei Mehkar u-Vikoret (1932), pp. 86-87, R. Alexandrov offers a provocative suggestion in explaining why Maimonides was so opposed to rabbis taking money from the community. He calls attention to Hullin 132b which states: “R. Simeon says. A priest who does not believe in the [Temple] service has no portion in the priesthood.” Rashi explains this to mean a priest who thinks the Temple service is nonsense and rather than having been commanded by God was invented by Moses. As for having no portion in the priesthood, Rashi explains that he does not receive a portion of the sacrificial meat.

Maimonides, Hilkhot Bikurim 1:1, codifies the law as follows:

וכל כהן שאינו מודה בהן אין לו חלק בכהנים ואין נותנין לו מתנה מהן.

According to R. Alexandrov, this is the key to understanding why Maimonides opposes rabbis taking money from the community. R. Alexandrov assumes based on what Maimonides writes in the Guide of the Perplexed that he did not really believe in the value of sacrifices. )R. Alexandrov himself did not believe that there would ever be a return to the sacrificial system.[34]) He further states that Maimonides realized that if he were a kohen he would have no portion in the priestly dues. Since the rabbinate, as the religious leadership of the community, replaces the old system of the kehunah, Maimonides reasoned that just as if he were a kohen he could not receive any priestly dues, so too as a rabbi he could take nothing from the community.

בספרו המורה הלא איננו מודה בקרבנות לפי המובן המורגל, ולכן חש בנפשו הנפש היפה שאין לו חלק במתנות כהונה . . . [הנקודות במקור] ובכן על פי טבעו ורוחו אוסר לקבל שכר רבנות, כי אמנם הרבנות הוא דמות זעיר אנפין של הכהונה בימים הקדמונים, כנודע.

R. Alexandrov also says a few things that some haredi readers will appreciate. For example, he explains Avot 2:2:  וכל תורה שאין עמה מלאכה סופה בטלה וגוררת עון in a very original fashion. He understands מלאכה to mean the work of creating Torah novellae! This passage in the Mishnah is always used against the Israeli haredi approach of shunning work in favor of study, and I have never seen a good justification offered as to why the Mishnah’s words can be so easily set aside. Yet with R. Alexandrov’s explanation, this is no longer a problem.[35]

ומה שאמר "כל תורה שאין עמה מלאכה סופה בטלה וגוררת עון", יש לכוין על מלאכת החדוש והפלפול וההגיון בתורתנו, ואומר כי תורה שאין עמה מלאכה ר"ל מלאכת החדוש סופה בטלה כי באמת רק כח החדוש הנותן פנים להתורה הקדושה בכל דור ודור לפי הרוח השורר אז, הוא הוא המקיים את התורה הישנה בעם ישראל.

* * * * *

1. Dov Weinstein called my attention to the following very significant responsum by R. Ovadiah Yosef that appeared in the journal Beit Yosef, Iyar 5776, no. 169. Over a century ago, R. Shalom Mordechai Schwadron suggested a way of “cleansing” a mamzer by having the husband send his wife a get and then void it before it is delivered. According to the Talmud, in such a case the marriage is to be regarded as annulled despite the fact that the husband voided the get. The problem the Sages had to deal with was if the husband was allowed to void a get after having sent it, the woman who received it would not know that it was invalid and would remarry. Although it would not be her fault, such a situation would result in her future children being mamzerim. The way around this was to decree that in such a case her original marriage was to be regarded as never having been actualized, something which the rabbis have authority to do. R. Schwadron’s originality comes in suggesting that this mechanism could also be used to solve the problem of mamzerut even after the fact, since if the original marriage is annulled in this fashion, by sending a get and then cancelling it before delivery, there is no subsequent adultery. This proposal, which was never put into practice by R. Schwadron, is discussed by R. J. David Bleich in Contemporary Halakhic Problems, vol. 1, pp. 162ff.

R. Ovadiah’s responsum is of great importance since his approach would solve the problem of mamzerut in many case. In earlier years, R. Isser Yehudah Unterman suggested that R. Schwadron's approach be followed in a particular case,[36] and R. Zvi Pesach Frank actually did so in another case.[37]



2. Is it significant that a haredi website recently published an article from a woman in which she argues that women should be able to become halakhic authorities? Was the website just looking to stir up trouble or is this a sign of something afoot even in the haredi world?

