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Through The Eyes of a Woman

Chanukah: Is it a Mitzvah to eat Latkes?

It is a basic principle in Yiddishkeit that what happens in this world is the result of spiritual causes. The war with the Greeks and the initial difficulties of the Jewish army were brought about by spiritual factors. Similarly, the ultimate victory of the Hasmonean army over the Greek invader was also brought about by spiritual causes. More specifically, the war and the initial defeat of the Jewish army were brought about by certain transgressions: Firstly, socializing with the Greeks, and the Hellenization of many Jews; secondly, Greek culture was more attractive to them than Torah and mitzvos, and they studied it enthusiastically; thirdly, there was widespread desecration of Shabbos and Yom-Tov; fourth, there was laxity in kashrus -- many people were eating treifa; fifth, there was a neglect of taharas hamishpachah, the laws of family purity. These transgressions brought about the spiritual destruction of the Sanctuary (the Romans destroyed it physically a couple of centuries later), death, and slavery in exile. It didn't take long for the Jews to realize the cause of their defeat, and Mattisyahu and the Hashmonaim (Hasmoneans) acted as catalysts to arouse the people. Their eventual victory over the Greeks, recapturing the Beis HaMikdash, finding the jar of pure oil, and the purification and rededication of the altar, came about through teshuvah and mesirus nefesh.

All of the festivals share certain common factors. One of the ingredients that we find in every Yom-Tov, with the notable exception of Chanukah, is the obligation to eat a seudah -- a festive meal. Even Yom Kippur requires a seudah (eaten on the eve of the fast). Purim, a Rabbinical injunction, also has a mandatory seudah. Chanukah is the only festival which involves no obligation to eat a seudah. Although we all eat latkes, sufganiot (doughnuts) and dairy products, this is a custom, not an obligation. It is not one of the mitzvos of Chanukah. The only specific mitzvah of Chanukah is to light the Menorah.

Two questions arise: Why we don't celebrate this Yom-Tov with a festive seudah, just like every other Yom-Tov? Secondly, the Chanukah lights commemorate the miracle of finding the jar of pure olive oil which was used to light the Menorah. What about the miraculous victory of a tiny untrained virtually unarmed band of kohanim over the mighty Greek army? We commemorate this only by reciting an extra paragraph (Al HaNissim) in prayer and in bentching (Grace after Meals). Why isn't this commemorated in a more prominent way? As everyone knows, if you leave out al hanissim by mistake, you do not even have to repeat the Shemoneh Esreh. It seems to have only very minor importance, whereas the miracle of finding a jar of pure olive oil is given a far more conspicuous place. This is particularly strange since the Menorah could have been lit with impure oil, according to the principle of tumah hutra (or, dechuyah) betzibbur -- since the majority of the community was in a state of ritual impurity (due to contact with the dead, etc.) it would have been permissible to light the Menorah anyway.

 

Body or Soul?

The Rebbe explains that throughout the course of history we have had two kinds of enemies -- those who were interested in our physical annihilation, and those that were interested in our spiritual annihilation. Hitler yimach shemo, was a classic example of the former. He wasn't interested in philosophizing. He didn't want Jews to convert to Christianity. In Spain, during the years of the Inquisition, they wanted Jews to accept the cross. Hitler wasn't interested. He just wanted to kill Jews. In the same category as Hitler is Haman who was just interested in killing. The Crusaders and inquisitors were interested in the Jews accepting Christianity, not necessarily in their physical annihilation. Others have also wanted to take Judaism out of the Jew, such as Stalin's Communism, and modern secular humanism. You could remain alive as long as you became de-Jewified.

This was also the aspiration of the Greeks. They wanted the Jewish people to stop being Jewish, but they could remain alive if they would give up their Yiddishkeit. The Al HaNissim prayer which we recite on Chanukah therefore states, "...when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will." In other words, they wanted the Jews to forget that the Torah is Your Torah, G-d's Torah. They didn't mind if Jews studied Torah. They said that if the Jews wanted to read Bible -- nu it's a nice classical book. But you shouldn't learn it as something G-dly, something holy. It's a source of wisdom, it has literary and historical content. Why not? But they were troubled by the fact that it was G-d's Torah.

