By Rabbi B. Shafier
Gemara Shabbos 21b: The miracle of the oil
Why do we celebrate Chanukah?
The Gemara tells us the reason that we celebrate Chanukah is that when the Yivanim entered the Bais HaMikdash, they defiled all the oil set aside for lighting the Menorah. When the Chashmonoim were victorious, they searched and were able to find only one small jug of oil with the Cohain Gadol’s seal intact. It had sufficient oil to last only one day, but miraculously it lasted eight days. In honor of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, Chazal inaugurated these days for Hallel and thanksgiving.
Al Ha’Nisim: the miracle of the battle
The Maharal states that this Gemarah seems to contradict what we say in Al Ha’Nisim, a Tefilah written by Taanim hundreds of years before. In the Al Ha’Nisim, we proclaim thanks to HASHEM for the miracle of the war. We thank HASHEM for delivering the Yivanim armies into our hands: “You fought their battles, judged their judgments, took their revenge. You put the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” According to the Al Ha’Nisim, the miracle of Chanukah was that HASHEM delivered us from the armies of the Yivanim. Yet the Gemara in Shabbos says that we celebrate Chanukah because of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. The Maharal asks, “Which one is correct?”
The miracle of the oil revealed the miracle of the war.
The Maharal answers that both are true, and both are consistent. The actual event for which we give thanksgiving and sing Hallel is the salvation of the Jewish people. We won a war against all odds. However, it wasn’t clear that the victory was a miracle. To people living in those times, military success seemed to be natural. It was attributed to Jewish resilience and bravery. It didn’t appear that HASHEM had delivered us from the hands of the Yivanim; rather, it appeared as “their might, and the strength of their arms.” It was only through the miracle of the oil that they came to understand the miracle of the battle. Once people saw the oil last eight days – an overt miracle from HASHEM — they then came to see that their success on the battlefield was from HASHEM as well. The miracle of the oil revealed to them the miracle of the war.
Israel didn’t have a standing army
This Maharal becomes difficult to understand when we take into account a basic historical overview.
The events of Chanukah take place around the middle of the era of the Second Bais Hamikdash. From the time that Bavel destroyed the first Bais Hamikdash until that point; the Jewish People lived under the reign of gentile monarchies. Our right to exist and our form of government was decided by the ruling parties. We were a vassal state under foreign rule, and when the Yivanim entered Yerushalayim, the Jewish people did not even have a standing army.
This wasn’t a war of a stronger army against a weaker opponent. It was a war in which the most powerful empire in the world was pitted against a band of unorganized, unarmed, private citizens.
While the war itself lasted 3 years, during the entire first year of fighting, there were no formal battles. Two armies were not squaring off against each other; there was no Jewish army. The fighting consisted of guerrilla skirmishes. Some Jews would sneak up on a lone detail of Yivamim soldiers, kill them and take their arms. Bit by bit, more Jews would join Yehudah Ha’Macabi, but at every point during the wars, the Jews were far outnumbered, outgunned and preposterously less battle-ready than their enemies.
The leaders of the rebellion were Kohanim
Even more startling is that almost all of the original fighters had no battle experience. The leaders of the rebellion were Kohanim. A Kohain is a Torah teacher, one who serves in the Bais Hamikdash, one who guides the Klal Yisroel in Ruchnius. He isn’t a soldier. So this was a war led and fought not by soldiers, but by Roshei Yeshiva. It was akin to Reb Shmuel Kaminetsky leading the Lakewood Yeshiva in battle against the US Marine Corps.
How could anyone not see the miracle of the war?
No intelligent assessment of the situation would have predicted a Jewish victory. How then is it possible that the Jews at the time saw these events as anything other than the miracles that they clearly were?
This seems to be natural to the human
The answer to this question seems to be that when one is many years away and far removed, he gains a historical vantage point. He is able to see an event in context and can easily recognize it as a miracle. But to those living in the day-to-day heat of the battle, it is much more difficult to see the event from that perspective.
To those involved, it seemed to be a natural course of events. Granted the odds were slim, but the Jews won. Skirmish after skirmish, battle after battle, the Macabis came out victorious. There is no question that they did well, which is why it seemed that it was their skill, their cunning, our wisdom in battle that won those wars. And as such, to people living in those times, the miracle was hidden. And then a single event focused their sight.
When the Kohanim returned to the Bais Ha’Mikdash and took out that little bit of oil that couldn’t possibly last for eight days, and saw it remain aglow night after night, everyone knew this was miraculous. When they experienced the miracle of the oil, it reshaped the previous three years in their minds, and they then saw the battles themselves as the miracles that they were.
We see the same phenomena in our times
In our own times we witness an eerie parallel to these events and to the same mistaken interpretation.