3. There has recently been a problem with the commenting whereby many comments that have Hebrew in them are rejected as spam. One of the rejected comments was by R. Moshe Maimon and is very insightful. Responding to R. Hershel Schachter’s point, discussed here, that Daas Torah authorities must be poskim, R. Maimon wrote:

Here is the Rambam's formulation of the ‘Daas Torah’ concept:
כן ראוי להמון שימסרו הנהגתם לנביאים בעלי העינים באמת, ויסמכו על מה שיודיעום שהדעת הפלונית אמתית והדעת הפלונית שקר. ואחר הנביאים - החכמים הדורשים יומם ולילה הדעות והאמונות, עד שידעו ויכירו האמת מן השקר.
I don't recall seeing this passage from אגרת תימן (Sheilat ed. p. 149) quoted in the various articles on the subject, but at any rate it seems to serve as a clear repudiation of Rav Schachter's view that only poskim can issue Daas Torah directives.

Regarding Daas Torah, someone challenged my statement in my post here that R. Kanievsky actually declared in a formal way that R. Steinman is to be regarded as the new leader. Readers can look at the actual words where R. Kanievsky indeed declares that everyone is “obligated” to follow what R. Steinman says. (An English translation is found here.) I don't know of any other such declaration in Jewish history. The gedolim have always been "created" by the religious community at large, and the gadol ha-dor (when there has been such a figure) emerged from this group of gedolim based on public acknowledgment. Yet here we have a declaration from one gadol establishing who the gadol ha-dor is and obligating everyone to follow his guidance. Will this be the new model in the haredi world for how to determine who the gadol ha-dor is?



Thanks to the person who doubted what I wrote, I was motivated to find R. Kanievsky's statement and I see that I did say something incorrect. I wrote that R. Kanievsky’s statement was made after R. Elyashiv’s death, but in fact it was made shortly before R. Elyashiv’s passing, when he was no longer in the position to serve as leader of the generation.




[1] One source not cited by Licht is a recent article by Yisrael Rozenson that focuses on R. Alexandrov and the miracle of the oil. “‘Asukh shel Shemen Ehad,’ Al Nes ve-Hukiyut be-Mishnato shel Shmuel Alexandrov,” Badad 30 (Elul 5775), pp. 103-116.
[2] There is a good deal of interesting material in R. Rubenstein’s Ha-Rambam ve-ha-Aggadah. Relevant to what I mentioned in the text is that R. Rubenstein claims that many aggadot are not intended to be viewed as historical, and he refers to a number of such examples. See e.g., p. 101, that when the Talmud states that Solomon came up with the idea of an eruv, this is not to be taken literally but only means that it is an old idea which was later attributed to Solomon.

והמצאת היתר זה נעשה בזמן מן הזמנים שלא נדעהו, ומפני שתקנה זו היא המצאה מחוכמת מאד מאנשים חכמים נתנו למיסדי התקנה שם שלמה ואמרו שבשעה שתקן שלמה ערובין וכו' והוא מאמר אגדי.

He also mentions that some aggadot about biblical figures were created for their dramatic effect and that those who take them literally are missing the point. See p. 94:

אבל באמת ספורים כאלו אינם מעשיות שהיו לא בהקיץ ולא בחלום אלא הן יצירות דרמטיות במעלי האגדה כיד השירה הטובה עליהם. ויצירות כאלו הרבה הן בש"ס ובמדרשים וביחוד מהאנשים הקדמונים שנזכרו בתנ"ך. עיין לדוגמא האגדה ע"ד האבן שבקש עוג מלך הבשן לזרוק על ישראל (ברכות נ"ד א' [צ"ל ב']) [מחזה התולי משונאי ישראל המבקשים להמיט רעה על ראשי ישראל וחוזר על ראשיהם עצמם בעטים של ישראל]. והאגדה ע"ד מיתתו של דוד שבת ל' א' [צ"ל ב']) [מחזה על יקרת ערך החיים]. והאגדה ע"ד מפלתו של המן (מגילה ט"ז א') [מחזה נקמי]. והאגדה ע"ד דוד וישבי בנוב (סנהדרין צ"ה א') [מחזה מרחמי האב על זרעיו . . .] כל אגדות כאלו אינן מעשיות שהיו אלא יצירות דרמטיות.

