Inside Chanukah

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Fascinating And Intriguing Insights On Chanukah, Its Miracles, And Its History

By Aryeh Pinchas Strickoff

Part 1

Was the Menorah with which the miracle of the oil occurred actually made out of wood (not gold)? When the Chashmonaim entered the Beis HaMikdash following their victories against the Yevanim on the battlefield, they found a defiled and ransacked Sanctuary, with all of its precious vessels looted, including the Golden Menorah. Rashi (on Rosh HaShanah 24b) explains that because the Chashmonaim were so poor, they were unable to fashion a new Menorah out of gold. While not ideal, if gold is unavailable, the Gemara (Menachos 28b; Rosh HaShanah 24b; Avodah Zarah 43a) teaches that the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash can be made out of certain other materials, and there is no requirement in such a case that it be decorated with the ornamental cups, knobs, and flowers that are necessary when it is made of gold (see Tosafos, Menachos 28b). To that end, according to Rabbi Yosei bar Yehudah in the Gemara (Menachos 28b), the Chashmonaim made a temporary Menorah out of wood! However, others say that the Menorah of the Chashmonaim was made of other materials. According to another opinion in the Gemara (ibid.), iron rods overlaid with tin were put together by the Chashmonaim to form a Menorah, while the Maharsha (on Chullin 55a) says that the Menorah was made out of shards of earthenware! Whatever the material used, this pale shadow of the ornately sculpted branches of its ideal golden form was the Menorah into which the Chashmonaim poured the one day’s worth of oil that miraculously burned for eight days. Subsequent to Chanukah, when the Chashmonaim were able to raise sufficient funds, they replaced the crude Menorah first with a silver one, and then with a glorious golden one built to specification in every detail (see Menachos 28b; Rosh HaShanah 24b; Avodah Zarah 43a). (Chiddushei HaRe’eim; Menachos 28a–b; Rosh HaShanah 24b; Avodah Zarah 43a)

How does the name יָוָן (Greece) epitomize the nature of the Yevanim at the time of Chanukah? The focus of the Yevanim was on outer beauty. It is therefore fascinating that their name, Yavan, is made up of the letters ו ,י, and ן, which have the form of straight lines with no inner portion, and thus indicate a focus on the external. These letters lie in stark contrast to letters like ס or ב, for example, which have enclosed inner portions that one can focus on. Similarly, the Yevanim were all about sizing people up based on externalities. Therefore, the three letters which make up their name are representative of the yardstick of the three primary sizes with which one can size another up, namely small, medium, and large. The י is small, the ו is medium, and the ן is large! In addition, spelled in reverse, the name יָוָן is the word נוֹי, beauty, hinting to the primary focus and concern of the Yevanim. Finally, that Yavan is spelled ן ,ו ,י, hints to their stealth and conniving. Initially, Yavan (representing secular, anti-Torah philosophy) sucks a person in, but only to a small degree, like the letter י. Then one is pulled in to a greater degree, like the letter ו. Finally, before one realizes what has happened, it brings a person all the way down like the letter ן, to the point where it is very difficult to emerge. As Rabbi Yisrael Salanter said, the first time a person sins he regrets it, the next time it is a little easier to sin, and finally it becomes so ingrained in him that doing the sin becomes like doing a mitzvah! (HaRav Ephraim Wachsman)

