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Discovering Chanukah in the Torah

by Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff  Educational Director, Chazak NYC

The Ramban in his introduction to Sefer Bereishit tells us that, “Everything is written in the Torah, whether explicitly or by allusion”. Since such a miracle of Chanukah occurred, and a holiday was created because of it, chazal scoured Scripture to find subtle references to this event. Let’s see some of the references that they found, sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed before our very eyes.

The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 2:5) explains that the second verse of the Torah, “And the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep” refers to the darkness of Yavan, Greece. Why is Greece referred to as “darkness”? Because it was the Greeks who darkened the eyes of the Jewish people with its decrees. The next pasuk however seems to contradict the previous one when it says, “And G-d said, let there be light.” The word Ohr, light, is the twentieth fifth word in the Torah. The idea being that the darkness the Greeks brought to the world would be illuminated by the light of the Menorah on the 25th of Kislev, i.e on Chanukah.

Chanukah the eternal holiday

The Torah hints to us that Chanukah was not a one off event, but a holiday that should be celebrated every year in perpetuity. The Gemara (Kiddushin 29a) gives us the tools to understand this:

“Wherever the Torah uses the word, “Tzav” command, it means that it is to be carried out immediately and for future generations.” Based on this idea we can discover something about the use of the word Tzav regarding the lighting of the Menorah. The Torah (Vayikrah 24:2) tells Moshe Rabbeinu to “Tzav the children of Israel to take extra pure olive oil, pressed for kindling, to light the continual lamp.” This lighting of the Menorah is also a reference to a time when even the Beit Hamikdash is not standing but still needs to be lit in the homes of the Jewish people on Chanukah. Following this pasuk, the Torah then says, “Chukat Olam LeDoroteichem”, It is an eternal decree for your generations!

Chanukah is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. In fact for that matter, Chanukah is not mentioned in Tanach at all! The obvious reason is that the events occurred almost a millennia after the Torah was given to the Jewish people. The Gemara (Yoma 29a) gives a deeper reason why we don’t find the story of Chanukah mentioned in Tanach, 

“Rav Assi said, why is Esther compared to the Shachar, the morning? To tell you that just as morning is the end of the entire night, so too the salvation of Purim that occurred through Esther is the end of all miracles. But the story of Chanukah occurred after this event of Esther! What it means is that Purim was the last miracle allowed to be committed to writing as part of Tanach.”

The events of Chanukah happened after the Anshei Kensset HaGedolah (the Men of the Great Assembly) sealed the Tanach at the beginning of the period of the Second Beit Hamikdash, and legislated that no more books could be added to the twenty four books already included in it. After the era of the neviim, prophets, concluded, the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah became the immediate successors (Avot 1:1). According to the Bnei Yissaschar, (Maamarei Chodshei Kislev Tevet 2:14) this was meant to demonstrate to the Jewish people that even though the Jewish people no longer merited the gift of prophecy, G-d still performs miracles for his Chosen nation. 

Chanukah the twenty-fifth book of Tanach

Chazal indicated that Tanach should only contain twenty four books (Kohelet Rabbah 12:2) and that all twenty four had been designated before the time of Chanukah. Since Chanukah would have been the twenty fifth books, chazal could not let it be added to scripture. Fascinatingly HaRav Chaim Sonnenfeld demonstrated this idea from the word Chanukah itself. 

The word Chanukah can be broken up into two words, “Chanu” they rested, and “Kah” which has the gematria, numerical value, of twenty five. This not only refers to the fact that the Chashmonaim rested on the 25th of Kislev, but also means that even though Chanukah could have qualified to be the twenty fifth book of Tanach, Chazal were the ones who rested from including it. 

Chanukah in the list of holidays

The Torah lists the holidays in parshat Emor. It begins by discussing Shabbat which occurs every week. Following this it describes Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and finally Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret. If we follow the chronological order of the holidays as they appear during the year, Chanukah occurs after Sukkot. The Torah hints to this in the next pasuk where it says, “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, command the children of Israel that they should take to you extra pure olive oil, pressed for kindling, to light the continual light, i.e the Menorah). 

This verse is describing the commandment to light the Menorah on a daily basis in the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash. However discussing this command here after listing the holidays, when it could have been mentioned anywhere else, is the Torah’s way of including Chanukah in the chronology of the holidays, even though Chanukah didn’t occur till a thousand years after the giving of the Torah.

When the Pasuk discusses the Menorah it commands, “Lehalot ner tamid” light a continual lamp. When all the Temple activities ceased when the second Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, the command to light the Menorah would live on Tamid, continually through the Jewish people’s lighting go the Chanukah candles. (Midrash Tanchuma, Behaloscha 5)

The twenty fifth stop in the midbar

After the Jewish people left Mitzrayim, they spent forty years walking through the Sinai desert on their way to Eretz Yisrael. The Torah lists the amount of stops as forty two. The Ramban (Bamidbar 33:1) tells us that when the Torah introduces these journeys it says, “Moshe wrote about their travels according to their journeys at the request of Hashem” it did this so that Moshe should know that each destination they reached and encamped should be recorded to convey the message that deep secrets are contained in each of their destinations.