I know there are some people who treat aggadot as if they are historical, but when it comes to the sort of aggadot mentioned by R. Rubenstein, do any really disagree with his understanding? 
[3] It is perhaps noteworthy that Slonimski’s two sons apostatized and it appears that Slonimski himself, despite being an observant Jew, deserves some blame for this. See Eliyanah Tzalah, “Tenuat ha-Hitbolelut be-Polin,” in Yisrael Bartal and Yisrael Guttman, eds., Kiyum ve-Shever: Yehudei Polin le-Doroteihem (Jerusalem, 1997), pp. 344-345. See also Avraham Aryeh Akaviah, “HaZaS, Hayyim Yehiel Bornstein, Pesah Shapira,” Areshet 5 (1972), p. 387.
[4] S. Arnst, Sefer Yavetz (Tel Aviv, 1934), pp. 34-35.
[5] Apiryon 2 (1925), pp. 99-100.
[6] He also leaves no doubt that the obligation to light the menorah dates from the Hasmonean period. I say this even though R. Moshe Sternbuch argues that Maimonides agrees with R. Sternbuch's own view that the obligation for individuals to light the Menorah only dates from after the destruction of the Temple. See Moadim u-Zemanim, Hanukah, vol. 6, no. 89. For a rejection of R. Sternbuch’s position, see R. Simhah Lieberman, Bi-Shevilei ha-Nisim, p. 11. R. Lieberman’s many volumes encompass vast areas of Torah scholarship and show incredible erudition. Yet for some reason, I hardly ever see his works quoted, while other books which don’t approach his level of scholarship are quoted very often.
[7] See R. Simhah Lieberman, Bi-Shevilei ha-Nisim, pp. 52ff.; R. Menahem Kasher, Divrei Menahem, vol. 4, pp. 134ff.
[8] This point is made by R. Yaakov Koppel Schwartz, Likutei Diburim (Brooklyn, 2015), p. 159.
[9] Parashat Va-Yishlah, section 26 (p. 177 in the Mossad ha-Rav Kook edition with the commentary of R. Naphtali Zvi Judah Berlin). This source was noted by Nahum Bruell, “Mai Hanukkah,” Ha-Magid, Dec. 2, 1868, p. 373, and Jacob Reifman. See Reifman’s letter in Or ha-Mizrah 18 (Tishrei 5729), p. 95. Regarding this matter, R. Naphtali Zvi Judah Berlin mentions Bruell by name in Ha-Amek She’alah, vol. 1, p. 178. For some reason, the Netziv refers to Bruell as בעל המגי' which is strange, as Bruell only contributed articles to Ha-Magid but was not the editor.
[10] The Sheiltot, vol. 1, p. 178, preserves another important alternate text of the Talmud. Our version of Shabbat 21b reads: ולא היה בו להלדיק אלא יום אחד

The Sheiltot reads:  ולא היה בו להדליק אפילו יום אחד     

The word I have underlined means that the oil they found was not even enough for one day. This means that the burning of the oil for the complete first day was also a miracle, and thus provides an answer to the famous question why there is an eighth day of Hanukkah if there was enough oil for one day, meaning that the miracle was only for seven days. 

Of all the answers to this question, the strangest one has to be that of R. Yerahme’el Yisrael Yitzhak Danziger (1853-1910), the Rebbe of Alexander. He claims that the cruse of oil they found was completely empty, and this empty cruse produced enough oil for eight days. He says this even though the Talmud, Shabbat 21b, states explicitly that they found .פך אחד של שמן See R. Danziger, Yismah Yisrael (Bnei Brak, 2007), vol. 1, p. 98a  (Hanukkah, no. 58).
[11] Another addition that is not found in manuscripts is in 3:2 where Maimonides writes:

ונכנסו להיכל ולא מצאו שמן טהור אלא פך אחד

The standard printed versions read:  .ולא מצאו שמן טהור במקדש Even though the word במקדש is not found in manuscripts in this case for some unknown reason Frankel includes this mistaken word in his text and only in the textual note on the page informs the reader that it is not found in the manuscripts.

