One of the niceties of living in Israel is that our holidays are usually one day shorter than in the Diaspora. The reason for this pertains to the way in which the Hebrew calendar operates. The Hebrew calendar is based upon the lunar month, which lasts about twenty nine and a half days, and so a Hebrew month can have either twenty-nine or thirty days. A new month is declared when witnesses testify that they have seen the new crescent moon. Testimony must be made at the High Court in Jerusalem, and from there the news travels to the Jews dispersed around the world. Before the internet, news travelled at the “speed of horse”, meaning that it required weeks before some of the more distant locations found out when the new moon was declared. This uncertainty required that an extra day be added to the holidays, “just in case”. Today, even though we can calculate when the new moon will occur down to the millisecond, the entire Diaspora still keep an extra day of holiday in commemoration (minhag) of this ancient phenomenon.

It is strange that this uncertainty, also called “sfeka d’yoma”, is not reflected in the holiday of Chanukah. Chanukah lasts for eight days both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Why is Chanukah not celebrated for nine days in the Diaspora? Speaking as an engineer I’m glad this doesn’t happen because I have no idea how we’d light Chanukah candles if we had to account for uncertainty. On the fourth night of Chanukah, would we light four candles and then blow one out? Or would we light three candles and then wait a few minutes and then light a fourth candle? Or maybe we’d light two different menorahs, one with three candles and one with four?[1]

The vast majority of opinions hold that there is no sfeka d’yoma regarding Chanukah, and that it lasts for eight days across the globe. A dissenting opinion is Rav Yossef Ba’bad, writing in the “Minchat Chinuch”, who rules that when the Hebrew calendar one day reverts back to its original mode of operation, then those communities that are far from Jerusalem and do not know the precise date of the New Moon will hold nine days of Chanukah. Given our current state of technology the entire world will know that the New Moon was declared only seconds after the High Court declares it, and so Chanukah will always be eight days long no matter where one lives. That said, I’d like to offer a hypothesis that, while perhaps not halachically relevant, can shine some light on the essence of Chanukah.

In Parashat Vayechi Yaakov blesses his sons on his deathbed. He promises his son Judah [Bereishit 49:10] “The sceptre shall never depart from [the Tribe of] Judah”. Our Sages understand from this that the King of Israel shall always come from the Tribe of Judah. Indeed, from the reign of King David, through the Exilarchs in Babylon, and culminating in the Mashiach, Jewish leaders have always haled from the Tribe of Judah[2]. Well, almost always. For the last two-hundred years of the second Beit HaMikdash the kings all belonged to the Hasmonean Dynasty, a family of Kohanim descended from the Tribe of Levi. The forefather of the Hasmoneans was Matityahu, the same Matityahu from the story of Chanukah who led the Maccabees in revolt against the Greek Seleucids. It was the Hasmoneans who defeated the Greeks, removed the statue of Zeus from the Beit HaMikdash, and lit the menorah that burnt for eight days[3]. Why did the Hasmoneans wrest the monarchy from the Tribe of Judah? Why wasn’t it some Davidic monarch that fought off the Greeks?

The answer to this question pertains to the goal of the Greek occupation. The Greeks did not pursue the physical destruction of the Jewish People. Their antagonism was aimed at Judaism and not at the Jews. To this end they outlawed certain basic mitzvot such as circumcision and the study of Torah and they turned the Beit HaMikdash into a pagan temple. Jews quickly became used to the Hellenistic doctrine and many adopted it. The Maccabees were a small minority who realized the Jewish faith was being irreversibly suffocated. The only way that this suffocation could be stopped was with raw unbridled passion, a passion for holiness. It is not surprising that the Maccabees were descended from Levi, a tribe that had avenged Hashem’s name time and time again in our history: Levi attacked the City of Shechem after its leader kidnapped and raped his sister, Dina. His descendants answered Moshe’s cry of [Shemot 32:26] “He who is for Hashem – come with me!” when the rest of the nation were worshipping the Golden Calf. And it was Levi’s descendant Pinchas who slaughtered Zimri, the Prince of the Tribe of Shimon, who was fornicating with a Moabite woman, ending a plague that threatened to wipe out the entire nation. The Maccabees continued the Levite tradition of religious fervour. While the Tribe of Judah was learning to speak Greek, reading Greek philosophy and working out in Greek gymnasiums, the Levites stood firm in their allegiance to Hashem.

I spent the last week taking a seminar on the future of the US-Israel relationship given by Michael Doran, who served in the National Security Council during the George W Bush Administration. Mike was discussing the difference between the Bush administration and the Obama administration. He said that in the Bush administration there was a strong feeling of right and wrong. Bush went so far as to define an “Axis of Evil” that included Iran, (Sadam’s) Iraq, and North Korea. But when the Obama administration came in, “Team Nuance” took over the State Department. “Team Nuance” is comprised of moral relativists for whom there is no “right” and no “wrong”, just a whole lot of grey. Team Nuance proceeded to open up channels that had until then been sealed shut. They opened dialogue with Cuba and Iran, believing that the belligerence of these countries was, in fact, a reaction to US aggression. This moral ambivalence was what the Hasmoneans were trying to stop. When it comes to avenging the honour of Hashem, there is no room for “Team Nuance”. Had Pinchas approached a Rabbi and asked him if it were permissible to kill Zimri, he would have been told that it was explicitly forbidden[4]. If there is the slightest doubt, there is no room for vengeance. Similarly, there can be no doubt regarding the number of days in Chanukah. Chanukah, a holiday in which the Maccabees avenged Hashem’s vengeance, a holiday in which the righteous defeated the wicked, in which the pure defeated the impure, lasts for precisely eight days. Everywhere, all the time. Full stop.[5]

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya, and Yoav ben Chaya

[1] While the uncertainty is difficult to express vis-à-vis the Chanukah candles, it is easier to express in the Torah reading. On Chanukah we read of the offerings made by the Princes of the Tribes during the consecration of the Mishkan. Each day of Chanukah we read about the gift that was offered on that particular day. For instance, on the fourth day of Chanukah we read about the gift offered on the fourth day of the consecration of the Mishkan by Elitzur the son of Shede’ur, the Prince of the Tribe of Reuven. The problem is that each Prince gave the exactly same gift and only six verses are required to describe the gift. This is problematic because a Torah reading must be at least nine verses long (three people are called to the Torah and a minimum of three verses is read for each person). The problem is solved in one of two ways: In all congregations the offering of the relevant Prince is split between the first two people called to the Torah. In some congregations the third person called to the Torah re-reads the offering of the relevant Prince and in other congregations he reads the offering of the next Prince. The normative practice in Israel is to re-read the offering of the relevant Prince and the in the Diaspora it is to read the offering of the next Prince. Rav Dov Lior attributes this to sfeka d’yoma, which is, of course, relevant only in the Diaspora.

[2] R’ Chaim Gelfand notes that leaders in transitional periods are often descended from Joseph. Examples include Joseph, who led in Egypt, Joshua the son of Nun, who led the Jews when they entered the Land of Israel, and Mashiach ben Yossef, who will usher in the Messianic era.

[3] The story as recorded in the Book of Maccabees is slightly different, but this version will suffice.

[4] This is called “Halacha v’ein morin kein”.

[5] But wait a minute, didn’t we say above that the Torah reading in Israel and the Diaspora are different because of sfeka d’yoma? Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, writing in the Aruch HaShulchan [684:2], teaches that the reason some people do not re-read the “Prince of the Day” is because it is preferable to read a new section of the Torah rather than to re-read something that has already been read. It is a technicality, not a doubt.