Similarly, the Greeks were particularly upset about the observance of the chukim (the superrational commandments), "the decrees of Your will," as it states in Al HaNissim. Note that the liturgy does not mention the other two categories of mitzvos -- eidos or mishpatim, which have some logical content and could possibly have been deduced logically. It mentions only chukim -- those mitzvos which only a person who has faith fulfills. If you believe that there's a Higher Authority, whose "intellect" you cannot grasp, so then you can humble yourself and say, "I don't understand why a mixture of linen and wool is worse than cotton and polyester, but since the Torah says you can't wear it, so I won't, even though it doesn't make any sense to me." It was therefore the category of mitzvos which are called chukim that Greeks fought against -- mitzvos such as kashrus, milah, family purity, etc. (The Red Heifer, which is the classic example of a chok, is not mentioned here, since it was not a daily mitzvah.) The Greeks made decrees forbidding Jews to observe the chukim -- because as long as the Jews were serving HaShem and keeping the chukim, it meant that they had a certain subservience to a higher metaphysical power, and that really got on their nerves. They wanted to eradicate that from the Jews. They wanted the Jews to be like them and only do things that were logical on their level of understanding. They wanted to uproot the kedushah from Torah, and turn it into "culture."

 

Jewish Culture

In the thirties, forties and fifties, a lot of Jews came over from Europe, and they "worshipped" the Yiddish language. They had Yiddish theatre, the Yiddish language, Yiddish literature and Yiddish music. It was culture. "Let's go to the Yiddish theater and we'll sit together and watch a play in Yiddish and we'll feel very Jewish because we're all together watching a Yiddish play." Is there anything Yiddish about a play in Yiddish? Obviously not, because you could be watching it in French or Spanish for that matter. Just because the jokes have a Jewish ethnic flavor doesn't mean to say it's holy or Jewish or Yiddish in the sense of Yiddishkeit.

The same thing applies to what is called "Israeli culture." There's a whole trend of people that do things that are Israeli. You know, they eat falafel, dance the horah, sing Israeli folk songs. The yordim, Israelis who have emigrated to America, get together in an Israeli cafe in Manhattan, they eat humous and falafel, and feel very Israeli and very "Jewish" because that's what you do in Israel. This morning I gave a shiur in Gilo. One of the women at the shiur told me that she had met a Russian oleh who doesn't know anything about Yiddishkeit, but he did remember something from his childhood -- once in a while they would eat kneidlach, and once in a while his mother would serve poppyseed cake. That was his memory of Yiddishkeit -- Jewish food. It's obviously better than nothing at all. But this Yiddishkeit is merely culinary -- as they say, some people are Jews at heart and some people are Jews in the stomach. When Yiddishkeit becomes only traditional foods or only things that you dance or read or watch, then obviously you're making a culture out of it rather than a religious way of life, which is what Yiddishkeit really is.

Even though the Greeks waged war against the Jews, their main intention in this war was not merely to kill Jews, nor was it territorial. As a matter of fact, we see that they didn't even destroy the Beis HaMikdash. They entered the Beis HaMikdash but only contaminated the altar and the oil used to light the Menorah. They could have destroyed it like the Babylonians and the Romans did, but they didn't. They were content with contaminating it. They didn't even take away the gold vessels used in the Beis HaMikdash. So we see they had a very specific intention in what they did. As a matter of fact, if they had wanted to prevent the Menorah from being lit, they could simply have spilled out the oil. But they left the oil in the bottles and just contaminated it.

Interestingly, the Gemara states that the Greeks contaminated all of the oil in the Heichal. The Heichal is the place where the Menorah, the Showbread Table and the golden incense altar were placed. However, as anyone who has studied the structure of the Beis HaMikdash knows, the oil was not stored in the Heichal, but in a storage room in another part of the Beis HaMikdash. The kohanim would bring oil into the Heichal as needed. What, then, does the Gemara mean by saying that they contaminated all the oil in the Heichal? It seems that the Greeks brought the oil from its usual place into the Heichal and they contaminated it there and left it there to make a statement. Here, we brought the oil right next to the Menorah for you. It's right here. It's just a little bit tameh (ritually impure). Their intention was not to disrupt the lighting of the Menorah. On the contrary, they almost made it easier for the kohanim to light it by bringing the oil right into the room where it was kept. All they did was deliberately contaminate all the existing bottles of oil that they found, as if to say, "Light the Menorah as always, but with oil which has a Greek touch." It was another attempt to Hellenize Yiddishkeit from the inside. They wanted the Jews to continue having a Beis HaMikdash and continue lighting the Menorah and continue studying the Torah -- but without holiness, without G-d. They wanted to make Yiddishkeit into a culture that had no kedushah in it.

When the Jewish people fought the Greeks and were victorious, they proved that spirituality is superior to materiality. The Greeks believed that materiality is superior to spirituality -- witness the Olympic games which they invented. They worshiped the body. They thought that by sheer numbers they could squash the Jewish people and eradicate G-dliness from Yiddishkeit. The response of the Jews was that we may be fewer in number; we definitely are weaker physically; but quantity and physical strength are not everything. Quality and spiritual strength are a lot more potent than quantity and physical strength.