For almost 2,000 years we have existed as a lone sheep amongst 70 wolves. Universally hated and oppressed, the Jewish People have survived. And now, after almost 1900 years of wandering, we find ourselves back in our own land.
Since 1948, the Jewish Nation has witnessed profound miracles in the repopulation and development of the land of Israel. But it is the survival of our people that is the greatest miracle.
In 1948, the population in the Middle East numbered roughly 650,000 Jews, surrounded by some 50 million Arabs. On May 15th, 1948, one day after the State of Israel was declared, five nations attacked, each with well-trained armies and air forces, each alone capable of annihilating the small band of Holocaust survivors. At the time there was no Jewish Army, Navy or Air force. Yet, against all odds, we won that war, and against all odds we continued to win war after war – until now, ironically, the Jews are considered the super power in the region.
To most people, Jew and Gentile alike, it seems that this is just the way of the world. To the average witness to these events, it isn’t a demonstration of the hand of HASHEM — It is just the ebb and flow of history.
The lesson of Chanukah is to see behind the veil of nature – to tune our sight into the true cause of events, and to see that it is HASHEM who runs the world, and HASHEM Who fights our wars– then as now.
For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #15 – G-d Fights Our Wars
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Happy Chanukah. I’d like to share something said by Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, the Mora D’asra of our shul, the Bais Medrash of Bayswater (Far Rockaway, New York). Rabbi Shapiro related an incident from Tanach where the Navi Elisha and his young servant (referred to simply as a na’ar, young man) are hiding on a mountaintop. There are literally hundreds of soldiers swarming on the mountain after them. The na’ar is terrified. Elisha tells him calmly, “They’re outnumbered.” What? Outnumbered? When does two outnumber a thousand? So Elisha prays to G-d, “Open the eyes of this na’ar.” The na’ar’s eyes are opened up. He suddenly sees all over the heavens, literally millions of angelic beings, ready to go to war. Not necessarily just a Chanukah story, but to remind us that when the Jewish people go to war fighting for G-d’s side, the other guys are outnumbered.
We ought to keep in mind that these ancient Jewish fighters were anti-hellenists not into bluster and self-worship. Properly, the article emphasized the Source of their success, just as they did.
“the article unfortunately minimized the miraculous nature of the military victory”
I’m confused. I read the article twice, and it seems to me almost the entire essay centered on the miraculous nature of the military victory.
Bob Miller-My point was and remains that the article unfortunately minimized the miraculous nature of the military victory-just as many did in the wake of the Six Day War-when in fact both Rambam and Pri Chadash view it as an intrinsic part of the celebration of Channukah.
Devarim/Deuteronomy, Chapter 30)
You will return to HASHEM your G_d,
and obey Him exactly as I am commanding
you today, you and your children,
wholeheartedly with your whole being…
And HASHEM your G_d will place all of
these curses on your enemies and on your
haters who pursue you …
Mishlei/Proverbs, chapter 16, verse 7:
When the ways of a man please HASHEM, even his enemies are at peace with him.
Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Toldot, Chapter 5:
The [Roman Emperor] Hadrian said to Rabbi Yehoshua:
Great indeed must be the lamb, Israel, that is can exist among 70 wolves.
Rabbi Yehoshua replied: Great is the Shepherd who rescues and protects her.
Steve, so is your point that the Jews fighting the Seleucid Empire were more schooled in the military arts than the article let on? The article does not deny that Jewish forces won in ancient times and in 1948; it establishes the underlying reason.
Bob Miller- My point was that an otherwise fine shmuezz, for reasons best known to its author, could have but did not mention the fact that Rishonim and Acharonim view both the reestablishment of Jewsih sovereigbty even under the rule of Kohanim ( Rambam) and the military victory ( Pri Chadash) as intrinsic parts of Channukah. OTOH, IMO emphasizing solely the spiritual nature of the miracle while neglecting the political/military aspects and vice versa is illustrative of a hashkafic lack of balance.
Steve, are you saying above that the sources you cite support this article’s point and should have been mentioned in the article to make it more complete? If not, please explain.
WADR, this otherwise fine Drasha/Sicha/Shmuezz seemingly ignores two issues raised by the Rishonim and Acharonim and points out the problematic issue of emphasizing the spiritual nature of miracle of Channukah,without acknowledging the military victory and vice versa. (FWIW, it is unfortunate that this trend of emphasizing one aspect of Channukah over another generally is fairly indicative of a person’s hashkafa on many issues.) Namely, the Rambam in Hilcos Channukah, as opposed to the Ramban in Parshas Vayechi, has a very positive view on the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel-even by a kingdom of Kohanim. The Pri Chadash suggests , as an answer to the famous question of the Beis Yosef as to why we celebrate 8 days of Channukah, is to remember the military victory in addition to the miracle of the oil.