Why is there a custom to eat sufganiyot (filled doughnuts) on Chanukah? HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach indicates that we eat sufganiyot on Chanukah because their berachah acharonah (the blessing made after eating) is Mei’ein Shalosh, the blessing recited after eating grain products other than bread, drinking wine or grape juice, and eating fruit of the seven species. It utilizes a specific introductory and ending phrase for each of the three categories, but the core central text is the same for each, containing a plea to Hashem to have mercy on the Jewish people, Yerushalayim, the Beis HaMikdash, and the Mizbei’ach (the Altar), to restore them to their former grandeur. Notably, Mei’ein Shalosh is the only berachah acharonah which mentions the Mizbei’ach, as it is not even mentioned in Birkas HaMazon. When the Chashmonaim purified the Beis HaMikdash, the only thing they didn’t know how to purify was the Mizbei’ach, and, as a result, they had to dismantle it, hide away its stones, and rebuild it (see Yoma 16a; Avodah Zarah 52b). The fact that they could not purify the original Mizbei’ach distressed them terribly, and they consequently took it upon themselves to eat foods that would result in reciting Birkas Mei’ein Shalosh, recalling and praying for the Mizbei’ach. At the same time, however, the fact that the Chashmonaim were able to build a new Mizbei’ach sparked tremendous joy, since it facilitated the resumption of the korbanos (sacrifices), and, as such, the Mizbei’ach’s rededication became one of the main commemorations of Chanukah (see Maharsha, Shabbos 21b). In commemoration of both aspects of this experience, we eat sufganiyot, a food that requires the recitation of Al HaMichyah, so that we will be able to recall the Mizbei’ach during the days of Chanukah. By doing so, we hope that Hashem will recall the pain of the Chashmonaim for the old Mizbei’ach and their magnanimous rededication of the new Mizbei’ach in those days at this time, and finally restore the Mizbei’ach to its former splendor. May it occur speedily in our days! (HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach)

Why did the Yevanim deliberately seek out all the oil in the Beis HaMikdash in order to defile it? The elimination of Torah was not Yavan’s goal. Instead, they sought to rebrand it and turn it into a secular intellectual pursuit like any other, absent any trace of holiness or Godliness. To them, the Torah was a worthwhile anthropological book of laws and tales, to be appreciated as a beautiful literary and philosophical human creation. They viewed it as having value in its wisdom and profundity, but no more significance than that. Chazal compare olive oil to chochmah (see Menachos 85a), and say that אֵין חָכְמָה אֶלָא תּוֹרָה — there is no [real] chochmah except Torah (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeilech 2). As such, olive oil represents Torah. Olive oil also represents the Jewish people, in that just as olive oil does not dissolve in other liquids, but remains separate and always rises to the top, so too are the Jewish people a separate and distinct people as the nation of the Torah and Hashem. The Greeks did not incidentally defile the oil in the Beis HaMikdash as they carried out their actions there, but intentionally sought out every last container of oil in order to purposely defile them all (see Shabbos 21b). Their intention was not to destroy the oil, or prevent the kindling of the Menorah, for had that been their goal, even impure oil would not have been left in the Beis HaMikdash. Instead, their goal was to make all the oil Greek, as they sought to transform the Torah, symbolized by oil, into a Godless study, and to assimilate the uniqueness and distinctness of the Jewish people, also represented by oil, into the homogeneous, Godless world nation that they envisioned. The Yevanim actually wanted the lighting of the Menorah to continue, but they wanted it to be done specifically with defiled oil (i.e., with oil that had a Greek tinge), so that the light given off would be tinged by their influence, and then the Menorah, together with the Beis HaMikdash, would fall in line as another monument to Greek culture and philosophy. If they could commandeer the Beis HaMikdash, the beacon of light and main artery of kedushah (holiness) and its influence in the world, they would have a chance at swallowing up the Torah and the Jewish people into their utopian Greek world. Thus, they defiled all the oil they could find. (Bnei Yissaschar) v

Excerpted from the new sefer Inside Chanukah (published by Feldheim). With haskamos from Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlita, Rav Shlomo Eliyahu Miller, shlita, Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum, shlita, and Rav Zev Leff, shlita, Inside Chanukah explores every aspect of Chanukah—the miracles, mitzvos, minhagim, and history, in a collection of over 200 fascinating divrei Torah in a short, easy-to-read format. Aryeh Pinchas Strickoff is also the author of the acclaimed sefer Inside Purim, published in 2009. He can be reached at

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