 

Contamination in Context

We have spoken about the Greeks contaminating the oil used to light the Menorah. What is contamination? When something is spiritually contaminated -- it does not look any different from something that isn't tameh. Contaminated oil and uncontaminated oil look exactly the same. A person who is tameh looks just the same as a person who isn't. Tumah cannot be seen, heard, or detected by the latest scientific instruments. The difference between tameh and tahor (spiritually pure) is on a totally spiritual level. What the Greeks did by contaminating the oil, was to remove the kedushah from it. Holy oil, oil that has the seal of the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest), looks the same and acts the same as contaminated oil. The difference is only on a very spiritual level. This ideology of taking the holiness out of the oil, and removing G-d from the Torah, is what Chassidus refers to as the kelipah of the Greeks. Different nations of the world symbolize different evil qualities that exist in the world. These evil qualities are called kelipos -- shells or husks, which need to be cracked off in order to reveal the inner core of good. Spiritual kelipos, like the kelipah of Amalek and the kelipah of the Greeks, attach themselves to holiness in one way or another and smother it, covering up the G-dliness contained inside. The Greek kelipah, as mentioned previously, was this very idea of trying to remove the holiness from Yiddishkeit. "Keep Shabbos because you need a day of rest. Observe the festivals because of historical events. Do bris milah for health reasons. Learn Torah as literature." This was the Greek philosophy. But, since a Jew and holiness cannot separate, the Jewish people realized what the Greeks were doing and with all their might they resisted this encroachment on their holiness. They fought against the Greeks and were eventually victorious.

Oil in a spiritual sense represents holiness. Before the vessels in the Beis HaMikdash could be used, they had to be anointed with what we call shemen hamishchah, a certain holy oil. Kings of Israel were also anointed with oil, and Mashiach -- Mashiach means "the anointed one" -- will also be anointed. Oil that was made for a holy purpose is a sort of vessel for initiating that holy purpose. That is why the Greeks made an effort to defile the oil. They could have defiled other things, had they wanted to. In the Beis HaMikdash there was also wine. Nevertheless, we do not see that they made any special effort to defile the wine. They defiled only the oil because it symbolizes also the essence. The oil we get by squeezing the olive is its innermost part. Thus, oil symbolizes the innermost part of a Jew, the essence of his soul. That is what the Greeks wanted to do away with, the innermost holy aspect of a Jew. And the Jewish people knew that if they would agree to light the Menorah with the Greeks' contaminated oil then they were succumbing to a new kind of Judaism -- cultural Judaism that is devoid of its holiness and G-dliness. This is what they were willing to martyr themselves for.

If Yiddishkeit had been a culture it couldn't have been identical over 3,000 years, because over the 3,000 years since the Torah was given, the Jewish people have traveled to so many different countries, and styles of clothing and languages and food have changed so much, there couldn't have been one identical external thing that would have stayed the same. However, because our Yiddishkeit is based on G-dliness we see that things have not been affected by the outer world. For example, the tefillin that a bar-mitzvah boy puts on today are exactly the same as the tefillin that Moshe Rabbeinu put on. Near the Dead Sea in Eretz Yisrael, archaeologists have discovered tefillin just like ours. They found mikvaos like ours in Masada. They found remnants of other mitzvah objects that are identical to the articles we use today. They haven't changed for 3,000 years. The bor (the approximately 200 gallon reservoir of rainwater) of a mikveh is the same. We see there are certain things that have been totally unaffected. It could be that we cook in a microwave and they cooked in a stove over coals. How you cook your food is not the essence of Yiddishkeit. The essence is what makes us tick, what makes us Jewish. Our davening hasn't changed. It could be this one prays with a Sephardi accent, and another one with an Ashkenazi accent. But we all pray to the same Holy One, blessed be He. We all say Shema Yisrael and we all say berachos and we all read the same Torah. In all kinds of countries. The inside of Yiddishkeit has been the same in every country and throughout all the ages. And it's only because we fought the Greeks. If we had let them do what they wanted we wouldn't have anything left by now.

Yidden had mesirus nefesh. They did not even think of compromising. They did not say, "This is the best way of doing things from the outset, lechat'chilah, and this is the second-best way, but also kosher bedieved. We'll do things bedieved!" Rather, they said, "We are going to do it the right way, the best way." Because they had that determination, HaShem made the miracle. When a Jew doesn't follow what would be the natural, logical course, teva, but he transcends nature and logic, then HaShem makes a miracle for him, and he is able to do that which doesn't seem at all possible: the many fell to the few, the mighty to the weak, and so on. The Hasmoneans did not even think about miracles at the time. Because they had the right attitude, HaShem made the miracle for them.

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