[12] Ha-Tzefirah, Nov. 28, 1892, p. 1069.
[13] R. Abraham Joel Abelson, the editor of the Torah journal Keneset Hakhmei Yisrael, which appeared from 1893-1900, polemicizes against those who deny the miracle of the oil. Yet interestingly enough, he accepts Slonimski’s point that Maimonides does not mention the miracle, and even explains why Maimonides omits it. Contrary to what I have written, he assumes that the miracle Maimonides refers to in Hilkhot Hanukah, ch. 4, is the military victory, as the lighting of the candles is a commemoration of this (Keneset Hakhmei Yisrael 6 [1896], p. 131.).

אין מקום כלל להקשות על הרמב"ם מה שלא הביא ביד החזקה מהנס של פך השמן, כי אין מדרכו לכתוב בכל הלכותיו טעמים עליהן כידוע, וגם נס פך השמן הלא רק כעין טעם על מה שקבעו הזקנים ימי החנכה לדורות . . . ועיקר הנס הלא הי' במלחמות החשמונאים שע"ז קבעו להדליק נרות חנכה גם לדורות ולהודות ולהלל לשמו הגדול.


[14] “Mai Hanukkah,” p. 382.
[15] Bruell was the grandson of R. Nahum Trebitch, chief rabbi of Moravia and predecessor to R. Samson Raphael Hirsch in this position. Bruell himself became rabbi of the Reform community of Frankfurt in 1870, succeeding Abraham Geiger.
[16] Beginning of parashat Be-Ha’alotkha.
[17] As we know, the oil in the Temple was made impure by the Greeks, as the Talmud, Shabbat 21b, states: טמאו כל .השמנים שבהיכל

What does this mean? How could the oil have been made impure and what about the halakhic principle of טומאה הותרה בציבור which would have allowed them to light the menorah even with impure oil? Daniel Sperber argues that when the word “impure” is used it does not mean טמא in a technical ritual sense. Rather, it means that the oil was uses for idolatrous purposes and in a colloquial sense it was regarded as טמא. See Sperber, “Al ha-Mesorot be-Hanukat ha-Bayit,” Sinai 54 (1964), pp. 218-225.
[18] Otzar Geonim, ShabbatTeshuvot, p. 23. See also Meiri, Beit ha-Behirah, Shabbat 21b; R. Nissim, Shabbat, p. 9b in the pages of the Rif, s.v. תנו רבנן.
[19] I haven’t found the reference in Bacher. For Graetz, see Geschichte der Juden (Leipzig, 1893), vol. 4, p. 183.
[20] Eretz ha-Galil (Jerusalem, 1967), pp. 20-21. R. Israel Horowitz also believes that there were two cities named Tekoa. See his Eretz Yisrael u-Shkenoteha (Vienna, 1923), index, s.v. Tekoa.
[21] Duran is known as Efodi because this is how his commentary on Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed was named by the first printer. Yet he actually referred to himself as Efod אפד, not Efodi. This is usually understood to be an acronym of אני פרופיאט דוראן. Yet Norman Roth sees this as unlikely. He assumes that the name Efod alludes to Arakhin 16a which states that the efod atones for idolatry, “i.e., he sought atonement for his own conversion and for others in his generation.” See Roth, Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (Madison, 2002), p. 192. See also Maud Kozodoy, The Secret Faith of Maestre Honoratus: Profayt Duran and Jewish Identity in Late Medieval Iberia (Philadelphia, 2015), pp. 4-5, 20, 25-26.
[22] Ma’aseh Efod (Vienna, 1865), p. 199. See also Abarbanel, II Sam. 14:2, who cites Efodi.
[23] See R. Yehosef Schwartz, Divrei Yosef, vol. 3, pp. 14a-b.
[24] Regarding oil and the tribe of Asher, there is a theory that the Bene Israel of India, who for centuries were engaged in oil pressing, originated from the upper Galilee which was famous for its oil. See Shirley Berry Isenberg, India’s Bene Israel (Berkeley, 1988), p. 8.
[25] See Ma’aseh Efod, p. 199.
[26] Megilat Antiochus Murhevet (n.p., 1992).
[27] No. 38 (Kislev-Tevet 5752), pp. 111-121.
[28] Tal Orot  vol. 1, pp. 91ff. This source is cited by Yaakov Rosenblum in Datche 17 (27 Kislev 5768), p. 11.
[29]  “Nes Pakh ha-Shemen ve-Derekh Hatma’ato be-Halakhah,”Shenaton Shaanan 19 (2014), pp. 47-60.
[30] “Rabbi Shmuel Alexandrov,” Sinai 100 (1987), pp. 195-221.
[31] “Spiritualism ve-Anarchism Dati be-Mishnato shel Shmuel Alexandrov,” Da’at 7 (1981), pp. 121-138.
[32] “Leumiut Universalit: Dat u-Leumiut be-Haguto shel Shmuel Alexandrov” (unpublished master’s dissertation, Ben Gurion University, 2014). See also Slater’s recent article, “Tziyonut Ruhanit Datit – Dat u-Leumiut be-Haguto shel Shmuel Alexandrov,” Daat 82 (2016), pp. 285-319.
[33] Mikhtevei Mehkar u-Vikoret (Jerusalem, 1932), p. 56.
[34] See Mikhtevei Mehkar u-Vikoret (Vilna, 1907), p. 12, where R. Alexandrov writes as follows to R. Kook:

