Four Layers of Chanukah: An Adult Text Study

chanukah-1Four Layers of Chanukah:

An Adult Text Study

Shared with you by Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Cantor Doug Cotler

Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA * * (818) 888-8290


 Our sages teach that all Torah needs to be studied on multiple levels called Pardes.  Pardes in Hebrew means orchard.   The word Pardes is also an acronym, meaning each letter represents another word. 


PaRDeS: the Orchard of Torah Study


P’shat = Plain, simple meaning

Remez = “Hint” – personal implication, association

Drash = “Searching out” – substantial, philosophical explanation

Sod = “Secret/Mystery” – deep wellsprings of meaning


This Chanukah meander through the Pardes of Jewish texts and pick some of the delicious fruits of learning.  Explore the depth of our Jewish textual tradition. 


For each text (even if they are under another category), ask four questions:


  1. P’shat:  What is the simple meaning, the plot line of this text?
  2. Drash: What lesson is this text teaching? What’s might the “rabbi’s sermon” be about it?
  3. Remez: If this text is a Rorschach test, what does it tell me about ME?
  4. Sod: What deep meaning does this text teach about life, spirituality, and/or my place in the cosmos?


 1. Peshat


a.  II Maccabees 10:1–8Judah Maccabee with his men, led by the Eternal, recovered the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. He demolished the altars erected by the heathen in the public square and their sacred precincts as well. When they had purified the sanctuary, they constructed another altar; then, striking fire from flints, they offered a sacrifice for the first time for two whole years and restored the incense, the lights and the show bread. This done, they prostrated themselves and prayed to the Eternal not to let them fall into more such disasters, but should they ever happen to sin, to discipline them God with compassion, and not hand them over to blasphemous and barbarous Gentiles.


The sanctuary was purified on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the same day of the same month as that on which foreigners had profaned it. The joyful celebration lasted for eight days. It was like the Feast of Sukkot, for they recalled how, only a short time before, they had kept that feast while they were living like wild animals in the mountains and caves; and so they carried garlanded rods and branches with their fruits, as well as palm fronds, and they chanted hymns to the One who had so triumphantly achieved the purification of God’s own Temple. A measure was passed by the public assembly, which stated that the entire Jewish nation should celebrate these days every year.


 b. Talmud, Shabbat 21b:  What is Chanukah? Our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev commences the days of Chanukah, which are eight, on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting is forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils within it, and when the Hasmonean Dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil still containing the seal of the High Priest, which contained sufficient oil for one day’s lighting only. Yet a miracle occurred, and they lit the lamp for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a festival with the recital of Hallel (Psalms 113–118, recited on all festivals) and thanksgiving.


c. Chanukah addition to the Amidah prayer and to Grace after MealsWe thank You also for the miraculous deeds and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and the saving acts wrought by You, as well as for the wars which You waged for our ancestors in ancient days at this season. In the days of the Hasmoneans Mattathias, son of Yohanan the high priest, and his sons, when the evil Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from the ordinances of Your will, then You in your abundant mercy rose up for them in the time of their trouble, pled their cause, executed judgment, avenged their wrong, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and insolent ones into the hands of those occupied with Your Torah. For Yourself you made a great and holy name in Your world, and for Your people You achieved a great deliverance and redemption. Your children then entered the sanctuary of Your house, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Hanukkah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name.


2. Remez:


d. Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a:  When Adam [the first human] noticed that the days were getting shorter, he said: “Is the world becoming darker because of my sins? Will it soon return to chaos? And this is what God meant when God punished me with mortality?” Adam prayed and fasted for eight days. When the period prior to the winter solstice arrived, he saw that the days were now growing longer. Adam realized: This is the way of the world. Adam then made eight days of celebration. They [the Romans] have their holiday at this time to serve idols, but Adam’s holiday serves the holy one.


 e. Talmud, Shabbat 21b:  Our sages taught: The mitzvah of Chanukah requires only one lamp for a man and his household. The zealous may light a lamp for each and every one in the home. Concerning the zealous among the zealous, Beit Shammai say: The first day one lights eight lamps, and from then on he continually subtracts one the number. Beit Hillel say: The first day one lights one light and from there on adds one light per day.


Ulla said: Two Amoraim (rabbinic teachers) in the West (the Land of Israel) disagreed [on how to explain this disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, namely] R. Yossi bar Abin and R. Yossi bar Zevida. One said: The reason for Beit Shammai was according to the number of days left and the reason for Beit Hillel was according to the number of days that have passed. And one said: The reason for Beit Shammai was according to the number of bulls offered up on Sukkot, and the reason for Beit Hillel was that we increase in holiness and we don’t decrease.”


