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
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."
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.
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.
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
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