We already noted that the number twenty five is strongly connected to the holiday of Chanukah, and not just because Chanukah appears on that date in Kislev. When we look at the twenty fifth encampment of the Bnei Yisrael in the midbar, we see that the pasuk records it as Vayachenu B’Chashmonah, they camped in Chashmonah. These words can actually be read as “They rested in Chashmonah”, a reference to the Chashmonaim, Hasmoneans, that fought and defeated the Greeks on the twenty fifth, which allowed us to rest from the war we had been fighting. The word Chashmonah is spelled with a letter ‘hey’ at the end, whereas the Chashmonaim is spelled with an ‘aleph’ rather than the ‘hey’. This allows this word to have the root word, “Shemona” eight, which is also spelled with a ‘hey’. This is a hint that the holiday that begins on the twenty fifth will last eight days. (Hameor SheB’Chanukah, Neis Chanukah p125)

The Torah readings for Chanukah are taken from the Parsha of Naso (Bamidbar 7:1-89). They describe the bringing of the korbanot, offerings, by the nesi’im, princes, of each of the tribes at the Chanukat HaMishkan, the inauguration of the tabernacle. The inauguration started on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, and lasted from twelve days. During each one of the those twelve days a different nasi, one per day, brought a total of twelve korbanot. 

Seemingly a more appropriate reading for the holiday of Chanukah would be something related to the Menorah. What’s the connection between the korbanot listed in the Torah and the dedication of the Mishkan and the holiday of Chanukah?

The dedication of the Mishkan is directly related to Chanukah, because the construction of the components of the Mishkan were completed in the desert on the 25th of Kislev, the date that centuries later would become the holiday of Chanukah. Although the Mishkan’s dedication did not occur until Nissan, it was ready to be dedicated in Kislev. So although the dedication did not occur in Kislev, the rededication of the Beit Hamikdash many years later did fall in Kislev. This rededication is considered to be just like the original dedication itself, as though the Mishkan was standing anew for the first time. 

In order to connect reading of Chanukah with the lights of the Menorah, most communities have the custom to extend the Torah readings of Chanukah past the parsha of Naso, dealing with the Korbanot, directly into the Parsha of Behalotcha, which describes the Menorah and its lighting in the Mishkan by Aaron HaKohen. 

Yosef and his connection to Chanukah

The parshiyot of Vayeishev, Miketz and Vayigash tell the story of Yosef’s rise to power as the second in command to Pharaoh. Chanukah always coincides with the Shabbat that we read Vayeishev or Miketz. Sometimes it coincides with both. What’s the deeper connection between the story of Yosef and the events of Chanukah which were to occur many years later?

Chanukah is about the ability of the Jewish people to face adversity and succeed in overcoming challenges to our core values. In addition we learn not to succumb to outside forces and feel despair in the challenges we face as a nation. The ability to be in a dark environment and to bring light into that place is a quality we learn from Yosef Hatzadik. 

Yosef was the first person to be thrust into exile when the brothers sold him to Egypt. The fact that the Egyptians referred to him as the “Ivri” Hebrew, informs us that he kept his Jewish identity, and did not become lost in the norms of Egyptian culture. He proved that exile can be beaten, no matter how bleak the circumstances may appear. 

Yosef married Osnat, who according to the midrash was the illegitimate daughter born to Dina through Shechem, who was adopted by Potipher. With such a background, it would appear that nothing holy could emerge from such a union. Yet Yosef’s entire future, his sons Menashe and Efrayim who become their own tribes of Israel, were born from her. Rav Gedalya Schorr (Ohr Gedaliyahu, Moadim, Galus Yavan L’Ohr Maaseh Avos Siman L’Banim) explains that precisely this reason the episode of Shechem and Dina is a precursor to the entire Chanukah story.

While in prison for a crime he did not commit, Yosef refused to give in to despair. When the royal baker and wine server were depressed, it was Yosef who took it upon himself to cheer them up. For Yosef a little bit went a long way, just like a little jar of oil lasted for eight days. When the world around Yosef was full of falsehood, Yosef stayed connected to the truth and passed that on to his children.

The Jews in the time of the Greek exile did the same. When harsh decrees were placed upon them, they stood up proudly and confidently declared their identities as Jews. It is for this reason that we connect Yosef and Chanukah, because Yosef teaches us how to survive in the darkest and harshest of spiritual and physical exiles and still stay connected to the cause. 

May we all learn how to strengthen ourselves in the last moments of this final exile and keep the flame of connection to Hashem, His Torah and the Mitzvot.