 3. Drash:


f. Seasons of Our Joy, by Rabbi Arthur Waskow:  Hanukkah has been a kind of battlefield between “the Rabbi” and “the Maccabee” as models of Jewish life. Is there any way to integrate these conflicting orientations to Hanukkah?


From the standpoint of the Rabbi, Hanukkah celebrated God’s saving Spirit: “not by might and not by power…” To the Rabbi, this spiritual enlightenment required a kind of inwardness and contemplation that was contradictory to insurgent politics.


From the standpoint of the Maccabee, Hanukkah celebrated human courage and doggedness, the human ability to make history bend and change: The need to organize, to act, to fight, to build might and use power, seemed in the aspect of the Maccabee to contradict study, prayer, and contemplation.


Can a new generation of Jews help to resolve this contradiction? If our forebears repressed and ignored the sense of Hanukkah as a festival of the darkened moon and darkened sun, what could we contribute by opening up to that aspect of the festival? What could we add by seeing Hanukkah as part of the nature cycles of the year and month?


Seen this way, Hanukkah is the moment when light is born from darkness, hope from despair. Both the Maccabeean and Rabbinic models fall into place. The Maccabean revolt came at the darkest moment of Jewish history–when not only was a foreign king imposing idolatry, but large members of Jews were choosing to obey.


The miracle at the Temple came at a moment of spiritual darkness–when even military victory had proven useless because the Temple could not be rededicated in the absence of the sacred oil. At the moment of utter darkness in Modiin, Mattathias struck the spark of rebellion–and fanned it into flame. At the moment of utter darkness at the Temple when it would have been rational to wait for more oil to be pressed and consecrated, the Jews ignored all reasonable reasons, and lit the little oil they had.


The real conflict is not between the Rabbi and the Maccabee, between spiritual and political, but between apathy and hope, between a blind surrendering to darkness and an acting to light up new pathways. Sometimes the arena will be in outward action, sometimes in inward meditation. But always the question is whether to recognize the darkness–and transcend it.


The necessity of recognizing the moment of darkness is what we learn from seeing Hanukkah in its context of the sun and moon. There is no use pretending that the sun is always bright; there is no use pretending that the moon is always full. It is only by recognizing the season of darkness that we know it is time to light the candles, to sow a seed of light that can sprout and spring forth later in the year.


Seen this way, Hanukkah can become a time for accepting both the Maccabee and the Rabbi within us, seeing them as different expressions of the need to experience despair and turn toward hope. Seen this way, Hanukkah can become a resource to help us experience our moments of darkness whenever they occur throughout the year–and strike new sparks.


4. Sod


g. From the teachings of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg:  The first two letters of the word Chanukah spell chen, one of the eight synonyms in Hebrew for beauty. Chen, which literally means “grace” or “favor,” represents that aspect of beauty which expresses itself through the aesthetic of graceful symmetry. The word chen first appears in the Torah in the concluding verse of Parashat Bereishit, the first portion of the book of Genesis. The verse there reads: “And Noah found chen (“favor”) in the eyes of God.” The name Noah is actually the same as chen spelled backwards. By virtue of its first appearing in the Torah as juxtaposed with its “opposite,” we are taught in Kabbalah that chen represents balance and symmetry, particularly that which is comprised of two inverse elements reflecting each other.


The opposites that form the graceful symmetry of Chanukah are those of darkness and light. Just as light itself possesses the potential to blind one with its radiance (thus testifying to the source of “darkness” included within light), so too does darkness hold within it the potential for illumination (the power of the color black to “shine”).


In truth, the hidden light inhering within darkness is infinitely more beautiful than the revealed light which we naturally experience…The miracle of Chanukah represents the ability to revive the Divine spark of light which resides hidden within the soul of every Jew, regardless of how oblivious he or others may be to its existence.


The secret of chen as it relates to Chanukah implies that although Jews may appear to be in total conflict with each other, in truth — in the innermost point of faith, rooted in Jewish being — they are one. In their apparent opposition, they are actually mirroring each other. The classic example of antagonism suffused with chen is that of the ongoing opposition between the Talmudic schools of Hillel and Shammai. One of their most famous disputes concerns the order by which we light the Chanukah candles…. In this dispute we encounter the ultimate expression of chen symmetry. Although diametrically opposed to each other, both positions have validity. …The power of chen inherent in Chanukah enables us to harmonize the radical contradictions which accompany us through time to the threshold of the Messianic era.

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