ואמנם כן היא שהמוסריות המתפתחת מעצמה באה להחליט כדעת האומר שכל הקרבנות בטלים . . . גם אנכי הנני מסכים כי כל הקרבנות בטלים מפני שלא היו קדושים רק לשעתן.

In Mikhtevei Mehkar u-Vikoret (1932), p. 24, he speaks of the abolishment of sacrifices as a natural result of humanity’s developing sense of morality:

הנה נודעה היא למדי השקפת הרמב"ם ע"ד עבודת הקרבנות איך היתה מוכרחת בזמן הקדום ואיך היא נבטלת לאט לאט מעצמה ע"י התפתחות הרוח של האדם, ובאופן שמין האדם מבטל מעצמו את מצות הקרבנות וכל אבזרייהו מבלי הופעה דתיית  משמי מרומים, והנה תקון דתיי כזה הוא תקון שהזמן עושה, כלומה זה נעשה על פי התפתחות המוסריית האנושיית התלויה בזמן, ובאופן שהכל נעשה יפה בעתו ובזמנו, ולו עמדו כעת מתקנים במין האדם הנאור שהיו חפצים להנהיג את עבודת הקרבנות מחדש אז היה החפץ הזה נדחה מפני המוסריות האנושיות המנגדת לעבודה דתיית כזאת בכל כחה, ואין כל ספק כי יד המוסרית תהיה על העליונה כי לכל זמן ועת לכל חפץ תחת השמים.

In another letter to R. Kook, Mikhtevei Mehkar u-Vikoret (1907), p. 15. Alexandrov explains that the reason why in their day so many of the Orthodox youth, including sons of rabbis, were “going of the derech,” is because they saw their fathers up close and this turned them off religion.

רואה אנכי כי הנסבה הראשית להרחקת בני הרבנים והחרדים מדרכי אבותיהם ואשר עפ"י הרוב הלכו למקום שלא ישובו עוד לנו הוא מפני שנסתכלו במעשי אבותיהם לפני ולפנים . . . כמובן מעצמו שישנם אבות ובנים יוצאים מן הכלל אבל הרוב הניכר הנראה לעינים ילמדנו דעת כי שחת ישראל דרכו מחטאת כהניו ונביאיו ודור לפי פרנסו.
[35] Tal Tehiyah (Vilna, 1897), p. 8a.
[36] Shevet mi-Yehudah, vol. 2, no. 12.
[37] Details of this will be provided in a future post.

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